The Importance of a Plain Question

In over 25 years of delivering social research and evaluation, I have found Mark Twain’s aphorism – “a plain question and plain answer make the shortest road out of most perplexities” – frequently holds true. So, in this month’s blog, I will explore the importance of a clearly defined question and a well-presented answer.

At GtD we relish the opportunity of using our social impact analytics to help our clients understand the perplexities of their programs and interventions. Perplexities such as, why a well-conceived intervention is not working as expected? Is it a break down in the implementation of a planned intervention, such as the lack of front-line staff or poor engagement with clients? Or has there been a change in the local context, such as an employer making redundancies or the closure of a key service?

As Twain suggests, in addressing these perplexities we first need to have a “plain question”, in other words a question that is both simply phrased and clearly addresses a problem or opportunity faced by an organization. With government clients, their evaluation questions are often pre-defined by policy and research colleagues and are set out clearly in the Request for Proposal (RFP) or an Invitation to Tender (ITT). In such cases our challenge is to propose the most suitable method to provide a plain answer.

I will come to those suitable methods in a moment. Before I do, I want to say that it is equally rewarding to work with clients who have not been able to articulate the “plain question” before contacting us. In those instances, we will work with them to help define the question that needs to be answered. This might involve doing a series of descriptive analyses of their data to refine a general abstract issue to the point where the plain question (or questions) emerge.

Once there is consensus on the question, we can then decide the best way to resolve any perplexities. Our Measure package helps cut through any confusion by identifying the data needed to explain the outcomes that an organization is seeking to deliver, while our Learn package uses sophisticated predictive analytics to help clients to understand how the performance of a current intervention can be improved. Ultimately our Prove package provides the impact evaluation that provides the plain answer of “did it work?” and “was it worth it?”.

Admittedly these packages – Measure, Learn, Prove – are grounded in rigorous method and complex analyses. That is important, but we would fail in providing a “plain answer” if we did not convey these complexities simply and clearly. Here we take time to know our client and their preferred mode of communication: a conventional report, a digital dashboard or a presentation. Whatever we do, we need to know that the client understands the answer and has a way of executing any recommendations that flow from that.

If your organization needs to address some perplexing questions, then please contact us. We will help you find the plain answer.