A Quick Way to Establish Context and Develop Understanding

A large selection of eyeglasses

Data or information by itself is meaningless.

For it to be useful, we need to add context. This is the difference between information and intelligence: once we’ve analyzed the information and put it into context, the resultant intelligence gives us an understanding of a situation. 

Another way to write this is understanding = knowledge + context 

But that’s sometimes easier said than done. What do we mean by context, and how does this help you understand a situation better?

Here’s a simple tool I use to put things into context and help answer the question, ‘so what?’.

Establishing Context with Lenses

The simplest way to think about context is that these are the associated factors that affect the data you’ve gathered. But these ideas of context and associated factors often feel very abstract, so I prefer to think of a box of lenses or filters that I can use to examine my data.

Some lenses provide a broad view, while others let me zoom in. Some only show one data type, but others might be like 3-d glasses that give me a very in-depth view. 

I use these imaginary lenses throughout the consulting process, and I have a whole set of lenses I’ll use to put a piece of data into context.  

These lenses let me ‘slice’ a large volume of data into manageable parts and consider it from different perspectives. 

For example, imagine we look at a factory’s wages. The hourly rate is a piece of data that, by itself, means very little. However, we will learn a lot more when we apply some lenses.

  • national lens lets me see how these compare to the national average
  • An industry lens allows me to see how the wages compare to other firms in the sector
  • local lens lets me see how these wages compare to other firms in town and the local cost of living
  • regulations lens allows me to see what wages look like compared to the national minimum.
  • I can even apply a time lens to how wages have changed year by year.

The wage data is considerably more helpful now that we’ve added context with our lenses. We can now apply that understanding to develop a solution for whatever problem we’re trying to solve. 

The lenses you should apply will be particular to your business or area of expertise but do take care to use lenses that allow a like-by-like comparison. Otherwise, you aren’t putting things into context. That’s why, in the example above, the industry lens compares wages to other firms in the sector, whereas the local lens draws a comparison with other firms in town. Mixing things up – for example, comparing salaries at a steelworks in one town with those at a cafe in a distant big city – might not give you much helpful context.

You should also be careful that you don’t accidentally use outliers or statistical anomalies as comparison points.

Nevertheless, spend some time thinking about the lenses you could apply to problems in your industry or sector, and keep these in mind when you’re next confronted with a problem. These will help you put the information you have to hand into context, build your understanding and help the solution take shape.

This post is taken from The Consultant’s Handbook, my guide on how to deliver client success, and run a profitable firm as a consultant. Learn more about the book here.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

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