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Magic, Sausage-Making and the Baking of Insight Cakes: Or Why I Hate Providing Draft Reports

Like magic and sausage-making, the process of arriving at insights is not necessarily something people should see up close, no matter how tasty and delightful the final result may be.

There are two points in this work where clients and research agencies are in very good alignment. The first is at the end of the fieldwork, where I suspect we are all equally overwhelmed.

Naturally, I make reassuring noises, but the truth is, even if I have a pretty good sense of the landscape, the sheer quantity of data is often overwhelming on my side, too. Any clarity we may have had mid-project starts to fall apart as the need to find one or two solid recipes in all these ingredients becomes foremost.

The report as layer-cake

In my mind, the final report and delivery of insights with recommendations is like a layer cake. That’s the end product we are all looking for. Some solid layers of cake iced with insightful analysis and recommendations.

Before the fieldwork is over, we all want debriefs. Little morsels of cake at the conclusion of every research event. “What,” the clients ask, “are my thoughts about the session?” I imagine they are looking for a complete miniature cake at this point. A cupcake, not large, but fully formed.

I do not have a cupcake to share, however. What I actually have is part of the icing. I have some impressions, I have tentative hypotheses that are not backed up with substance. I have interesting bits of things. I have sprinkles. They might not even be the sprinkles that go on the final cake, since no real analysis has happened yet.

So sprinkles it is.

Come into my messy kitchen

The analysis phase is never a pretty sight. Nothing is neat. There are bowls of partly whipped eggs in one place, cake pans here and there, and bits of potentially useful stuff all around. Every day one picks up a bit of ham-bone or steak sauce that really has no place in a layer cake, but it is still data, and must be dealt with before being discarded. I worry that I will throw out vanilla or cocoa by mistake, or somehow miss adding the salt.

At about this time, someone on the client team thinks it would be reassuring to see how the cake is looking so far. I imagine they are envisioning a slice of the final cake. As if I assemble a cake slice by slice, and finally the whole thing magically seals itself up. I only wish this were true.

I can’t hand them a bowl of batter, clearly. I hesitate to show them the layers that were under or over cooked and tossed into the green bin. I wait until at least one layer looks OK, and remind them that the final form could change. “It looks square right now,” I say, “but it might actually be round by the time I’m done.”

I imagine the expressions on the other end of the phone. The rising concern that all this money has been spent, and all this time, and all we have to show for it is this?

I expect they are saying to themselves that they have baked with me before, and surely it will be fine, even though it looks like a disaster right now. Just to allay these worries, someone will confirm, “Icing is included here, right?” and I assure them that yes, indeed, the final product will be properly iced with insights and recommendations.

At long last cake! And we are all in alignment again

Finally, we are there, admiring the confection we have created together. In alignment again, I am relieved to be done, happy they are happy, and they are relieved to see the promised icing supported by nice solid cakey analysis.

Enjoying the cake together, we share our pleasure over the nuances – the slight hint of hazelnut or nutmeg that adds so much. And we are busy wiping down the kitchen to be ready for the next one.

Originally published October 2012 by MRIABlog