As I’ve transformed into a consultant over the last year I’ve started structuring everything… The trick always finding the right structure. Here’s a great one!

I recently worked with a colleague who uses a work-planning structure that breaks big, wide-open questions into actionable next-steps. The Question-Data-Action framework is thorough, thought provoking, and easy to communicate with 4 simple steps:

  1. Define key questions
  2. Refine to sub-questions
  3. Determine what data is needed
  4. Identify actions to get the data

Each step gets you closer to an actionable workplan that will make your life easier and help you communicate timing and deliverables with clients and colleagues.

The 4 steps

1. Defining key questions is the first step of any pursuit. These should be the questions that sum up what are you trying to learn or accomplish. They may come from a manager or client, but ultimately defining and agreeing on a written set of key questions ensures everyone is aligned and prevents scope-creep as the project gets under-way.

2. Refining to sub-questions may or may not be necessary depending on the complexity of your key questions. Create sub questions by asking what you would need to know to answer each key question. Iterate until you’re at a set of answerable sub- (or sub-sub-) questions. You end with a tree of increasingly-specific questions. Check the tree by working your way back up. Make up answers to each question and think, “if I had the answer to each of these sub-questions, could I answer the question above?” If not, revise your questions or add new ones!

3. Determining data/analyses needed to answer each question will depend on your resources (i.e., what data/analyses will be easy), your level of rigor (i.e., how thorough do you need to be?), and your judgement (i.e., what will really help you answer the question?). Again check the needs by asking, “If I had this data (or completed this analysis), would I be able to answer the question?”

4. Identifying actions to get the data or do the analysis is the critical last-step that gives you an actionable work-plan. For each necessary piece of data or analysis, think about next steps to get it or create it. This could mean conducting primary research and analysis, searching online, tapping friends/clients/colleagues, or a host of other techniques to get your hands on what you need! Take the time here to think how long getting each piece will take.

Tips on communication

Building a workplan with this structure eases communication with your managers, direct reports, and clients because each engages at a different level.

Everyone involved in the project will benefit from the clearly defined objectives and scope that result from articulating and agreeing on key questions.

Managers and clients can engage on key-questions and sub-questions to feel confident that the team is bringing a valuable answer with an approach that makes sense. The presence of actionable next-steps and a hierarchy of questions gives the ability to predict timelines with more accuracy.

Direct reports can engage on sub-questions, data, and next steps. Sub-questions inform work-streams and facilitate delegation of work. Direct reports can then create a first-draft of the data/analysis needs and next-steps. As a manager, you can then suggest improvements and ensure the level of rigor matches available resources.


Here is a quick example answering the key question, “Where should my friends and I go to dinner?”

How will you use this? Have you had success with it, or can you suggest improvements? Put it in the comments!

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