PMPM: Qualitative Analysis

Projects (whether magical or mundane) are usually, in the end, about solving a problem. And there are several common types of problems that people try to solve.

Reaching a Goal: Frequently, projects are launched when a large goal has been set. So you want to get your MBA, develop a new phone app to help people walk their dogs, or start a coven? You know your goal and you know, roughly, the steps to get there. Your problem is making sure you get there on time and on budget -- you have to make it happen. And you have to combine flexibility with discipline as you go. The tools of traditional project management work well for this situation.

Finding the Path: Another type of project happens when you have a goal, but you don't know the steps you need to get there. Lose weight, be happier, increase sales. These are all projects where you might have an end in mind, but aren't sure what will work to get you there. Your problem is figuring out the path from here to there (note, you should start by better defining that end goal -- so lose x lbs by summer, improve my Authentic Happiness Inventory by x% in a year, increase sales by x times in the third quarter). Agile project management is the best way to proceed in this case.

Finding the Goal: Finally, you have situations where you don't know what the goal is. You know you need a change, but you don't know what kind. In this case, your problem is, well, defining your problem so that you can fix it. Let me give you a few examples:
  • You hate your job, but you don't have an idea for a better one. You don't know what metrics you should judge a job by (money, free time) and you don't know what sort of job will make you happier, more fulfilled, or more prosperous. You don't know what you want to do with your life.
  • You don't like where you live. But where else will you go? What are the options? What risks and rewards are there? What will it take to actually uproot yourself and move... and if you do, will it be worth it? Or should you stay and make where you live better (or better for you)? This problem can be at any granularity from neighborhood to continent.
  • The people around you drain you and don't help you be your best self. Do you jettison them? Do you replace them, and if so, with whom? Can you learn to ignore them or keep their impact to a minimum? What if some of them are related to you or provide you with some kind of support (financial, emotional) that you need?
For this sort of problem, you don't need project management. You need to do a research study.

Corporate clip art is the most fun
There are two broad categories of research: quantitative and qualitative. Quantitative is what we typically think of as the "science fair project." You ask a question (does artificial food color impact the behavior of mice?*) you post a hypothesis (yes, it does) and then you run experiments with constants and variables to see if your hypothesis is correct. The key is that you need to have measurable results (speed of running a maze, activity level by measuring the turns of a hamster wheel, etc.) in order to do numerical analysis.

* FYI: yes, artificial food color impacts the behavior of mice. It makes them more hyperactive. It also make them smell terrible compared to the mice on a natural diet (who don't smell all that great to begin with). Don't ask me how I know.

Despite all my rage...

But most personal questions like the ones above don't work that way. You aren't going to be able to run a science fair project on whether and where to move or how to deal with toxic people. For that you need to do qualitative research. Qualitative research seeks to answer questions that don't lend themselves to strict numerical analysis. Questions like: "how do different societies view drug addiction and what are the benefits and costs of these views to the society?" "what are the ways in which a university might grow and foster a diverse student body?" "how should we compensate our sales team in order to foster a balance of collaboration and competition?" -- squishy questions.

OMG, we're all so liberal arts!

Qualitative research is more common in the 'soft' sciences as well as marketing, government, and business. It's also the best technique for solving the squishy questions in your own life. So how do you do it? Here's the typical process:
  1. Figure out the problem space -- the set of questions you are trying to answer. If the problem space is reasonably sell-scoped and understood, then you are looking at an issue. I talked about solving issues here. For the types of major problems we're talking here, things aren't that simple.

    In most academic research, you are supposed to pick one question, but in real life your own issues are probably much more complex. So, should I move? how far should I move? how do I know where to move? where should I move? what does moving mean to me?

    Figuring out the problem space is actually really important -- as important as creating a sigil or creating a spell. As a magician, you know that "I get a raise." "I get more money," "I am prosperous," and "my financial needs are met" are all very different in terms of possible results. This is even more complex because it's not just one thing, but a whole set. Imagine launching a major magical effort to overhaul your entire career space... that's the kind of effort we're looking at.

    Define your problem space as a list of questions: should I move? where should I move? what changes if I move? can I afford to move? will it be worth it? should I stay? what do I do if I stay to make things better? how do people decide where to move? how to you know the costs and benefits of moving? where should I move? what are the benefits and costs to moving?

    Seem overwhelming? Prioritization will help (I think I'm going to add this to my list of personal life mottos) as will identifying the results of answering each question. So you need to know if you should move before you decide where to move and you need to know where you would like to move before you know the specific costs and benefits.
  2. Perform a literature review. See what others have written about your question. Unlike an academic study, you don't necessarily need to read a lot of dry research. But google "how to figure out where to live" and you'll find plenty of stuff.
  3. Decide on the scope of your analysis. You need to decide your budget (money, time, energy). This is critical because, unlike a project, a research study doesn't have a defined goal or end date. You could spend the rest of your life researching where to move and end up dying in the same crappy apartment. So you need to come up with some scope right from the start. For example, you may decide to finish your study in six months and may allocate funds to visit three locations that might be candidates for a new place to live.
  4. Finally, you need to decide on the methodology you will use for your analysis. There are all different kinds of methodologies, but only a few make sense for personal problem solving. For example, you probably aren't going to figure out a new career choices by doing an ethnographic study. And phenomenology (looking at the world through someone else's eyes) can be useful, but in the end it's your life, so you can't just rely on that. Here are three methodologies that might be most beneficial for your research study:
  • Case study analysis -- this is research performed by studying the situation in its current context. If you can ask the question "what is your typical day like" you are doing case study analysis. this could be interviewing people in likely career fields, talking to people who have moved about their challenges, and reaching out to people who live in a place you may be considering. In terms of your toxic relationships, you may just need to talk to those people to better understand their context. You can use magic to draw the correct people and situations to you. Enchanting to "bring me the person who knows what I need to know" is very powerful.
  • Action research -- this is research through the act of solving the problem. Similar to agile methodologies, this is part of the  "try it and see" school of thought. The difference is that with agile, you usually have an end result in mind, but here you are trying things out to determine what the end result should be. So you volunteer or intern in fields to see if they are a good fit, visit some places to see what they're like, and reduce interaction with certain friends to see how it feels. Again, magic can be the tool to get you the opportunities. 
  • Divination -- not your typical qualitative analysis tool, but a useful one for the questing magician. You want to perform research by doing divination, preferably of several different types and sources. You probably already tried divination of the "what should I do?" or "what will happen if I do x?" variety. If these don't help, try "what questions should I be asking?" "who holds the key to my next steps?" "where should I look to discover more?" If you are really stuck, try asking "what do I value?" and throwing down nine cards -- you will learn a a lot about yourself.
Obviously, you can use more than one methodology, but the idea is to work through your list of questions one by one until your complex situation has been resolved. Notice that the methodologies I recommend are all active. This is important. You can do a research study by just looking at other research, but it's incredibly risky when it comes to your own life. For example, deciding where to move by using Money Magazine's Best Places to Live and a Cost of Living Calculator -- picking a location without ever having been there -- sounds logical, but it a terrible idea (again, don't ask me how I know). Sure, it's interesting and educational, but it may not get you to the solution you want.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it's your life. The other alternative is to simply act and hope for the best... but lots of people don't end up at 'best' so a little forethought probably isn't a bad idea. Plus thinking about making your life better and planning to make it better, usually makes it better even if your original plans fall apart. In fact, it's one of the secrets of project management that the accuracy of your plan is less important than having one to begin with and the best plans are the most flexible. In fact, this is so important that I suspect it will become it's own post soon.

In the meantime, avoid artificial food color and get busy making your life better. It will be fun and interesting, no matter what ends up happening.


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