One of my favorite questions to ask candidates applying for open prospect research positions is “How do you know when to stop researching?” It seems like a pretty simple question, but for some reason many people – some of whom have more than a few years of research experience under their belts – don’t know how to answer it very well. A poor response to that question isn’t always a dealbreaker for me, but it’s close. Why? Because it tells me how efficient that person will be as a researcher.
Prospect researchers are often known for their willingness to hunt and hunt and hunt for information. This kind of dogged determination can be really beneficial – don’t give up until you find what you need! But the downside to this kind of behavior is that if a person isn’t focused in their efforts, they could spend a long, long time just wandering around the vast expanses of the internet, particularly late in the research process, when they have already gathered most of the easy-to-find information.
This type of aimless wandering can have a huge cost to the organization, as the return on time spent is rapidly diminished, and researchers miss an opportunity to turn their attention to more productive and impactful work. The only way to avoid ending up in this dead-zone of productivity is to know when to stop researching.
When I’ve asked people how they know when to stop, the poorer responses I’ve received have been along these kinds of lines:
- “I’ll usually wrap it up when I’m about five or six pages in on my google search results.”
- “When the search results are providing information on the wrong people, I know I’m about at the end of what I’m going to find.”
- “I stop at about the two-hour point.”
Now imagine if I asked people a similar question, but instead of talking about research, we were talking about taking a trip in a car, and the question is “How do you know when to stop driving?” In this context, the responses I’ve heard would sound completely ludicrous!
- “I’ll wrap it up after about five or six hundred miles.”
- “When my car runs out of gas, that’s about as far as I’m going to go.”
- “I stop driving after two hours.”
Obviously, if I ask you when someone should stop driving, the response is going to be “when they get to their destination.”
The same holds true for research. You stop researching when you’ve found the information you need. This means that a good researcher must define the research “destination” up front, so that he knows exactly when he has “arrived” and can wrap things up.
In some development shops, clearly defining what research is needed is one of the first challenges to overcome. People may make a research request by saying “Just give me everything you can find on Mr. Potentialdonor.” (Or to use the driving analogy, “Just drive really, really far going North.”) At that point, it is up to the researcher to ask good follow-up questions: What are you most interested in learning about Mr. Potentialdonor? Are you planning to solicit Mr. Potentialdonor, or are you just trying to decide whether or not he’s worth a visit? What are you hoping I’ll be able to find? These additional queries can help establish a clearer research destination, which means that the researcher will be able to provide what will be most helpful, and she will likely be able to do so on a much shorter timeline, without having to spend time looking for things nobody really cared about in the first place!
By knowing where we are “going” with our research, we will know when we can stop, without having to waste time dragging out the research process. This will ultimately pay great dividends by freeing us up to move on to other research “trips.”