Is Your Business Question a Puzzle or a Mystery?

Is Your Business Question a Puzzle or a Mystery?

Do you find yourself suffering from “analysis paralysis?”  Do you have a business question, but are so stuck in the data that it seems impossible to answer?  Maybe the problem is that you need to take a step back and try to understand what kind of question you are trying to answer.  Having a sense of the nature of the business question should streamline your path to an answer.

As a new market researcher, one of my mentors once challenged me on this very issue.  They saw that I was stuck.  I knew that I was stuck.  Their advice to me was to take a broader view and decide if I was trying to finish a puzzle or solve a mystery.  Once I understood the analogy, everything clicked and I solved the research problem easily.  I have approached every new business question with this paradigm ever since.

Is Your Business Question a Puzzle?

I like puzzles.  Puzzles are the easier of the two.  A “puzzle” business question is one where the resources to answer it already exist.   All you need to do is fit the pieces together.  An example of a puzzle business question is “What is our competitor’s strategy and is it working?”

For a puzzle like this, all the resources you need already exist.  A simple approach to solving this specific puzzle would be as follows:

  • Examine your competitor’s investor relations decks and 10-K’s.
  • Read secondary research articles about their behavior in market.
  • Look for transcripts of speeches and panel sessions where leaders in your competitor’s company presented.
  • Assess their promises vs. point-of-sale data trends.
  • Assess their promises vs. consumer panel data trends.
  • Integrate any relevant survey, social media, or qualitative data to bring-in the consumers’ perspective.

Once you have collected all of those “puzzle pieces,” the answer to your business question should come fairly quickly.  Your job as the market researcher is to summarize it all into a coherent narrative for your audience.

Is Your Business Question a Mystery?

I am less fond of mysteries.  A “mystery” business question usually requires a lot of trial-and-error desk-work and primary research to solve.  An example of a “mystery” business question is “Why are Millennial shoppers suddenly leaving our brand?”

For a mystery like this, you may or may not have all the “clues” you need to offer a solution right-away.  It’s best to begin wide and filter down.  As you narrow your investigation, determine what is left that you don’t know, and focus your primary efforts there.

  • Use panel and/or point-of-sale to confirm that Millennials are actually “suddenly” leaving your brand.  Always “trust but verify” 😉
  • If so, identify when the issue started.
  • Work with your cross-functional counter-parts to understand what changes happened to the brand at the time that decline began.
  • Examine the social media conversation around your brand before and after the decline started.
  • Develop a list of hypotheses as to what could be causing the decline.
  • Execute primary research to confirm, deny, or adjust those hypotheses.
  • Repeat if necessary to confirm your conclusions.
  • Identify solutions to rectify the situation.

Once you have solved the mystery, develop a clear, linear story to what the solution is.  Don’t just leave with your conclusion.  Make sure to include meaningful business recommendations about what to “go do” as well.


If you don’t know how to start a research project, it’s hard to finish it.  The first step is understanding what kind of business question are you trying to solve, a puzzle or a mystery?  Like the above examples, “puzzles” are often “what” questions and mysteries are often “why” questions.  Puzzles are easier. Mysteries keep market researchers employed.  Good luck sleuthing!

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