How to develop good analytical skills

Why are analytical skills consistently among the top five skills sought by organisations around the world?

Search the internet and you will find so many articles about developing and using analytical skills and this is why the top universities around the world help their students to develop analytical skills. However, there is little evidence that students and new employees know why they are important and, more importantly, how to develop, demonstrate and use these skills at work.

This article hopes to de-mystify analytical skills - and what to do next.

What do we mean by “analytical skills”?

There are so many definitions of analytical skills and that is one reason why it is difficult to know what or how to develop them - and how to use them! So we gathered as many definitions as we could to find the most common concepts used (by the general public as well as the finest academic minds!) in the hope of clarifying this essential business skill.

This is what we found.

Analytical skills include the ability to:

  • deal with information in deductive and/or inductive ways, that is taking chunks of information (in various formats) and deconstructing (i.e. analysing) them to identify the details, trends and links that connect them; and
  • use the results of this analysis in order to understand and solve problems.

So, at the most basic level it’s all about the data and if you are not aware yet you should know that jobs involving data - from collection to management and everything in-between - are hot right now.

Before we move on a quick word on the difference between analytical and critical thinking

With analytical thinking, you are using your cognitive skills to break down a range of complex bits of information and using a systematic process to develop a conclusion, answer or solution based on facts.

Critical thinking relies more on your opinions - by taking the same information, evaluating it and then, by determining how it should be interpreted, you will draw conclusions from your own unique perception of the information. In summary, critical thinking takes facts and uses them to form an opinion or a belief.

To summarise, analytical skills are important for:

  • gathering information and reporting on a topic or situation
  • helping to solve complex problems
  • making well-informed decisions
  • summarising statistical data
  • identifying trends
  • streamlining processes
  • executing projects effectively

As you can see - all of the above are essential in the workplace - and in life!

How to develop great analytical skills (a round-up of the most popular tips on the internet!)

There are many ways to develop good analytical skills. First we will take a look at the the top 3 most popular methods to develop your analytical skills:

1 Solving math problems.

Working through math problems is a great way to improve analytical skills by learning how to read and assess numerical data. Math problems are structured - giving us information that we have to use to solve a problem. Even if it wasn’t your most favourite subject at school have a go at solving math problems (using long division, algebra, calculus etc.) to develop your logic and reasoning skills and, as a result, improve your analytical ability.

2 Join a debate or reading club.

To best way to learn how to read and assess written data is to read!! But we are not talking about recreational reading - instead you need to learn ‘active reading’ which involves questioning what you’re reading as you read. This forces you to engage in deeper thinking by critiquing the writer’s perspective on a subject in light of your own experiences. Or you could look at the story from the perspective of different characters. If you find it hard to analyse a novel try reading non-fiction instead or a quality newspaper or magazine. Whatever the format pick a topic that interests you to make it easier to start!

Active reading can be challenging at first so a good way to do this is to join a reading club. If you know you are going to discuss a book if will force you to take note (either mentally or actual notes) about the book as well as any ideas that occur whilst reading the book.

3 Play brain games.

The third of out top 3 is to play games - however we are not talking about sports or social activities here but “brain games.” These are games that challenge you to think deeply and to develop your analytical skills in a more abstract way. Brain games may include data across a wide spectrum including numerical, verbal and visual data. Examples of a brain game are:

  • logic puzzles e.g. crossword puzzles, riddles and Sudoku.
  • board games e.g. Scrabble, some strategy games, chess, backgammon or checkers.
  • video games that involve some element of strategy or challenge the player to solve problems and achieve goals.

If the above ideas don’t appeal to you here are some additional techniques for you to try:

4 Increase your knowledge base.

This tip helps more than your analytical skills however, the more you the more information you’ll have when it comes to understanding and solving problems. It is easy to enlarge your knowledge base, but also hard to do as it takes effort. If you are reading more to improve your analytical skills consider a wider range of subject matter. You can also attend lectures / academic talks and conferences (even when you have finished your formal education) or check out suitable talks on-line (TedTalks and LinkedIn are good for this).

5 Spend time thinking

Reflection on the information you acquire is critical to improving your analytical skills. You can do this by assess the various aspects to a problem before picking a solution instead of picking the easiest and simplest option right away. You can do this when you are trying to solve a problem for a customer - or deciding where to go for a holiday! However, make sure you include the easiest solution as it might be worthwhile.

You can find more information on reflective thinking in the module on Reflective Journalling in the Self Assessment course.

6 Search for connections.

Everything in life is connected - you can track car emissions to changing weather patterns or changes in the economy to people’s health. Discovering connections in your environment will hone your analytical skills.

To make connections think about events in terms of cause and effect. For example, if we have a long, hot summer (as we had in the UK this year) and the repercussions on water supplies, agriculture and beyond.

You can also think about the similarities between things; connections between people and places; or cycles and patterns in society.

7 Pay attention to detail.

To help with all of the above you need to pay attention to the detail. Without knowing the specifics of a problem or event you will find it harder to provide a suitable solution. By diving into the detail you will gain a better understanding of the world and be able to challenge your thinking about complex issues.

8 Take a walk outside

A popular tip to increase creativity is to take a walk in nature - and the bonus is that it can also help improve your analytical skills. As with the other ideas you have to engage your mind actively and observing your environment carefully. Use as many of your senses as you can and question what you see happening. A good tip is to try to remember what you have observed and write it down the next day. How much detail can you recall?

Putting Your Skills to Work

Once you have practiced the above and have some evidence that your analytical skills are ‘awake’ you need to put them into practice and embed them into your working life so, until you are offered a real analytical project to work on keep doing the following:

1 Challenge yourself every day

Until you get a chance to use your skills on a real life project you will have to make a conscious effort to use your skills on small things every day e.g. use pen and paper compute a math problem instead of using a calculator or, even better, do it in your head. Or ask your boss if you can shadow someone who is involved in analytical work - don’t copy them - have a go and compare your results to theirs. And don’t forget to do some brain games every day!

2 Teach others about analytical thinking

Once you feel confident about your skills try and help others improve their skills, too. Not only will you be able to help others hone their skills, but you’ll continue to work on you own skills. have a quiz challenge or start a book club at work.

3 Let your boss know what you can do!

Obvioulsy you will need the support of your manager to gain real experience but that won’t happen if you don’t tell them what you have learnt. So show them what you have been doing and explain how it can help them. If you are not clear about how to have this conversation take a look at our Career Management course (and specifically the Appraisal Workbook).

I hope you are now encouraged to develop your analytical skills as they are very marketable to employers!!