When “close enough” is good enough

I recently gave a series of workshops on super searcher tips, covering everything from how to get the best results from Google to incorporating grey literature in your search strategies. In addition to specific search techniques and approaches, I mentioned a couple of strategies that generated a lot of comments:

  • Sometimes close enough is good enough
  • Answer the question you can

For researchers and info pros, this sounds like anathema; shouldn’t we aim to directly address a client’s information needs? Well, yes and… As I reminded the workshop participants, when clients come to us for help in finding information or insight, they have already tried finding the answer, usually by Googling it. We get the questions for which information isn’t readily available—highly specialized questions on which no one has collected the data, questions requiring resources we can’t afford or don’t have access to, or information that has not been published but can only be gleaned by interviewing experts, for example.

In these cases, when I can tell by the sound of the question that it’s not likely that I will be able to provide an answer within the budget constraints of the client, I ask a question that often serves me well: If I can’t find exactly what you’re looking for, what would be second best? The magic of this question is that it often gets at the underlying question—the question behind the question. I will see what might serve as signals or indicators of the elusive information my client is seeking. If I can’t get information on the market for fleet management services in rural parts of Arkansas, for example, I can look for adjacent industries that might provide clues or indicators of the potential market—identifying regional trade shows relevant to business owners likely to have a rural fleet of vehicles, perhaps.

So, when faced with one of those questions where we are fairly sure the time required to answer it would not be justified, we can ask ourselves and our client:

  • What would 80% of the answer look like?
  • What parallel or adjacent “signals” might indicate an answer?
  • How can we expand or narrow the question in order to find an answer?

One of the challenges of experienced info pros is that we love the thrill of the chase, and we know how many nooks and crannies there are in the info landscape. We take it as a professional challenge to find that elusive insight or obscure statistic, even when that might not be the best use of our time. It’s useful to remind ourselves that striving for perfection doesn’t always serve us… or our clients. Sometimes close enough really is good enough.

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