When it comes to making business decisions about the future, too many companies believe that using data alone eliminates risks of being wrong. However, to make better decisions about the future, data needs to be put into context. Leaders must develop a strong intuition in order to spot underlying shifts in the world and point their teams—and their analytics—in the right direction.
Data scientist and mathematician Cathy O’Neil has said that people she meets casually—on an airplane, for instance—accept her views as authoritative once they realize she understands data and excels at math. They assume she knows things they don’t. Similarly, when it comes to using data to make business decisions about the future, too many companies believe there is “safety in numbers” and that using data alone eliminates the biggest risks of being wrong.
Call it “the rigor trap.” Ever since Big Data became a buzzy term, a common conception arose that certain great truths can be revealed solely through data modeling and analytics—an especially appealing idea in uncertain times, when relying on reams of data to make business forecasts and product decisions has come to be considered “audit-proof.” But that’s simply not true.
Just think about how rigorously AT&T and their consultants analyzed competitive and market data when they concluded that smartphones would always be a plaything for the rich. Or how the spike in streaming for companies like Netflix and Disney led CNN to conclude (also with consultants!) that CNN+ would be a winning model. In a steady-state world, great data and linear projections might provide a really accurate view of what to do. But in a rapidly evolving one, that same data might just end up being a really accurate rearview mirror.
To make better decisions about the future, data needs to be put into context. This requires leaders to develop a different skill, one that’s somewhat out of fashion in today’s machine-learning, AI-obsessed era: the ability to hone their intuition. Leaders with a strong intuition are able to spot underlying shifts and point their teams—and their analytics—in the right direction.
Listen to your gut, then improve your intuition with analytics.
Intuition and data are not at odds. Incorporating nonquantifiable expertise into decisions doesn’t make a leader less rigorous. In fact, the combination of both in the right way is very powerful.
In Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” for instance, he describes how executives throughout baseball raced to replace their scouting department with quants after Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta used data to upend the models of what made a ballplayer successful. But a funny thing happened on the way to Sabermetric supremacy: Baseball teams actually increased the size of their scouting departments. Scouts could spot attributes the models weren’t yet programmed to address. By blending scout intuition with rigorous analysis, teams could both envision the future and test their hypotheses.
Focus on asking the right questions.
The data we feed any type of algorithm or model determines what comes out of it. Therefore, when creating business plans and products, asking the right questions can be a leader’s most important contribution. Because if the inputs are wrong, all that analytical rigor will go toward hitting the wrong target—with amazing accuracy.
For example, if you ask ChatGPT to use its analytical horsepower to recommend a way to redesign the play button on a boombox, it might suggest a great solution like using contrasting colors and backlighting to make the button stand out in low-light environments. Of course, most people realize that even if that’s a great idea, it’s the answer to an economically unwise question. And that example is only a mild exaggeration of a drama that is playing out in boardrooms all across the country right now. Although leaders are often looking for game-changing solutions, the data they rigorously review often only leads to short-term incremental changes. It takes a leader with confidence and intuition to step back and insist on reconsidering the question that got prioritized in the first place. Rather than asking about play buttons, “How will the way people listen to music change in the next 5 years?” would probably be more worth your company’s time and resources.
Stay close to stakeholder needs.
One of the best ways for a leader to improve intuition is to develop deep empathy for key stakeholders, especially customers. Analytics and surveys can be great at identifying how people interact with a product, service, or business. But surveys only answer the questions we know to ask, which often miss the broader shifts going on in people’s lives. Improving intuition requires leaders to pay attention and make connections among the seemingly random datapoints that no one has thought to ask about yet.
The secret to the success of some of the most future-focused executives I know might just be their ability to make unexpected connections between diverse pieces of information that don’t seem remotely related—until how they are related becomes absolutely clear. This is a skill the rest of us can learn by staying on top of analogous spaces (beyond technology), reading and absorbing information from a variety of sources, and getting a fuller picture of our stakeholders’ lives and needs. That’s why Nike hires athletes, Starbucks makes leaders do rotations as baristas, and many companies invest in qualitative, ethnographic research. It helps them learn things they never knew to ask about and see things no one else could.
Making game-changing business decisions is never easy—even for someone with an extensive knowledge of data, math and analytics. But finding better ways to harness data while also unleashing our intuition to test, probe, and validate hunches and theories can be the difference between falling into a trap and unlocking new possibilities.
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