Very early in my career I was told by one of my mentors “Research is a light to guide your way not a lamp-post to lean on”. Its a perspective that has stuck with me and which these days applies equally well to data of any kind. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of the insights that data can give us and a supporter of any attempt to gather and manage data, but I’m growing increasingly concerned that we are relying on it to do stuff it never was intended to do, nor is capable of. It’s another symptom of the dumbing-down culture that I’ve spoken about before.

Consider all the really great entrepreneurs. Not just those from the past, but those who are emerging today. The business decisions that have led to their success have invariably been instinctive. I work with innovators, so I know that probably 80% (that’s an instinctive figure) of them are entirely product focussed. They don’t know if their inventions make good commercial sense or not and rarely care. Its not what drives them. They just know they are “neat”. Sure, most of them will never make it commercially and the big successes out there have probably at some point used data to confirm their beliefs or provide insights when making decisions, but the core idea and the really key decisions are instinctive. We can debate where this sixth sense comes from until the cows come home, its not so important. What matters is that that instinct, that Midas touch, can’t be sythesised with data and this is what we are increasingly trying to do.

There are numerous chicken and egg debates that we can get into on our way to determining why. It could be that managers are becoming risk averse for intance, but is this because the stakes are higher (which they undoubtedly are) or because today’s managers are younger (in the case of corporates you can read “cheaper”) so they lack the experience that feeds the instinct they need? We are told that data speeds up the decision-making process, but this is just bollocks put about by analysts to help them feel wanted. I love analysts, but insecure or what? There’s nothing quicker than Henry Ford’s “Nope, it’s black or black”, so don’t tell me that collecting data for three years, getting a room-full of analysts to comb through it and then hiring an interpreter to tell us what they are talking about is getting us there any quicker. Its not always more accurate either. Analysis is a cold process and fails to account for human frailty. Not everyone thinks like an analyst, so I’m not backing one to tell me for sure what Gladys from Chipping Norton’s motivations are when she’s doing the weekly shop.

No, its all a bit of a cop-out really. What we do know is that a buying decision is based on primal instinct. We buy what we like and then use rational argument to defend our choice because, somewhere along the line, we’ve been told that this is what grown-ups do and that’s exactly what most managers are doing with data. Its a cover-up, a hide-behind. “You can’t blame me for this cock up, the data told me to do it!”. Why can’t managers just accept that there’s risk in decision-making and the law of averages (which data can’t influence) says you get it wrong occasionally? The measure of a good manager is that he gets it right more often than wrong and if you make too many mistakes you get fired, but that’s the deal. You should be a grown-up by the time you get there, so get over it and the sooner we get off this mission to manufacture infallible managers the quicker we can get on with the job.

Is there a sinister plot by corporate employers afoot to cut costs by employing less experienced managers and giving them mountains of data in the hope that this will enable them (in the absence of experience and instinct) to make smart decisions? If so, its not working, nor is it going to. Anything you save on managers salaries is more than used up paying for analysis and, as I have said, data won’t trump instinct. There’s no cutting corners with this. The best way to build a business is by investing in your people. Train your managers. Enable them to accumulate knowledge and by the time they reach an age when they have enough experience to make valued judgements they have the kit to do it with. A recent survey revealed that over 60% of managers felt they weren’t up to the job they had, and most execs expect to be in a role for no more than two years (Its funny how those two facts add up!) so let experienced and prepared people use data to refine their instinctive decisions rather than actually make the decisions for them and you’ll reduce failure rate and increase ROI.

Footnote: An old friend of mine, deeply respected in the marketing world and now operating as a mentor to some decent-sized businesses, recently met for the first time with a young woman who has found herself in the Marketing Director role of one of his international clients. She started the conversation with “I don’t know if you are familiar with branding …”. Its people like her (and there are many of them) who need data to lean on because, frankly, she’s way out of her depth.

Phil Darby
August 5, 2014

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