Data-Driven Decisions Might Just Be a Fantasy

Intuition Helps You Sort Through the Facts

By Published on .

Tom Denari
Tom Denari
The NFL season kicks off this week, with 32 teams competing for a chance to play in our beloved "advertising bowl" this coming February. But, maybe even more importantly to NFL fans, another season is also starting, where literally thousands of teams are competing to win their own version of the Super Bowl. Yes, in homes, bars and offices across the country, men, women and even children have been drafting their own fantasy NFL teams.

A week ago, I found myself in a conference room with seven other co-workers, boxes of cold pizza and my 17-year-old son, trying to figure out what players we should pick this year. After years of arguing about the first round pick, my son Nick (our fantasy team's general manager) and I (the owner) decided that this would be the year that we would take the emotion out of it. We were going to make decisions based on the data. That way, we wouldn't second-guess our choices. No more, "Hey, I really like this guy" or, "He's got a cool reality show," or "No way, he always lets us down." This year would be different. The cold, hard facts would decide who we should pick.

I bought magazines. My son downloaded pages of stats from websites. Heck, we even had the laptop in the room. We gathered as much information as we could, so that it would all be available when it was our turn to pick. We had every statistic, every projection, every piece of data we could possibly want.

When the sixth pick came around to us, we had three minutes to decide. "This should be easy," I thought. "We have all the data here: past rushing yards, catches, injuries, as well as this year's projections for all of those stats."

But it wasn't.

"Do we pick a running back or receiver? Wait, maybe a quarterback. Drew Brees is still available. So is Peyton. No, too early for a quarterback -- that's what the guy on the radio said. Running back? Yes. Maybe, but the best one on the list looks injured. What does the projection say?"

As the clock was ticking down, Nick and I both had an idea of which player we should pick. I asked him, "What do you think?" Unfortunately, his choice was different than mine. We both had all of the data, but we interpreted it differently. We both synthesized as much information as we could, weighed it as best we could -- and came to different conclusions.

. . . tick, tick, tick . . .

Marketing strategy is not altogether different from fantasy drafts, where humans predict what other humans will do in the future, by looking at past behavior to help us decide what we believe future consumer behavior will be.

To help with these predictions, I often hear marketing people proudly proclaim, "Now we're going to make data-driven decisions," as if this is a new, objective, decision-making process that will eliminate human fallibility. The implication is that people are no longer making the decision, the data is.

That's the trouble with data. It doesn't make decisions, people do.

As much as we would love to believe that having all the data possible will lead to better decision-making, what we need to understand is that despite all the piles of spreadsheets and charts we can amass, data alone really can't predict the future, especially when it involves consumers who behave rather irrationally.

To predict the future -- to even shape the future -- we need intuition.

Intuition is what helps us actually make the decision. It's the non-rational feeling that tells us which way to go.

While a number of writers have tackled the power of intuition recently, what's often missed is what makes someone expert enough to have the reliable intuition to make good decisions. Think about some of the best business people of our time. They have a feel for the ideal path to take, the best people to hire, the right product to introduce. These decisions aren't rational, but are actually intuitive -- not completely reasoned by facts. While these leaders have access to all the data they could want, they have had enough experience to understand what's behind the data, what's worth considering and what's not. They develop a feeling about it.

Intuition is not some kind of elusive magic that only a few people have, but it certainly doesn't come easily either, as it's mostly a result of hard work and the right experience. Intuition is real, useful and valuable, and comes from thoroughly studying a subject to the point that you become enough of an expert that you develop a clear feeling -- a sense -- of which way to go.

In marketing, intuition comes from immersing yourself in your customers and potential customers. It comes from developing relationships to understand who they are and what really motivates them. Predicting what they'll do later is much easier once you study their behavior now and find out why they do what they do.

What decisions loom ahead for you? Do you have a feeling of which way to go? If not, ask yourself whether you've gathered authentic consumer insights. Do you or your team have the experience necessary to sift through them to understand what's important, and what's not? Do you feel like an expert yet? Do you have any real intuition? Or do you just have data?

. . . tick, tick, tick . . .

Tom Denari is president, Young & Laramore, Indianapolis, Ind.
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