A Two-Prong Plan for Better Data-Driven Leadership

Loraine Lawson

I am something of a compulsive researcher, which is not a bad trait for either an English major or a journalist. But since high-speed Internet, my compulsion has created some problems and unintended consequences.

For instance, I don’t get chain emails. That’s because if someone send me one, I’ll dig until I get to the bottom of it and send everyone copied on the original message a fact-finding report, with links to Snopes, as well as a short dissertation on the hazards of chain emails.

My own mother refuses to email me any more.

But it’s not always easy to separate fact from fiction. Recently, I’ve been researching gun violence, gun control and the history of gun ownership in America. You can find plenty of statistics on these issues, but dig deeper and there’s always a counterpoint or addendum that weakens the finding.

It’s been an unsettling reminder that it’s not the data that matters, so much as the data we choose.

That’s one reason why the idea of a data-driven enterprise is incomplete, according to a recent blog post by data quality consultant Jim Harris.

“In the era of big data, it’s not about being data-driven — because your organization has always been data-driven,” Harris writes. “It’s about what data your organization is being driven by — and whether that data is driving your organization to make better decisions.”

His point is two-fold: First, making better decisions depends on identifying the right data.

Big Data makes this even more challenging, because there are so many sources of data and potential metrics from which to draw. But neglecting this step can lead to a lot of data-driven navel gazing, if you’re not wise about how you approach the data.

He uses baseball as an example. Baseball had always been data-driven, but it wasn’t until managers like Billy Beane accepted that some statistics (on-base averages, for instance) were more useful than others (batting average) that data began to change the game.

That relates in to his second point: The intuition of decision-makers matters, particularly after a leader has accessed the data. Writer Jeffrey Ma calls this “data-driven intuition,” Harris points out.

“… what we call intuition is often more data-driven than we give it credit for because it’s based on personal experience and professional expertise (e.g., such as the valuable information still provided by baseball scouts),” writes Harris.

Certainly, data can help enlighten organizations to trends and potential problems that might have gone unnoticed years ago, but take heart, old-school leaders: It seems we still have a way to go before the Mentats take over the CEO’s seat.

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