Yield to your instincts

I’ve spent 15 years exhorting my teams to live by the data. I’m often heard saying “if you can’t report on it, then it doesn’t exist!” Whole analytics teams are known to run the other way if I’m spotted in the vicinity.

I’m happy to put my hand up now and say that I’ve been wrong. Not completely, mind you.  Data is, and should still be, the cornerstone of most of our decision making. We just need to understand that data, and more precisely the use of it, can manifest in different ways.

Too many of us hold ourselves hostage to Excel sheets and Power Point decks full of charts and tables. Unfortunately, with a lot of our day to day decision making the data that we are striving to produce either doesn’t exist, or introduces a significant delay to our decision making because it cannot be collated and interpreted in a timely fashion. As a result, we make a lot of non-decisions and let the status quo meander along.

What we should be doing instead, is trusting our instincts. This is by no means a new philosophy, but for me it’s one that crystallized as I read an insightful work by a former cricketing acquaintance at Oxford. Matthew Syed’s “Bounce” discusses how top sportspeople develop their instincts and that enviable skill that enables them to make the right decisions in a split second at a crucial juncture. And to do it consistently.

Watching a rookie quarterback in the Superbowl last night was unfortunately a great example of this. Colin Kaepernick is a better sportsman than I could ever dream of being, but to my untrained eye, there were moments under pressure where you felt he was desperately searching for information with which to make the right decision. In each case, the moment passed, and ultimately with it went the game.

Now imagine Tom Brady or Joe Montana in some of those same situations. You can’t shake the feeling that they could have pulled off a move that would have left you wondering “how did he see that?!” Even an amateur sportsperson has those moments where the game around them suddenly switches into slow-motion and they know where the ball is going to, rather than where it’s currently at. For a Brady or Montana, that happens a lot more often.

I’ve realized that much the same applies to those of us making product or business decisions on a daily basis. A few years ago I started noting down my instinctive reactions to new product features, or business strategies and tactics, and comparing them with where we ended up days, weeks or sometimes months later after evaluating all the data available to us. Before long it was clear that in 9 out of 10 cases, I could have saved us all a lot of heartache if I’d had the guts to trust my own instinct.

It takes a lot to trust your own instinct, and it takes even more to convince those around you, and those you report to, to do that. What we have to realize is that this instinct is based on years of training. Purposeful training, as Syed puts it. There is probably more data behind that instinct than in the weeks of work that you put your junior analyst through to try and rationalize or come to a decision.

Maybe it’s time we started treating more of our decision making as if we were professional athletes faced with a 90mph fastball. We know what to do, it’s time we just did it (with apologies to Dan Wieden). Try it next time – it’s liberating.

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