How To Succeed Without Data, In A Data-Driven World

This article was originally published on on October 6, 2018.

There are some words that inspire confidence when you use them. “Data” is one of those words. Throw “data-driven” in front of “decision-making” and you’ll suddenly find yourself more credible. If someone is sharing an idea, ask about “the data” and your IQ shoots up several points.

I believe in data. I understand how data can identify trends, minimize risk and lead to better decisions. Data comforts me. But the fixation on data has a drawback. It leads to the belief that decisions made without data – aren’t as strong. Never mind that bad decisions, based on data, get made all the time.

The concept of data-driven decisions entered the mainstream lexicon in the early 2000s. Countless successful organizations, however, existed before then. How did they make decisions? How did they get people to believe in their decisions? What if you are a new organization with little data to draw on? What if you work in the social sector where connecting data to impact is the holy grail? What if you’re an entrepreneur who thinks so different that relying on the past will stop you from creating a new future?

You absolutely can succeed without data. But you can’t succeed without people. If your people crave data that doesn’t exist, then take inventory and see if you have other factors that will build confidence and support success.

Do you have trust?

Strong people work hard and want their efforts to pay off. Data gives them faith. Without it, they need to trust something else. That something else is you. Spend time communicating with people how you think and what matters to you. Learn the same about them. When making decisions, be as transparent as the circumstances allow. This is a delicate balance, particularly at the organizational level where decision-making is more ambiguous than most are prepared for. Transparency can backfire and cause anxiety. If you’ve focused on communicating and building trust, your team will recover and thrive.

Do you have principles?

Data can provide guard rails that keep you on course. Operational and cultural principles play a similar role, serving as guidelines to action and behavior: This is what matters to us. This is how we operate. This is who decides. This is how we treat each other. Hong Kong’s post-WWII rise to power is a great example. To spur entrepreneurship, they relied less on economic data and operated on principles that supported local business owners. Hong Kong’s Financial Secretary famously said, “It is a fallacy that technology can be applied to the conduct of human affairs.” Principles as much as data will keep your ship steady while providing much needed direction.

Do you have history?

The appeal of data is its ability to identify patterns likely to repeat. Patterns also live in people. I’m always surprised when people ask for data but doubt the advice given by an organizational veteran sitting next to them. The reliance on quantitative data has given qualitative data a bad name. Brandon Lewis, President of Help The Media has witnessed this, “An over-reliance on quantitative data is a mistake. Data is only as good as its context and the questions you ask. Organizational veterans potentially have a much better understanding about the right questions to ask and in what context.” Do you have team members who know what has and hasn’t worked? What was considered and never executed? What was a good idea, just poorly implemented? What was discarded too soon? That type of data is valuable. Respect it and use it to move forward.

Do you have diversity?

The manipulation of data allows multiple perspectives to be considered. You know what else creates multiple perspectives? Diversity. Stanford Professor James March has noted that homogeneous groups become progressively less able to create different alternatives. Their backgrounds are so similar that their knowledge overlaps and adds no new information to the discussion. Diversity changes that by increasing the amount of unique data living and breathing in your organization. If you don’t have tons of data, focus on diversifying the people at the table to increase innovation and strengthen decisions.

Do you have feedback loops?

Just because you don’t have data, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start collecting it. You will need to move forward without data, but every strategy you undertake will generate information to support success. Determine in advance what signals will help you know if you are on course. Find a way to collect it and analyze it moving forward. You don’t want to act without data and in the not-to-distant future still not have data to leverage as feedback.

Do you have humility?

Data-driven or not, there are times when you make wrong decisions. In those moments, you need humility. Mistakes are a type of data. If you can’t admit you were wrong, you won’t see that data. You’ll dig in your heels, ignoring valuable information being generated before your eyes. Think of humility as a net. Success flows through it and gets passed on to your team. Mistakes get caught. You own them, fix them and then they too pass through as great things to help your team move forward.

Do you have agility?

Analyzing data can help remove risk from decision-making. If you can’t remove as much on the front end, you will have to manage risk well on the back end. That is easier if your organization is agile. Agility shouldn’t be mistaken for adaptability. Adaptable means you can change over time and evolve your model. Agile means you can change quickly and within the boundaries of your existing model. You want structures, culture and people with the ability to alter course in response to new information. Following the north star is never linear. Pivots happen. Whether 10 degrees or 180, keep everyone’s eyes on the prize while pivoting. It requires agility, but history shows it can be done.

This is not an argument against data. If you have it, use it. If you don’t, work to get it. But know that the conversation about data originates from industries with access and privilege that many of us don’t have. And even they recognize its limits. Dr. Kristina McElheran from the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy has wise words, “For many types of decisions, especially those for which little quantitative data exist, the broader knowledge and experience of leaders still outperforms purely data-driven approaches.”

So, if you don’t have access to data, take stock of what you do have. You may find something just as powerful. I would argue you’ll find something even more powerful.

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