Executives Are in Love with the Wrong Kind of Data

In the business world today, we can measure absolutely everything. Take your website as an example. You can measure clicks and views and how many of those views were unique. You can measure exit pages and bounce rates and conversion funnels. You can measure your traffic-generating ads in terms of CPC or CPM or CPA.

O.M.G.

And because we can measure literally everything in our world, we reach “average” pretty darn quickly. We measure and document and dub that documentation dogma, and just by following your company’s or your favorite thought leader’s dogma, you can do average work with very little effort.

But what if…

What if what we consider to be the right approach to data … is wrong?

It turns out there are actually two types of “data” you can gather, or two ways of understanding the world to proceed in the best possible way.

The first is the Aristotelian approach. Aristotle explored reality by finding the absolute essence of something — the essence of a rock, a house, a river. The more he and his followers gathered these essentials, the more they could divide and subdivide into various categories, thus informing their view of the world. The problem, however, is that these are based on two dangerous ideas: absolutes (the “essence” of something) and the past. You understand today or try to predict tomorrow by pulling from things you assume to be absolutes, all of which were learned yesterday.

The second approach came later. This is the Galilean approach. Galileo pushed a more modern idea of the scientific method: isolate a variable and test it specifically. This recognizes that generalities are dangerous and that CONTEXT is everything. So you better test and learn in today’s context.

Now here’s the problem: Too many of us rely on the former instead of the latter. We try to find absolutes that aren’t really there.

We want THE answer. How many words should a blog post be? How many blog posts should I publish? What’s the ROI of content marketing?

We want THE campaign. Let’s plan our year right now and try to think up viral campaigns in theory.

We look to experts for THE tactics. Who can we see at this conference who can give us the blueprint? Is there an Ultimate Guide for that? 

But all of this lacks CONTEXT.

Context requires a knowledge of your specific scenario. It requires critical and creative thinking.

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Consider the story of Eric Siegel and airline food for a moment.

Eric Siegel is a predictive analytics expert (and a rapper — but more on that in a bit). While studying some data about airline passengers who miss or don’t miss flights, Eric noticed that vegetarians missed fewer flights. Now, a busy executive or stressed-out marketer might stop there and say, “Great! We’ve found an opportunity. The data says we should target more vegetarians, so let’s plan our marketing accordingly.”

But as Eric told me on this episode of Unthinkable, that would be missing a huge opportunity. Thinking more critically and creatively, the huge opportunity is that customers who personalize something about their purchase are more likely to show up!  If the goal is capacity flights at all times, then you’ve just unlocked an actionable insight — one that’s easy to overlook by simply staring at the data.

If you were going to test and measure to arrive at this conclusion, ask yourself: What is the variable in that test? It’s not actually “vegetarians.” It’s “customer who customized their meal” … or at least customized something about their purchase. Think of all the ways an airline could test and measure and unlock more revenue by framing their approach like that!

There are two-types of data: Which are you using?

Because we can measure everything, we aim to be data-driven. But even that term brings to mind a humanoid spreadsheet whipping us forward. We are driven forward by that data, but that data comes from the past. And more than ever before, today looks way different than yesterday, and tomorrow will be nothing like the present.

As executives, when we push our teams to provide THE answer, to plan THE campaign, to prescribe THE tactics, we’re seeking absolutes. We’re acting like essentialists. And that plateaus our work at average. We might be able to generalize the world and get SOME results. But we’ve stripped out the specific context of these people, these customers, and this moment in time. Luckily, we can learn what works in our specific context … but only by acting as constant learners who ask the right questions, not experts who profess to know the answer.

So. Maybe don’t ask for answers from your team. Ask for what they learned.

Don’t plan campaigns. Plan experiments.

Don’t act like Aristotle. Act like Galileo.

Because nobody plans to be average. So, starting today: Plan to be exceptional.

Jay is an award-winning podcaster and dynamic keynote speaker. Before creating Unthinkable, he was a digital media strategist at Google and head of content at HubSpot. He’s built content marketing strategies from scratch for startups and produced attention-grabbing documentaries for brands. His work has been cited in places ranging from Harvard Business School to the Washington Post. Today, Jay hosts shows and works with teams who aspire to be the exceptions to all the noise in their niche.
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Author: Jay Acunzo
Jay is an award-winning podcaster and dynamic keynote speaker. Before creating Unthinkable, he was a digital media strategist at Google and head of content at HubSpot. He’s built content marketing strategies from scratch for startups and produced attention-grabbing documentaries for brands. His work has been cited in places ranging from Harvard Business School to the Washington Post. Today, Jay hosts shows and works with teams who aspire to be the exceptions to all the noise in their niche.