One Word... Data

Today, I want to start a series on some of the key words leaders encounter on a regular basis. They are words we may not fully appreciate, and in some cases, we may not even agree on what the word really means. Today’s Word: Data.

Data is a fascinating word and a more intriguing concept. I know leaders who are obsessed by it and others who disregard it outright. You may have a good vibe when someone says “data.” Someone else may want to be sick. How can this be? Some of the disparity comes from differing ideas about what data actually means and the bigger problem – how do you interpret “the facts.”
My book launch last week is a good case study. The question is a simple one - how effective was the book launch marketing plan? Well, if you look at the launch week sales, we sold about 500 books on Amazon. (Thanks to all of you who bought a copy!)  So, our six-month marketing plan generated the sale of 500 books, right? That’s what the data says - almost.
Because the book was actually available on Amazon three weeks prior to the launch, we had pre-orders for about 500 copies. So, the data indicates launch week sales of 500. But in reality, the launch activities generated sales of 1000 books. Which is correct? Both – thus the challenge in data!
To use data wisely, you must be EXTREMELY careful. I see data misused as often as I see it interpreted and used properly. The more questions you ask, the better you’ll be able to interpret and use data.
With that cautionary note, let me be clear – I love data! My favorite quote on this topic is from Edwards Deming, the father of the modern quality movement. He said:

In God we trust, everyone else – bring data.

I believe good decisions should be grounded in data whenever possible. To use it wisely, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind.
Data is a tool - it is not the objective. Like a hammer or a screwdriver, its purpose is to facilitate the accomplishment of something else. If data becomes the objective, you missed the point.
Data-informed decisions are better. The research is clear on this. As good as your intuition is and no matter how experienced you are as a leader, if your decision is informed by data, you get the right answer more often.
Data can easily be flawed. The collection of “good” data is tricky. Is the sample size sufficient to draw a valid conclusion? What’s the standard deviation? What’s the confidence rating of your findings? How was the control group selected? Did you isolate the variables correctly? If you miss any of these items, your data can be fatally flawed. Be careful when collecting data.
Data can be easily misrepresented. Even if you collect the data correctly, it can be misinterpreted. I’m reminded of the World War II research project involving US aircraft. After analyzing bullet patterns of returning aircraft, it was determined that no aircraft had been shot in a certain area near the front of the planes. When this information was presented to the commander, he commented, “Planes shot in that area don’t come back for you to study them.”
There’s much more that could be said about data. Maybe in a second installment later… for now, here’s my summary:
Data can be one of the most powerful tools in your leadership toolbox. Leaders who collect it carefully and interpret it wisely make better decisions.[GLS_Shield]



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