In Defense of Intuition

If you live and work at the intersection of marketing and technology, like me, you’re probably drawn to stories in which technological innovation helps real-world organizations push the boundaries.

One red seat in a baseball stadium of empty green seatsThat’s why the intertwining of sports and analytics fascinates me. Professional sports teams have rapidly embraced the use of modern data analytics, and, as noted in my recent blog, it’s radically changing the way games are managed and players are evaluated. There's no question that it’s time for everyday businesses to follow suit and start embracing the transformative power of analytics.

But that’s not what this blog is about.

This blog is about intuition. More specifically, about not losing sight of it. After all, it’s only natural to think that going all-in on analytics means completely casting intuition aside, especially when one of the best practices Dell often talks about is the need to value data over intuition. If you look carefully, though, you’ll notice we never say you should replace intuition with data.

We say that given the ability you now have to connect to and analyze data, you shouldn’t simply assume something to be true. You should see whether the data confirms it, and, if it so happens that your intuition and past experience are telling you one thing, and your data is very clearly telling you something else, then you’re probably best served letting data dictate your final decision. In most cases, however, data and intuition can – and more importantly, should – productively co-exist.   

Let’s take the example in the TechPage One blog graphic of Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees. Now, I have no idea what I would do if I were suddenly made manager of the New York Yankees. But I know one thing I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t bench Derek Jeter. I’ve seen enough to know that Jeter is the type of athlete you don’t bet against, and even if certain predictive models are expecting him to be less valuable than his replacement options, I’m still going to give Jeter the chance to do what he’s done so often in his career and prove people wrong.

But that doesn’t mean the Yankees should completely ignore the data, either. Jeter is coming off a significant injury, he has passed the age where historically most shortstops cease being productive, and there are indicators that his performance might tail off as 2014 progresses, perhaps significantly. While the Yankees aren’t about to bench Jeter, they did sign free agent shortstop Brendan Ryan as insurance. It’s a great example of management combining data and intuition to create a sensible business plan.

The same general principle can be applied to just about all the examples in the graphic. I don’t care what the data says – there’s nobody in basketball I’d rather have taking the last shot than Kobe Bryant, David Beckham can play on my soccer team any day, and in football I’m sure as heck not always going to go for it on fourth down. But I can’t ignore the data, either. Maybe I need to put a better supporting cast around Kobe so he can be more efficient, maybe I need to think of Beckham as a secondary piece of a winning team rather than the primary star, and maybe I need to be more aggressive on fourth down than I’ve been in the past (even if I’m not quite ready to be this guy).    

Whatever the use case, whether in sports or in business, the bottom line is this: Embracing data analytics doesn’t mean waging an all-or-nothing battle against intuition. Great decisions can and should be a function of both. 

About the Author: John Whittaker