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Data-Driven Decision Making: Who Should Make the Decisions, You or the Numbers?

Sue Montgomery
Sue Montgomery

With the tsunami of data that business leaders have available, many find themselves trying to strike a delicate balance between acting on what the spreadsheet reveals and what their instincts are telling them.

If you’re a seasoned leader who is accustomed to relying on your gut, you are not alone.

In a 2014 PwC survey, only about 30 percent of executives reported relying first and foremost on data for their most recent big business decision.

However, according to an Accenture survey in the same year, 89 percent of executives polled rated big data as “very important” or “extremely important” to the digital transformation of their businesses.

For graduates of business analytics programs, the best result of the Accenture report is likely the fact that 91 percent of the companies surveyed had plans to increase their data expertise in the very near future.

The dichotomy between the two reports highlights the fact that both instinct and data are essential to making good business decisions and that the key is learning to nurture them both.

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Keeping Your Instincts Relevant

With the increasing emphasis on data-based decision-making, many wonder if the role of instinct is becoming extinct in the business world. Sri Sharma, founder and managing director of the award-winning digital advertising agency Net Media Planet, told the Guardian that it’s not: "I think of your instinct, your gut feeling, as a personal radar that is built up over the years. Often the data you analyze confirms the instinct of your personal radar, but it can't replace it. Instinct is vital."  

In a piece for Fast Company, serial entrepreneur Faisal Hoque, author of "Everything Connects," contends that intuition is as important as ever but leaders need to hone their abilities to balance it with a quantifiable approach: “Success comes from connecting the dots between our emotional selves and systematic thinking that can be checked quantitatively. It's all about how you combine data, predictive analysis, and your time-honed intuition.”

Hoque wrote that although organizations are teeming with vast amounts of data, the challenging part involves defining what types of outcomes can be reasonably expected from the analysis itself a process that involves intuitively knowing which questions to ask in the first place.

In a 2015 article for Entrepreneur, Asha Saxena, former CEO of Future Technologies and currently the founder and CEO of the health care analytics firm Aculyst, agreed that instinct is essential, but offered a word of caution: many business leaders are relying on it too heavily.

“Intuition is a powerful tool, and when paired with insightful data, can drive unparalleled growth,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, many business leaders still hesitate to embrace big data and depend on intuition alone to make key business decisions.”

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To optimize what big data has to offer, she recommended four strategies:

  1. Strike a gut-data balance, which allows intuition to play a key role.
  2. Create an infrastructure for your data that is easily and immediately available.
  3. Give the entire team access to provide better context for analysis and strategy.
  4. Don’t just watch the data use it to drive change.

Creating an Analytics Ecosystem

By striking a balance between instinct and the benefits that data can provide, companies can better create what some experts refer to as an “analytics ecosystem.” In a report by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services titled, "The Evolution of Decision Making: How Leading Organizations Are Adopting a Data-Driven Culture," the authors say that “leading analytics users embrace a host of strategies, which evolve into best practices to create an ‘analytics ecosystem’ in their organizations over time.”

In a global survey of 646 executives, managers and professionals across all industries and geographies, the researchers found that leading analytics users are:

  • Enhancing data skills to better “integrate analytics tools into their normal way of working to uncover strategic insights.”
  • Balancing data with instinct and learning how to “strike the precise balance between using analytics and their managerial instincts as well as how to manage business rules in tandem with analytics.”
  • Forging new and deeper relationships with analytics professionals, “elevating them to the position of trusted internal consultant.”
  • Developing best practices, which include a variety of strategies that evolve “to create an ‘analytics ecosystem’ in their department or organization over time.”

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The bottom line is that neither intuition nor data can be siloed if they’re to be used to the best effect in today’s business world. By nurturing both and learning to strike an effective balance you’ll have a better chance of making precise, data-driven decisions that are true to your instincts as well.

Image Credit: Monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
Sue Montgomery
Sue Montgomery
Sue Montgomery, RN, BSN, CHPN is the CEO of Sue Montgomery & Associates. She has been a nurse and healthcare leader for over 32 years in a variety of settings. She is also an entrepreneur and provides communications consulting and other writing and editing services through her company. Sue has worked with 2U and other notable brands and her writing has also been featured on Working Nurse, Nuviun Digital Health, Medtech Engine, and Medeuronet, among other publications.