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Written by The Mezzanine Group
on February 22, 2012

Do you ever think that ever-increasing access to data is making us less able to step back and make strategic decisions?

A recent article that caught me eye titled ‘Avoiding Short-Term Thinking in a World of Big Data’ by Bradley Kreit makes the point that all that data makes us tend to want single indicators to tell us what we want to know. How many times recently have you seen a new index for something or other? The problem is that this tendency makes it harder to get at ambiguous or complex situations. Kreit uses the example that more public parks to make it easier to exercise might be the real way to fight certain diseases, but we are more used to data derived from formal health care settings to evaluate whether we are taking adequate measures, so that’s what we will probably talk about.

We see this phenomenon in action with our marketing consulting clients. Sometimes an organization will be very interested, for instance, doing a survey of potential clients. This might be a fantastic idea, and we often do just that type of project.

One of our recent Case Studies titled ‘Strategic Planning and Member Needs Assessment for Canadian Cardiovascular Society,’ is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

However, if there aren’t a clearly formulated set of research objectives that can in fact be answered by a survey, there isn’t much point. If the real questions that need to be answered are about the kinds of strategic choices or visions of the future that a survey respondent just can’t see from their perspective, a survey will muddy the waters more than anything else, and may be completely silent on the most important issues. A survey probably can’t tell you how many product lines are too many for you to execute on effectively, for instance – that insight is going to come from internal analysis.

I’ve often seen clients seek more and more data when the next set of decisions are the core strategic choices; how do they want to tackle the market, what do they have appetite for, what are their ambitions? Looking for more data is a way of instilling analysis paralysis, in a way – to avoid the judgement calls that are always a part of doing business in a world without data sufficiency.

There’s an old parable I recently came across in Discover Magazine’s article titled ‘Why Scientific Studies Are So Often Wrong: The Streetlight Effect,’ of the drunk man looking for his keys under the streetlight instead of in the unlit park, because that’s where the light is. It’s tempting to keep on doing that, instead of developing a greater comfort level with making our decisions with ambiguity.

How do you make big decisions in your business? Do you think you’re harnessing data effectively when it comes to making strategic decisions? Where do you find lack of data most frustrating? Are you overwhelmed with data?

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