Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Data Doesn't Kill Ideas - People Do.

Added on by Tom Webster.

Seth Godin has some smart things to say on his blog almost every day, but today he said something that really stuck in my craw. His post "Too much data leads to not enough belief" has all the hallmarks of a real crowd pleaser--it's been Tweeted hundreds of times already--with his conclusion that "data crowds out faith...without faith, it's hard to believe in the data enough to make a leap." Seth concludes his post by asserting that "relying too much on proof distracts you from the real mission--which is emotional connection." Who is going to argue with that? Of course emotional connection and vision are prerequisites to taking a leap. I've taken the leap myself in three startups (started two of them), presented data to scores of entrepreneurs and conducted research on hundreds of new products and services over the years. Without faith, new ventures would never be born. So pushing the false choice of "too much data" over emotional connection is an intellectual shortcut, at best. There's no such thing as too much data. There's only "enough" data, and not enough data, and the definition of "enough" is a personal one. But framing the argument as "too much" data vs. vision and faith casts "data" as a straw man. I'd rather have "too much" data AND faith.

See, it's never the data that "kills" a project, or stalls a venture. Never. It's the people. There are some people who are so risk-averse that they will keep looking for data until they find the nugget they can cling to that says "Stop." Others look for that one data point that says "GO!" But it's more about the reticular activating system of the person in question than the quality--or quantity--of data available. Some people need data--lots of it--and won't go forward without it. Now, I realize that Seth would also acknowledge that it really comes down to the people--he notes that "The skeptic will always find a reason, even if it's one the rest of us don't think is a good one." But it's wrong to say "data crowds out faith." Data is a crutch for the faithless.

Business lore gives us plenty of romantic stories about visionaries who pushed forward against the odds only to prevail in the face of "data." There is, however, a survivor bias inherent in relying on those anecdotes. For every Jeff Bezos who doggedly pursued his vision to victory, there are thousands of entrepreneurs who fail. Few of them failed because they got the "vision" part wrong. We don't see those stories, but they are out there. Very few of them would tell you that they wished they knew less.

When you search for or commission primary or secondary research data for a new venture, the data is bound to highlight the negative--the dangers of a new approach, the potential pitfalls, the risk. You can count on that. It might also show you a safer path. In the studies I've presented to clients over the years, I've seen four different kinds of reactions to what is essentially the same data:

  • One reaction is to fear the risk, and terminate the venture (or at least the approach). Sometimes that is warranted, sometimes it is not.
  • A second reaction is to cling to the "safe" course highlighted in the data as a means to significantly reduce or eliminate risk. The results of this approach typically create lackluster, "me-too" products that fail to inspire.
  • A third approach is what I call "ostrich syndrome": to stick your head in the sand and ignore the data. Damn the torpedos--I have vision! Sometimes that's enough. But think of all the brands out there that have achieved cult status--the brands for which customers will not only advocate, but even put up with inconvenience to use! Iconic brands like Apple, Nike, BMW, etc. Are their leaders visionary? You betcha. But I can assure you that they are also absolutely swimming in data.
  • Their secret? The fourth approach. Data, especially market research data, can highlight risky areas and safe areas. The unimaginative gravitate to the safe; the uninformed blindly move to risk. The truly visionary leader uses data like a lighthouse--pointing out the rocks in the shoals that might sink the ship before it even ventures into deeper water. If the venture is worth the risk, the ship sails on--but the more you know about the rocks on the bottom, the better the chance you'll make it to the new world.

It's the latter approach--and my clients who embrace it--that has yielded the most satisfying engagements of my career, and the most successful products and services. Research and data are nothing without vision and emotional connection. But claiming, as Seth does, that "relying too much on proof distracts you from the real mission--which is emotional connection" is kinda like saying that the gas gauge distracts you from the thrill of winning the race. It's a poor driver that would quit the race because the gas gauge is running low. But it's a stupid driver who wouldn't install one in the first place.

{/rant} :)

What say you? Is there such a thing as "too much" data? Unlike Seth's blog, my comments are on and open, so let's hear it!