Editor's Note: Please enjoy this blog post originally published in May 2016 by our guest author, novelist and former Chicago Sun-Times journalist Neil Hayes.
Quote: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." - Unknown.
The NFL’s annual college draft ended recently. While it takes years to evaluate whether a team drafted well there is always this guarantee: Several teams will unknowingly sabotage their efforts to select the best player available because of an overreliance on data.
Talent evaluators often fall in love with a player’s height, weight or wingspan. They will drool when they see his time in the 40-yard dash or the amount of weight he can heft. But how effective are these statistics when it comes to predicting player performance?
How can statistics measure intangibles such as tenacity, instinct, determination, competiveness and work ethic?
In marketing as in sports, numbers never tell the entire tale.
I was reminded of this recently after reading a 2015 story headlined "Blinded With (Data) Science," by Marshall Lager. In it, Lager argues that in order to understand a market you have to look beyond the numbers to uncover the stories behind the data. It’s up to marketers to put statistics in context to discover the real meaning, significance and usefulness.
Lager credited late mathematician and consultant William Edwards Deming, who helped prompt Japan’s post-World War II industrial revolution, with this shrewd advice:
“Information is not knowledge. The world is drowning in information but is slow in acquisition of knowledge. There is no substitute for knowledge.”
So, how do you take the utmost advantage of data without falling into the trap of making decisions based on statistics alone?
Focus on the implications of your data.
Perhaps Lager’s story of another brilliant mathematician will help.
How Abraham Wald Used Insight to Save Lives in World War II
Abraham Wald studied in Austria but couldn’t find a university-level teaching position there because of discrimination against Jews. He ended up coming to America in 1938 at the invitation of the Cowles Commission for Research in Economics.
A few years later, during World War II, Allied bombers were being shot down with such alarming frequency that the British Air Ministry ordered a thorough analysis of the problem in an attempt to save planes and therefore lives. The Center for Naval Analyses began a damage assessment study on bombers returning from missions. Using a simple diagram designed by Wald, they documented damage to individual bombers to see where additional life-saving armor should be added.
The problem was that so many areas of the planes were damaged. Armoring all of the documented areas would result in a plane too heavy to fly.
That’s where Wald made a giant leap. He focused on the implications of the data, rather than the data itself.
With a flash of insight, Wald realized the planes they had been studying had returned from their missions.
This meant that those planes had been able to withstand even significant damage in certain areas and still fly well enough to get crew members safely home.
The planes that didn’t return were the ones they really needed to study. But Wald reasoned that those planes had most likely been damaged in places that returning planes had not been damaged.
Therefore, he concluded, the undamaged areas of the planes that returned were the most critical. If hit in those areas, the plane would be lost.
Thanks to this insight, his team now knew exactly where to reinforce the planes.
By flipping the model, Wald found the right context and solved the problem.
Ignoring the Real Story Can Be Costly
NFL talent evaluators watch endless tape of college prospects to determine whether the young athletes can be successful at the professional level.
Then comes the NFL combine, when (I’m not making this up) players are paraded around in their underwear while being evaluated by potential employers, several of which will become so enamored with how long a player’s arms are, how big his hands are and how high he can jump that red flags identified on tape will be minimized if not forgotten all together.
As a result, teams can end up inadvertently giving tens of millions of dollars to a kid who looks great when he gets off the bus but can’t play when he gets on the field.
The best coaches resist blindly embracing this follow-the-numbers approach.
Take Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, for example.
"I’ve got a lot of respect for analytics and numbers, but I'm not going to make judgments based on those numbers,” Tomlin told reporters in 2015. “The game is the game. It's an emotional one played by emotional and driven men. That's an element of the game you can't measure. Oftentimes decisions such as that weigh heavily in the equation."
Remember, whether you’re studying airplane damage, assessing college athletes or trying to put together the best marketing plan possible, statistics can be a key component to a successful strategy. But rarely are they the ONLY component.
It’s on you to uncover the meaning behind the metrics, so that you can find the right story to tell.
Looking for ways to get more meaning from your metrics? Download our Marketing Reporting Toolkit to help you tell the right story with your numbers.