Much has been said about the rise of data. We’ve all seen the statistics about how much data we make, and we’ve heard the stories of how data has revolutionized the world of business. The word “data” has become something of a mantra in the world of tech. Everyone wants more data, different types of data, and new ways to analyze data. Companies that barely had a computer a couple decades ago are hiring data analysts. There’s a prevailing sense that if one just had a bit more information, businesses could practically run themselves.

Data has proven its value again and again, but it’s not a magic bullet. It’s a dashboard, not a steering wheel. Furthermore, an obsession with data undermines the power of human intuition. The human brain can identify patterns, make decisions, and take action, all within a split second. It’d be foolish to discount its value, but many companies do just that. In truth, neither data nor human thought is perfect, but working together, they’re worth more than the sum of their parts. True insight comes from a balance of solid data and human interpretation.

The Value of Human Intuition

Intuition is a powerful thing, but it’s easy to discount. In an organization led by data, it’s hard to defend a decision based on instinct. Afterall, compared to a stack of data analysis, what value is someone’s gut feeling? More than you think. With data, you can measure every last detail, but not everything is measurable. Intuition can show you things that data can’t. Furthermore, intuition is often your best guide when you need to make a quick decision. In a business environment where seconds matter, a timely decision is often better than a “good” one.

No one is saying intuition can take the place of data, but in the end, human beings are the ones making decisions. You can’t defend a bad call by saying the data made you do it.

The Flaws of Human Intuition

No one can run a business on instincts alone. For one, the human mind has a limited capacity. It can only keep so much in mind at once. Even if you memorize every last bit of information, it’s hard to reconcile all of it at the same time. Secondly, the human mind is biased. It favors things it can see, or things that happened recently. A basketball team, for example, can go far on intuition alone, but against a team with a solid strategy, even the most skilled teams can fail.

The Value of Data

Data’s real value is as a measuring stick and as context for your decisions. It can tell you if your sales strategy works, if your supply chain is broken, or if your marketing efforts fell flat. In other words, data can tell you if something isn’t working. It also provides valuable context for your decisions, keeping you informed of issues that you might not have noticed without it. While you won’t always have time to crunch numbers before a crucial decision, keeping yourself familiar with the data ensures your best guess is an educated one.

The Flaws of Data

Data is objective, but its meaning is subjective. Data can tell you something is going wrong, but it can’t always tell you why. It also can’t tell you how to fix it. Worse yet, data can distract you from what’s really going wrong. Problems can arise when you assume what the data is “trying to say.” Though your conclusions may feel concrete, they’re still based on your human interpretation. In the end, the conclusions you draw from data are just that, your own conclusions. Without a healthy approach to data, it’s easy to misconstrue its meaning.

Finding a Balance

At their best, data and human intuition check the other. Data says what’s going on, and humans make decisions. After you make a decision, you check the data to confirm it was the right call. If it wasn’t, you try something else and measure that. It’s a ping pong match between intuition and data. One informs the other. There’s a Russian proverb that states one should “trust, but verify.” This is a good way to describe a healthy balance of data and intuition.

Examples of Data vs. Intuition

Consider customer interaction. Say you have a customer you’re thinking about calling. The data shows they ignore your marketing emails and they only visited your site once for a few minutes. Still, you remember meeting them at a conference, and they seemed a little excited. The data says they’re not interested, but your intuition says otherwise. You get them on the phone, and something changes. It turns out they don’t hate your product, they just hate using computers. You make a sale inside of five minutes. In this case, trusting intuition led to a positive outcome.

For another scenario, let’s look at management. As you walk the sales floor, one salesperson is always on a call, while another twiddles her thumbs. Your intuition says the first salesperson is doing a great job, and the second is lagging behind. However, the data paints a different picture. Though the first person books the most calls, they have problems converting. Meanwhile, the second salesperson manages to convert almost all her calls, despite not booking very many. The data corrects your initial take.

In these examples, a healthy balance of data and intuition lead to real insights. So the next time you need to make an important call, don’t just stare at a screen or go with your first instinct. Use intuition and data together.

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