Back to school: let’s re-learn data

by Martin MacConnol – Sep 01, 2020

The Tuesday after the bank holiday. There is a palpable sense of ‘back to school’ in the air. In London the day is bright and warm, but undeniably autumnal.

Autumn already: what have I learnt since starting this Covid-19 journey in March?

Well let’s put aside the trivialities (my new-found love of ironing quickly waned, as did my enthusiasm for home working). From a work point of view, the crisis has taught me one thing: to be very wary of data. This has come as a surprise. “If in doubt get data”, has been a mantra I’ve long held in high regard, but Covid-19 has made it clear to me how too much data can get in the way of good decision making.

For instance, some of my family live in the US and have a fairly Trumpian view of the world. They pepper me with messages downplaying the crisis. A recent one pointed out that 175,000 US deaths is only 0.0005% of the total population, and that far more people die on the roads or of heart disease every year, facts which go largely unnoticed.

On the other side of the argument I get messages from more liberal friends pointing out the dangers and risks of the pandemic. One from last week sticks in my mind: more people died in the US of Covid-19 during the Republican National Convention than did on 9/11. That makes it sound shocking.

Two stats. Both true. Both ‘data’ on the same pandemic. Each signposting a reality at total odds with the other. Where is the truth?

At the start of this crisis our government spent a lot of time saying that decisions would be ‘led by the science’. That sounded reassuring. But rapidly it became clear it was also wrong. It made the science sound as though it was homogenous. Whereas what quickly became apparent is that ‘the science’ isn’t homogenous at all. Get two scientists together and the chances are they will have varying views on everything from the likelihood of developing a vaccine to the benefits of using masks to the wisdom of schools reopening.

At work, I’ve realised I’ve seen this happen a lot too. Some clients want their programmes to be ‘led by the science’: that is by the data of audience research. It’s always made me pause. I like data, but I also subscribe to the Steve Jobs view that good companies should figure out what customers are going to want before they know it themselves… “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. And on top of that, as with the data on Covid, I’ve come to appreciate that marketing data charts are capable of bearing many meanings.

Good leaders realise this. Covid has taught me that you can’t be led by the science or the data. Sure, you can take it into account, but you have to interpret it. The best leaders, whether in government or business understand this. A ‘fact’ is just an indicator of a path, a leader is the person who takes the actual step.

Published Sep 01, 2020

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