Data vs. Instinct: Who will win the battle of the boardroom?

By Jo Harley, Managing Director of Purple Cubed

Back in 1964, Roald Dahl’s children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, foretold of a world where delicious chocolate bars and sweets were mysteriously created by machines and robots, supported by a small team of singing oompah loompahs. There was little need for humans, ‘nobody ever goes in… and nobody ever comes out.’

Fast forward to our modern day and this Willy Wonka style technology-led workplace is fast becoming a reality. Advances in artificial intelligence, big data and virtual reality, alongside the rapid evolution of digital media, have allowed super-fast check-in at the airport, direct communication with organisations and celebrities, and better analysis of both business and people performance. And whilst fears around the rise of technology have been voiced, with many leading thinkers concerned about the loss of jobs as robots infiltrate our workplaces, the benefits have been hard to ignore. Earlier this year, Forbes Magazine reported that businesses investing in big data would see double-digit growth by 2020. They also found that those focusing on people analytics, specifically, were twice as likely to have top quartile financial performance, make decisions five times faster than the competition and were three times more likely to successfully execute business strategy.

There’s been no greater impact from the use of big data in a business, than in the boardroom itself. Departments with the ability to evidence consumer behaviour, employee engagement, product development and returns on investment have allowed the conversation to move from merely reporting upon insight, to predicting and prescribing solutions to future business challenges.


With this influx of business data there come questions around the role of human instinct in business – a behaviour which the vast majority of business leaders have openly relied on over the years to help determine strategy, make decisions and drive business performance.

For example, fashion designer, Karl Lagerfield, swears only by using his instinct: “I don’t ask myself questions. I go by instinct.” In his book, Losing My Virginity, Richard Branson shares his secrets of success; one of which is his reliance “far more on gut instinct than researching huge amounts of statistics.” And Vogue editor in chief, Anna Wintour, who is recognised as the most influential woman in fashion argues that despite the research “you have to work from your instinct and feeling and take those risks and be fearless.”

In his 2005 book, Blink, Malcolm Gladwell argued that the increasing use of analytics wasn’t better preparing individuals and business, it was, in fact, “underplaying the role of instinct, or what the psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer dubbed ‘fast and frugal thinking’ – decisions we make in the blink of an eye.”

Yet nobody likes being wrong. And in a climate which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, being right is becoming increasingly more difficult. Decision-making has become more considered. Though some would argue we are now becoming too analytical and there is a real danger of ‘analysis paralysis’; hindering the accuracy and speed at which a decision is made.

In short, people are relying too much on data and the ‘tail is starting to wag the dog’. According to Ipsos Mori’s Head of Behavioural Science, Colin Strong, when speaking at the Purple Breakfast Club in October 2016: “Too many [people] think that when data is run through computers, the truth will just come out.”

“You can make data say whatever you want it to say” added Eugenio Pirri, Vice President of People and Organisational Development at luxury hotel management company, Dorchester Collection, at the same event.

Strong suggested that this over-reliance on data as a result of a “false sense of security”. Because there is a lot of data, many non-analysts believe it must therefore be highly accurate; playing into our desires as humans to avoid looking like a fool or incorrect when making our decisions. And so instead of beginning with instinct or reality, there is a tendency to start with the data an organisation has available.


So when it comes to instinct vs data; which really does rule the roost?

Sri Sharma, founder and managing director of the paid search agency, Net Media Planet, argues you cannot have one without the other. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper he explained: “I think of your instinct, your gut feeling, as a personal radar that is built up over the years. Often the data you analyse confirms the instinct of your personal radar.”

This is a view echoed by Vlatka Hlupic, professor of business and management at Westminster Business School. Writing for the October 2016 edition of HR Magazine, Hlupic argued that it wasn’t about people vs machines; instinct vs insight. That it was about “people and machines collaborating in harmony… Technology [and its outputs] was created by people to enhance lives.”

And so, it seems, in the battle of the boardroom, one cannot exist without the other. (Instinct must be used alongside insight to create the perfect equation.)

So when looking at a business how do you know where to start? Do you collect a whole load of data and analyse; waiting for something to happen? Or do you use your business instinct to prioritise areas and obtain data to support/contradict those notions?

“The question you must start with is what’s your business issue and how can you answer it. Not what analytics you have access to and what it’s telling you. Because there is a danger decision making is made by what the data tells you instead of using the data to empower you to question your judgment and your reality” suggests Strong.

In her latest book, The People Formula: 12 steps to productive, profitable, performing business, Purple Cubed founder Jane Sunley advocates “keeping it simple.” She says “Start simply and easily – decide what the question is, consider your gut feeling and then identify data which can either support or contradict that instinct. Use data to test your hypothesis, not set it.”

In summary, regardless of how far technology advances, it appears that we will always need someone, a real person, attempting to understand what is the reality and what is not based on their own judgment. Data cannot provide judgment, nor emotion, it can simply provide evidence. And so a business leader must make use of both the insight and their instinct in order to win out in the boardroom.


2018-01-31T14:45:27+00:00 May 5th, 2017|