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The 3 most dangerous words in business

Data is important, but it's no substitute for imagination, critical thinking and decision making.

5 min read


The 3 most dangerous words in business

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We humans like the dawn. The birth of a new day. The hope of a new year. The promise of a new decade.

There’s something about a fresh start that makes us want to look back at all that has changed and forward to all that will. No one knows why a year that ends in 0 seems more significant than one that ends in 3 or 7, but at the dawn of a new decade you’re sure to see both reflection and prognostication.

I recently read one prognosticator contrast the increasing value of big data over the coming decade with a statement by Elon Musk, who said (irresponsibly, argued the writer), “I do zero market research whatsoever.”

The pundit, author and former reporter Sam Walker, made a fair point when he asserted that “the volume of incoming customer data, combined with advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning, are helping businesses decode human behavior at a level that [a decade ago] humans could never see.” And I can imagine him shaking his head regarding Musk’s cavalier statement which, he said, “seems especially reckless in the age of Big Data.”

That’s true, as far as it goes. But that’s about as far as it goes. Data can indeed be powerful, and the bigger the data the broader the possibilities. But the fundamental nature of data will never change. Data can’t imagine. Data can’t invent. Data doesn’t “say” anything because data can’t talk.

Despite that, “the data says” (or some variation of it) is an oft-used trope in business. It’s usually pulled out as a point-prover. A conversation-stopper. A definitive, no-more-questions verdict on the topic at hand. Those three little words create a sharp dagger, not unlike the familiar creativity-killer, “What’s the ROI?” Other dangerous troikas include “the statistics show” and “the experts agree,” but they don’t quite carry the same edge as “the data says.”

Data is as valuable as it is plentiful. But data is also dangerous, because it can be manipulated to “say” just about anything. The data said New Coke couldn’t fail. The data said Absolut Vodka couldn’t succeed. The data said Thomas Dewey would defeat Harry Truman. And while data can tell you a lot about the behavior of somebody who lives at any given address, for example, it can’t reveal their hopes, or fears, or insecurities, or motivations.

Akio Morita, the founder of Sony, once said, “Our plan is to lead the public with new products rather than ask them what kind of products they want. The public does not know what is possible, but we do.”

Bob Pittman, a co-founder of MTV, said, “Staring at market data is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle. You have to figure out what the picture is. What does it all mean? It’s not just a bunch of data. There’s a message in there. Every time I get another data point I’ve added another piece to the jigsaw puzzle, and I’m closer to seeing the answer. And then, one day, the overall picture suddenly comes to me.”

Imagination — the stuff in which entrepreneurs at companies of all sizes traffic — can be fueled by data, but isn’t a product of it. It took creativity to invent computers, not vice versa. Data can’t measure the value of poetry, the depth of a mother’s love or the nature of the human soul.

Sometimes you can, as Musk’s critic puts it, “run experiments to determine the outcome.” But when you’re inventing what’s next, most of the time you can’t. It’s hard enough to measure the past; measuring the future is impossible. Data is directional, not deterministic.

To be fair, there is a danger that mere mortals like you and me mistakenly fancy ourselves as rare visionaries like Morita, Pittman or Musk and make reckless, ill-informed decisions. But there’s an equal danger that we’ll give into the temptation to sit back and let the data do the talking. We must always remember that some things are too mysterious to be reduced to metrics.

As the new decade dawns, we should be excited about the possibilities of big data, AI, VR and the promise of other scientific and technological advances. But they alone won’t create a magic carpet. If rugs ever do fly, it will be because someone first imagined they could. Regardless of what the data said.


Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is a co-founder of McKee Wallwork + Co., a marketing advisory firm that specializes in turning around stalled, stuck and stale companies. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 and 2018 as Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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