Numbers Don’t Lie… but They Don’t Tell the Whole Truth

Numbers don't lie

Here’s the thing about data: it’s way overrated. If anything, the more data we devour, the more wary we should be that it holds the answers we seek.

Data is easily, and often, misused or misunderstood. Instead of mapping the short-cut to your success, data can turn into a detour.

Data is a valuable map of where you’ve been.

Data isn’t a valuable map for where you’re going.

There are executives who bow to the gods of data before they make a decision. You’ll never catch me doing that.

I always will rely more on my Tribal Knowledge and instincts long before I treat Dumb Data as gospel. I call it “dumb” because data doesn’t have a mind of its own—nor should it. Dumb Data needs smart humans to make sense of it. Otherwise, the numbers just sit there with no wisdom or experience to offer. It’s always about people, especially when numbers need to be crunched.

If that attitude sounds a little contrarian—especially from someone who built a 1,200-store retail operation from the depths of bankruptcy, rue21—there’s increasing evidence every day that I’m hardly alone in my healthy skepticism of Big Data’s magical powers.

I just learned that the British executive who now runs American bookseller Barnes & Noble (B&N) also keeps data in perspective. As reported in The New York Times, B&N CEO James Daunt has found great success in his homeland by radically remaking England’s largest bookstore chain into a more customer-friendly experience.

He showcased titles in the stores that were not heavily promoted by publishers, but that appealed instead to his instinct for what customers would embrace—think “Oprah’s Book Club.”

Mr. Daunt has let it be known that his job is to sell books, not return unsold books to publishers who push them on his stores. He didn’t need data telling him what to do. His Tribal Knowledge comes from years of book-smart experience and expertise.

Mr. Daunt also gives his store managers considerable leeway in running their shops. That way, each store can have a Unique personality that reflects its customer base, rather than a generic personality handed down from corporate HQ. Differentiation and Newness are the not-so-secret sauce of any well-run retail operation. To build your business, the customer experience must be Unique.

That’s what I did as CEO of specialty apparel retailer rue21. Sure, I could have looked at additional data, but of more interest and value to me was hearing what our field people and our merchants had to say.

Even though I oversaw many hundreds of stores across America, I told the senior staff that we would refer to each location not by store number, but by the name of its town. It helped us focus on the fact that no two stores are, or should be, exactly the same.

In Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer (ForbesBooks, 2019), one of the many “School of Fisch Lessons” I share with readers is “Dig Beneath the Data.”

Here’s an excerpt from that Lesson…

“Information is more than data. I relish knowing the intangibles (that don’t show up in hard numbers) that make a store a success or an underperformer. Maybe it’s true that numbers don’t lie. But they don’t always tell the whole truth either.”

For further insights from the book (now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and elsewhere), visit MillennialBabyBoomer.com.

Fisch Tales: The Making of a Millennial Baby Boomer