I am not a data-driven person. I don’t get my kicks from forensically going over spreadsheets with a fine-tooth comb. I am not excited by graphs displaying information like an enthusiastic, multi-coloured lie detector test. I am not encouraged by percentages, statistics, pie charts or any other form of fact delivery… and that’s a fact. 

When I have an essential decision to make, I go with my gut. Doing this has led to the best and worst things in my life. It has won medals for myself and my team. My gut told me that my wife was the woman I would spend the rest of my life with, and our guts told us when the right time to start a family was. I want to clarify that these are all good things. They are not, of course, the mistakes I am talking about; they are to follow. 

Following just my gut has meant that I’ve made entirely wrong decisions. It has led me to ignore the evidence. Missing the data has lost me hockey championships. It has delayed business progress. It has meant I have failed when I should have succeeded. 

You can’t just trust your gut; otherwise, you may become impulsive and reckless. 

But you can’t just trust the data, this is for many reasons, but mostly, as I have previously stated, I think it is boring. 

There must be a middle ground. In this week’s blog, we will explore how and where to find this happy place in the confusing jungle of the business world. We aim to find quiet in the chaos, and we hope to discover balance in an unbalanced world. We hope to go from frustration to innovation. 

My name is Andrew SIllitoe, and my gut tells me you’re ready for me to get on with it. So I will.   

Different leadership styles exist because different leaders exist, it is as simple as that. No matter how many things we all have in common with other leaders, similar aims, the same struggles, a shared drive, we are individuals who have our way of doing things. Although I like doing things my way as a business leader, I have learnt that a one-man-band can’t create as much noise as a whole orchestra. 

When I was the Team GB Headcoach, gut-led, headstrong, convinced I knew the right thing to do was, the Assistant Coach used data. He looked at the whole picture. He examined the past to prepare us for the future. This often used to grate on me. We got on well personally and professionally, but our differing attitudes on building the best team caused small cracks in our otherwise pristine team. 

Of course, you know that I am not a “my way or the highway” type person, and I know that the assistant coach wants the same things I do, to win and win well, but we were going about it differently and sometimes unhelpful ways. 

If you have ever tried to build a house, but every time someone lays a brick down, you immediately pick it up and throw it into a pile of bricks somewhere else; you will know that the house can’t get built. This is sort of what is happening when two leaders are at loggerheads. The secret to success comes when you marry the different leadership styles to create the best of all worlds. 

This is not “camel by committee”. This is “triumph through trying to be better at leadership by taking on other people’s views.” Not as catchy, sure. But certainly more effective.

My team and I have recently started using a Net Promoter Score or NPS. As I’ve said, this sort of data gathering acronym is not usually my go-to resource, but we have decided it would be helpful as a team. As a leader trying to take other people’s opinions on board, I agreed. 

An NPS is a way of getting feedback quickly. This feedback, in our case, is coming from participants in our courses and our Mastermind. The results we received from the NPS were surprising. They were essentially the opposite of what I was expecting to see. We felt larger groups allowed for a more fulfilling workshop. The data suggested people felt more comfortable in smaller groups. We are sure that online meetings are the way forward. The data indicates that nothing beats an in-person talk. This is the opposite of what I was expecting to find. And that’s why I wanted to talk about this subject in this week’s blog.

Data doesn’t always tell you what you want to hear. Perhaps that is why I’m not particularly eager to use it. Maybe that is also why I should use it more.

There are some areas of life where you get instant, honest feedback. For example, if you have ever baked a cake and mistakenly used 250 grams of salt instead of sugar, the feedback from the guests at the table will be immediate and damning. 

If you are listening to a singer on a reality television show and can’t quite reach the high notes, and the sound you hear could almost shatter glass, the reaction you give to hearing this “nails on a blackboard” equivalent is instant. But in business, it is different. Often we have to wait to see how well our ideas have worked out. Sometimes we have to wait even longer to get the feedback we desire. 

If Henry Ford had listened when the data suggested people wanted to keep riding around on horses and carts instead of cars, the world would be a very different place. It might be fair to say that if Ford hadn’t ignored the data and carried out his revolutionary car development, most of us wouldn’t be here today. Not because we all live by cars, but the chances of your parent’s meeting have increased dramatically by the ease of travel.

Steve Jobs similarly ignored the data that told him that people only wanted to read books made of paper. They could be nonfiction, fiction, full of pictures, just text, hardback, paperback, best sellers, modern classics or underground releases, but the thing people would never be interested in, according to the research, was an electronic book. 

If Jobs had listened to this overwhelming response, he might not have invented his e-book. It is predicted that by 2023 the e-book user base will pass 1.1 billion users. Sometimes, the data can stop us from doing something our gut tells us is right. And it could stop us from changing the world.

Now call me old fashioned, but I still enjoy a book from time to time. And I mean the original paper publication. Just as I enjoy putting a record on and hearing a whole album as the artist intended from start to finish. I also enjoy going for a walk or a bike ride. These prehistoric past-times still bring me joy.

But so does streaming a film or a tv series, so does driving cross country or occasionally flying in an aeroplane for a holiday or a business trip. So does streaming music on the go. It doesn’t have to be either this or that. We are lucky enough to live in a world that caters for traditional and forward-facing activities. Full disclosure, if they reduced the amount of choice on Netflix, so it made selecting a film easier, I wouldn’t be mad at them.

Trusting just data or our gut is like flipping a coin. We have about a 50% chance of being right. Those chances are dramatically improved when you have asked the right questions, collected the data properly, interpreted it correctly, and it aligns with what your gut is telling you.

The sweet spot is where data aligns with intuition. 

Once a leader has gathered the data, they need to trust their gut and listen. I have found that the more I listen, both to my body and my team, the more chance we have of success. We need to be more open-minded, open to suggestions and realise that there are different ways to reach the same goal. But as Tim Minchin once said, “if you open your mind too much, your brain will fall out”. I think this expression goes some way to express how I feel about data versus my gut. Yes, trust your gut, yes, look at the data, yes, combine the two but remember that you’re on a journey through all of this. Business is ever-moving, ever-changing like a river. But unlike a river, we mostly wear suits…or do we? I better check the data on that.

I hope my blog has allowed you to reassess what might be holding you back. Through sharing my personal stories of trials and errors, I hope that you can have fewer of the latter yourself. And finally, here is the only bit of data I am always interested in remembering. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. 

I’m Andrew Sillitoe. This is the Andrew Sillitoe blog, and my gut tells me it’s time I wrapped this up. Also, my wife has messaged me to say it’s my turn to cook dinner tonight, and I’d forgotten, so, yeah. It’s a bit of data and a bit of my gut. 

Thanks for joining me. See you next time.