Death by Data vs Deciding

“The inherent flaw in analytics is that data don’t take into account the human element.”

–  Brian Ferentz, Offensive Coordinator for The University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team, in a superb long-form HawkCentral podcast with Chad Liestekow

Data is a tool — and used correctly it’s a dandy tool.

It’s not an end-all, be-all — and with the exception of God, I’ve not found an end-all, be-all in my life or career.

Ferentz has been a polarizing figure of late, magnified by the fact that he is the son of the head coach at Iowa.  He’s a really smart dude, like many major college coaches, however, and he approaches his job in many of the ways we should approach ours.  Remembering, of course, that we’re human, too, and subject to a mistake here and there.

This quote / part of the conversation occurs at the 83:85 point of the podcast and the context is set around a decision made in a game by a legendary NFL coach, under whom Ferentz (dad and son) have mentored.  The data said, “Do this!”  The human element contradicted the data.

You know what, for those of you not interested in listening to a three-hour podcast with a coach — here’s the deal.  A few years back, in a game between New England and Indianapolis in the NFL, the Patriots were faced with a 4th down — and the play card, the analytics, the data — they all said, “PUNT!”  In fact, I think it might have been in the “Punt, you idiot!” column on the play sheet.  The other team’s quarterback though, was one Peyton Manning, who had already engineered a 20+ point comeback in the second half of the game.

“If we give the ball back to Peyton Manning,” head coach Bill Belichick said afterwards, “we lose.”

So, flying in the face of the data, New England went for it.  They failed.  Manning got the ball back.  They lost.  It was worth the risk to have a shot to avoid the inevitable.

The fact of the matter is sometimes we win and sometimes we lose.  The data will always be with us, but we also have to read the deal, the momentum, the market and the intangibles – and especially the people.  Remember, too, as leaders, we have to accept that armchair quarterbacks will second guess us, whether we win or lose.

Ferentz says, “You can put too much on the math, and also on the human element.  That’s a cop out for coaches, either way.”  His point?  Leaders get paid to decide — and we have to have the courage to decide based on all the inputs available to us – and then to own the outcomes.




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