How Analytics Complement Leaders’ Experience

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in our annual gathering of client leaders. Working hard to be a good fly on the wall, I was able to benefit from amazing “lessons learned” shared by successful leaders in corporate, sports, and military organizations. At the same time, these leaders shared with their peers the growing pressure from increasing speed and complexity driving decisions. Pressures from the market, customers, competitors, internal influencers…and above all, the expectations of their own organizations and teams. All of these upping the temperature of their roles several degrees.

So why do some leaders in these situations look relaxed and cool, as if they’ve got a portable AC unit, reflecting confidence and positivity to everyone around them?

For years one sports example of this capability was Tom Brady, a quarterback with seven championships, six with the New England Patriots, and many victories achieved with drives in the final moments of the game. Why was Brady able to lead his team on so many successful last-minute drives? Why did he seem so calm and collected despite the pressure?! A phrase often used is slowing the game down; Brady’s ability to do this was attributed to his many years of experience, and having been in similar spots and knowing what to expect, he did not let the pressure get to him. While others made mistakes or allowed the pressure to negatively influence their decisions, Brady used the situations to achieve unbelievable success.

In reality, few of us, even those with Brady’s ability and commitment to learn and evolve, are likely to reach such a level of expertise beyond our peers. First, learning from experience is a long and painful process, one that requires determination and consistent support. I remember being told early in my career that I’d be “prepared to lead” after sufficient experience…and I remember thinking, “Exactly how much experience are we talking about?” Second, many learning experiences do not result in teaching great lessons or influencing positive direction. Finally, most of us live in increasingly complex and globally competitive contexts. Our experiences do not offer the breadth of insights required to feel confident and positive about every new challenge we will face.

Enter the new world of analytics. We’ve seen new capabilities offered to doctors, as tools like IBM’s Watson expand the potential global diagnoses for a set of symptoms. (Note: well-trained doctors, capable of evaluating the possibilities and deciding on a plan, are still required.) Teachers and trainers have begun to use survey systems to individualize development programs, leading to significant increases in learning impacts. And high-tech companies are using analytic data to predict product failures and reduce customer costs by predicting when to replace critical hardware, thus eliminating down-time losses. Every industry has begun to see advantages from leveraging data analytics.

For leaders, the impact on their capabilities can be similar to the above examples… more options to consider, better management systems, and improved strategic planning. But beyond this, analytics offer something much stronger to complement a leader’s experience. Quoting one of my favorite statements from last week, analytics help leaders face one of their biggest challenges today; how to “mitigate uncertainty by managing expectations.”

The speed and pressure from change and innovation is dramatically increasing the level of uncertainty felt in organizations. And the biggest influence on these pressures, felt by both leaders and their organizations, is the expectation that leaders have the answers to whatever challenges we will face. As New England Patriot players entered the huddle of yet another last-minute drive, imagine the confidence they must have had knowing there was a leader who had already succeeded in a similar spot: Tom Brady.

Of course, not every leader will have the been-there and done-that needed to satisfy a team’s expectations. And we have learned, even decision-makers without the necessary experience will act based on their limited knowledge and past efforts, rather than seek new insights (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow). One useful approach successful leaders shared during our event, to fight that impulse, is to invite a larger circle of experts into their decision-making process, expanding the level of expertise being leveraged. These leaders also shared that managing expectations is a leader’s ability to set progressive goals, recognizing successful stages in the journey rather than being defined too quickly by the ultimate goal.

But we also have seen analytics offer leaders greater certainty in their decisions by complementing their experience with strategic insights on their customers and competitors (and employees), as well as the ability to research actions taken by others who faced similar situations. Advanced techniques can also posit and test different scenarios and provide insights similar to actual experience. The result of these tools is the ability to create leaders who are (in a term suggested by the movie Moneyball) “Tom-Brady-in-the-aggregate.”

So when you see your leader looking calm and collected, despite knowing the chaos being thrown at your world, you may be looking at someone who is leveraging a lot more than just their own experience to help lead your team to success.

How Analytics Complement Leaders’ Experience was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.