An Important Insight from Sherlock Holmes about the Use of Data

If only we could figure out what to do next…

This is clearly not as easy as it looks. Smart people have been brought in to help a floundering company figure out that “what’s next” answer. The list of got-it-wrong-answers is a pretty long list. Think of the perpetual turnover of “new” head coaches in the NFL, or CEOs who come and go. (Remember the Penney’s wrong call of recent years?).

Getting the “what’s next” answer can be excruciatingly difficult. And people who were good at it one time may not be as good the next time.

A Scandal in BohemiaI’m reading A Scandal in Bohemia, the famous Sherlock Holmes story that provides maybe his best-known excerpt of all, spoken to Dr. Watson:

“You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”

But it is this excerpt that grabbed me this time: Sherlock Holmes has received a letter. It is “a mystery.” Watson asked “What do you imagine that it means?” Here is Sherlock’s answer:

“I have no data yet. It is a mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.”

In other words, we think we know before we actually know. And when we start deciding on and acting on what we think we know before we do know, we may very well act insensibly.

Sherlock, Watson, and their mysterious guest
Sherlock, Watson, and their mysterious guest

So, whatever else work consists of, it consists of this: Getting the data (getting the right data; getting the data right) before we act, so that facts lead to smarter, wiser, more correct, decisions and actions.


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