A view from Sue Unerman

A better way to use data

Everybody likes to believe they make good decisions when they trust their gut instinct.

There was a heated debate on Any Questions? last month about the closure of a local maternity unit. It was replaced by a specialist unit 30 miles away.

There were stories, both on Any Questions? and its sister show Any Answers?, about mums who had either saved the lives of their babies because they’d driven to the local unit quickly or mums giving birth on the way to the specialist unit or in the car park because they couldn’t get there fast enough.

That’s terrible, isn’t it? The repeated insistence from some speakers that lives were actually being saved because of the new unit just didn’t have the impact of those stories. The presenter Anita Anand commented: "The plural of anecdote is not data." She implied that data is always more factual. This might be true, but that doesn’t mean it is more convincing or that we always know how to use it.

We’ve got lots of data to choose from now in media agencies. At the end of January, Sky Media hosted a conference for MediaCom clients on data and its usefulness in transforming everyday work (allowing the brilliant punning event title, for which I take no responsibility: "The things we do data day").

Sir Dave Brailsford, the principal of Team Sky and the man responsible for three Tour de France wins and eight golds at the London Olympics, told us some of his secrets in using data to overcome conventional wisdom and confound beliefs based on anecdotes and gut instincts.

Brailsford pointed out that there’s a blizzard of data swirling around us these days. The trick is to work out which variables you can detect and which will really make a difference. Be agile in trying them out and equally agile in dropping the irrelevant ones.

Take the heart-rate monitor, for example. Adopted by many as a heuristic in peak performance, it turns out it does not suit every athlete. Used too slavishly, it can mislead. How people feel is much more important that a 70 per cent heart rate target zone.

Brailsford advocates simplifying the data to two or three measures and then working towards progression of individual performance rather than a specific target. He also revealed that he monitors moods and emotional states in the whole team all the time, not just athletes training for races.

Monitoring performance and aiming for progression is very powerful. As soon as I started monitoring how much I walked with a pedometer (which doesn't need charging as often as a Fitbit!), I shifted from a mile-and-a-half a day on average to more than five miles a day.

What would happen if I monitored my mood in a similar way? Given that we know productivity and creativity are mood-dependent, could I improve on those too?

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom