Rory Sutherland: Beware data, it can blind you to the obvious

In his first column for MT, renowned behavioural science expert and Ogilvy vice chairman Rory Sutherland, argues businesses that rely too heavily on data look clever, but often act dumb.

by Rory Sutherland

About 20 years ago, when I was first promoted to a position of minor managerial responsibility, Mike Walsh, who then ran Ogilvy in Europe, sent me a copy of a very small book first published in 1916. It’s called Obvious Adams.

At first glance, I was slightly miffed that Mike had sent me what seemed to be a folksy, almost hokey form of self-help pamphlet - rather than marking my elevation with, say, a subscription to McKinsey Quarterly. But I am endlessly grateful that he sent me the book, since the lessons within its 40 short pages have been priceless.

 The author’s central point - one perhaps even truer today than in 1916 - is that businessfolk instinctively favour complex explanations that make us sound clever, when a better solution may lie in something seemingly trivial or banal.

Often the very best insights and ideas are like "The Egg of Columbus” (Google it). They are obvious, but only in retrospect. Once revealed, they seem self-evident or absurdly simplistic, but that does not prevent their significance from being widely overlooked for years until some latter-day Obvious Adams has the temerity to point them out.

One curse that arises from professional services firms being paid by the hour is that we feel implicitly obliged to produce work of needless complexity as evidence of effort, when the best return on time often comes from simplifying things, or wresting from the reams of available data those few pages that really count. 

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