Success in Baseball and Business: Data or Dumb Luck?

One of the great things about business is its relationship to competitive sports. My entire life I have had an affinity for the game of baseball. From the age of 3 to today I have actively played the game, and when I consider the amount of time I spent either playing or practicing, the game has consumed a significant part of my life.

This proved to be a hidden benefit, as baseball, like any competitive sport, prepares you in many ways for life. In my view, baseball may be the best preparation for a career in business. Consider that baseball is an individual sport couched within a team concept – very similar to business.

Baseball is a game primarily built on failure, forcing players to make constant adjustments to gain success. Think about hitting a baseball for a moment. The very best players in the history of the game succeeded in this quest only 30% of the time. In virtually any other endeavor this success rate would be considered extremely poor performance, but in baseball, it’s considered greatness; a level of achievement only possible through continued adjustment.

Baseball is a game of strategy with nuances too detailed to describe in this blog, but a game that requires one to know the strengths and weaknesses of each individual competitor — much like business. Although an individual game in many respects, baseball teaches and requires teamwork for ultimate success, and is a game where individual excellence is enhanced by team achievements. Above all, baseball is a game enmeshed in statistical data. With some exceptions, this data permits us to compare both individual and team performance over the centuries, much like business data is now being used for real-time in-game decision making.

While statistical data has been available to baseball teams and players since the inception of the game, it is only recently that we have seen this data mined and analyzed to more effectively evaluate a player’s value and to drive game time strategy. The same can be said of business data. As long as there have been businesses there has been data that has permitted business leaders to “keep score” as a means of evaluating success or failure. Much like historical baseball statistics, business data has typically been backward-facing, coming after the fact, making its usefulness to business leaders less than optimal.

This limited value associated with baseball and business data is a primary reason why managers, players and business leaders are often driven by gut instinct when planning and taking action. This got me wondering: In the new world of baseball sabermetrics and business big data analytics, does data trump gut instinct? Watching baseball these days it appears many think it does. Is there anything more annoying than watching a team shift their entire infield only to have the hitter dribble a weak grounder through the vacated hole? Frankly, this drives me crazy! While we haven’t quite seen this scenario play out in the business world, I can only imagine that the time is coming when business personnel will be quite content to do what the data tells them as opposed to following instincts that may have been honed over many years of experience. If that’s what the world of business is to become, count me out.

When I evaluate the world of business, it’s amazing to think that the successes we have witnessed historically were largely driven by gut instinct, determination and the unyielding adaptability of those involved. Did data play a role in such success? Maybe it did; however, it was likely a marginal player at best.

As I recount my own career and look back at some of the successes I was fortunate enough to be a part of, I have to admit that most were not based upon a detailed understanding and analysis of the data available at the time. Maybe it was just dumb luck! Of course, I’d like to think that most came through experience, a willingness to take calculated risks and a continual set of adjustments that ultimately created the right set of conditions for business to grow.

So, would I advise today’s business leaders to swing from their heels in the hopes they hit one out of the yard? Definitely not! In my experience, data has become a critical part of today’s decision-making. Access to quality data and its resultant analytics can be extremely helpful to any business leader desiring to make real-time course corrections in relation to an existing business and is even more useful in evaluating potential opportunities to pursue in cases where new business development is a necessity. Data when used in combination with the gut instincts that occur through years of experience can often be the magic elixir that spells the difference between success and failure. In much the same way as marketing is transitioning from an art to a science based upon data availability and analytics, this same transition is occurring across most business functions.

However, the marriage of gut instinct and data analytics is still in its honeymoon. In much the same way that some baseball managers and players are struggling to determine how to incorporate this new asset into their approach, business leaders are also questioning when it makes sense to be data-driven versus using gut instinct.

Time and experience will likely determine if data ultimately takes on a predominant role in the future of business decision-making.

For those who aren’t so sure about the future role data will play, I ask you, do you feel lucky?

Well, do you?

Dennis Amorosano is the president and founder of Dendog Strategy Insights LLC, a management consulting firm focused on strategic planning, new business development and go to market execution. Providing services in the areas of strategic business planning/execution, new business development, content creation/marketing automation and technology sourcing support, Dendog Strategy Insights brings 30 years of technology marketing, sales, product planning, software engineering, and professional service experience to help clients implement strategies that yield success.