Five Reasons Intuition is the Spark Plug That Makes the Analytics Engine Run

Debunking the Intuition/Analysis False Dichotomy

Picture of an engine and how the spark plug is important.

Ben Jones is the Founder and CEO of Data Literacy, LLC. He’s currently on a mission to help people speak the language of data. I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him about data literacy several times since I’ve started my own mission. Ben Jones’ book Avoiding Data Pitfalls has been the guide we never realized how much we needed. Ben takes us through seven pitfalls when analyzing data and provides advice on how to navigate through them. Looking back at my own career, I recognize myself in the mistakes outlined. I jokingly refer to it as a high school yearbook full of memories and cringe-worthy moments we would love to forget!

Head shot of Ben Jones, Founder of Data Literacy, LLC.
Head shot of Ben Jones, Founder of Data Literacy, LLC.

Ben’s conversational style makes it easy to navigate the pitfalls outlined. He prompts us to think about the data itself, what’s possible to analyze and infer from it. This serves as a well needed reminder to analysts and the audiences we educate. One much needed topic that Ben discusses is Pitfall 5A: The Intuition/Analysis False Dichotomy. He argues that analytics should not be replacing human intuition but that they should be complementing each other. In an interview with the Data Visualization Society, Ben explains that we’re doing data and analytics a disservice with the notion that it is going to make decisions for us without a human in the loop. Data can not replace our experience, ideas and notions. He goes on to say that “human intuition is the spark plug that makes the analytics engine run.”

Ben Jones’ comparison of human intuition being a spark plug is a great metaphor. Spark plugs play an important role in how your car functions. Without them that explosion would not be present in ultimately moving the crankshaft! Likewise, intuition is the spark plug that ultimately keeps your organization moving. Today most if not all organizations are analytics-driven. Analytics is the engine that gets fed by data and experiences, the fuel and air that it needs. The internal combustion that takes place when your spark plug, intuition, ignites data and experience is truly explosive!

Intuition Still Matters

Throughout my career, I’ve always admired leaders who grew up with their organizations climbing the ranks and acquiring knowledge of the business. Analytics alone can not solve business problems. It must be complemented with experience. I’ve lived this and can verify it. Ben outlines five reasons why intuition still matters:

  1. Knowing “Why” any of it matters in the first place. Having knowledge of the data points from a business context allows you to discern between the useful patterns in the data and the useless ones. Some anomalies found in your data are just that. Think about how much time and effort you can save your analytics team by zeroing in on your top customer segments and regions vs having to run analysis on every single combination. The more knowledge you have about the nuances of your data, the better it will be able to complement your intuition.
  2. Knowing “What” the data tells us and what it’s not telling us. Combined with your intuition. your data can help validate a hunch you’ve had about your business. The data can help you put facts behind your “gut feelings.” At the same time your gut feelings can help rein in an analytics deep dive by filtering any potential noise around the data that doesn’t coincide with business operations.
  3. Knowing “Where” to look next. Ben references medical researcher Jonas Salk in his book. Salk, the developer of the first polio vaccine, said, “Intuition will tell the thinking mind where to look next.” Salk chalked up his success in creating the vaccine to intuitive reasoning. He went on to explain that reason alone was not enough to solve problems. Intuition can be improved by reason or the hard facts but both are necessary to come to a solution. During a talk in 1991 he said, “At one time we had wisdom but little knowledge. Now we have a great deal of knowledge, but do we have enough wisdom to deal with that knowledge?” Salk’s comments are more relevant than they have ever been in these times where organizations have copious amounts of data and limited amounts of people doing the critical thinking to understand it. Having critical thinking and intuitive reasoning is imperative when making decisions especially with analytics.
  4. Knowing “When” to stop looking and take action. Analysis paralysis is a common ailment in the datasphere. It can be brought on by having copious amounts of data and vague business requirements. There are cases when the analyst can become overwhelmed with the numerous outcomes that can be derived even when requirements are present. In regards to the former, it’s important to have a goal in mind when creating analysis. Yes, there will be times when we will not know what exactly we’re looking for but staying grounded in the business will keep us on track.
  5. Knowing “Who” needs to hear and how to get through to them. I can’t echo to “know your audience” enough! Storytelling and the art of persuasion are two skill sets that need to be honed by everyone in an organization. Whether you need to tell your senior leadership that you’re on par with the strategic roadmap, finance that you’re hitting revenue numbers or marketing that campaign ROI is low, you have to know what data points to highlight and how to present these insights.
Diagram of data sketches with a light bulb in the center to express an “aha” moment.
Diagram of data sketches with a light bulb in the center to express an “aha” moment.

Ben Jones’ section on the Intuition/Analysis False Dichotomy is spot on and confirms a lot of what I’ve experienced in my career. Analytics and intuition have to complement each other. Intuition is the spark that keeps the analytics engine running efficiently. It takes an organization down a path of brainstorming and planning goals accordingly. It also guides the analytics team in what measures to use to evaluate performance. There are some leaders who understand this. Others need to understand that the data can help them dispel any hunches or anomalies that can be observed. Data teams can also leverage these hunches as a guide on how far to plunge in their deep dives. They can learn what the data is beyond the numbers and get a holistic understanding of what’s being analyzed. As technology becomes more advanced, I agree with Ben that the human mind will always be the spark that drives decisions.

Creating transcendent stories that share the importance of data narratives and how they impact our world. Twitter: @aldatavizguy

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