Scandalytics: She Talks Fast And Acts Fast - But Should She Decide Fast?

Full disclosure #1:  I was late to the "Scandal" party. But am quickly catching up with this addicting, fast-paced ABC series that follows a woman-led crisis communications firm that swoops in to save the day whenever impropriety threatens the White House. I particularly enjoy the point in each episode when I can gasp “Scandal!” as the details of the case that Olivia Pope's firm must tackle next are revealed. (Full disclosure #2: I just completed Season One on Netflix, so no spoilers in the comments, please!)

As an analyst, however, one of the parts of the show that jolts me in a far less intoxicating manner is when the firm has to decide if they are going to take on a new client. When a scandal is brewing, they have to decide quickly, and their decisions are habitually made as a group (cool!), but based only on gut (what?).

From my experience, strategic business decisions do tend to incorporate at least some input from the main decision maker’s gut. The excitement of breaking new ground and the optimism that comes with taking on risk continue to be championed even in the face of big data. At what point will Big Data become as sexy as the Big Kahuna for informing big decisions? And will Big Data be the final straw that evens the playing field in business for men and women?

A March 2013 study of more than 600 corporate board directors published in the International Journal of Business Governance and Ethics finds “female directors are more likely to consider the rights of others and to take a cooperative approach to decision making in order to arrive at a fair and moral decision that benefits all parties,” as reported by HBR.

The article’s authors also reference how “the female brain’s integrative advantage can lead women toward maximizing solutions that aim for greater, more holistic outcomes,” and counsel that women prefer to explore the broader context before coming to a decision.

I would expect that if Olivia Pope’s female-led office practices group decision-making, it would be in character for them to conduct evidence-based decision-making too.

Is it because they are affiliated with a Republican president that they don’t have the equivalent of the Obama campaign’s predictive analytics masterminds on staff? Or is the emphasis on gut decision-making based on an assumption that data is still not fast enough or good enough to arrive in time for important, strategic decisions like who to take on as a client? Or is it simply that Big Data is not dramatic enough for TV?

No matter what the reason, I disagree. In the world of Big Data, getting the right data to the right people at the right time still remains one of the biggest challenges in analytics. That can surely be depicted in dramatic, suspenseful fashion.

In our world, outside Washington, D.C., tactical decisions like personalizing an ad for customers who have been to your Web site, or determining which ad network to shift dollars to for the lowest cost per lead, are increasingly automated through Big Data.

But strategic decisions that could throw an entire team in flux, like which clients to take on, still require leaders (whether male or female), to rely on their guts. Relying on our guts leaves room to introduce biases, including potentially discriminatory gender-based ones, into the decision-making process. One episode of "Scandal," for example, explored a plot where Olivia’s gut was wrong and gender biases put a family in danger.

As I start to watch Season Two of "Scandal," I’m hoping they will introduce a new character: a rogue analyst hired away from a fictionalized NSA to quickly parse the data needed to inform Olivia Pope’s team members on which clients to take on. And if they do, don’t tell me!

3 comments about "Scandalytics: She Talks Fast And Acts Fast - But Should She Decide Fast?".
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  1. Scott Brinker from ion interactive, inc., November 20, 2013 at 7:20 a.m.

    Hi, Karen. I haven't seen Scandal, but the sort of scenario you describe is one I find fascinating. What's the right way for executives to use data in big, strategic decisions that may have a black-and-white answer (e.g., take on this client or not) but have very fuzzy sources of data. What should the role of intuition be in those situations? (A question that probably doesn't have a black-and-white answer either.) In your hopes for Season Two of Scandal, what kind of data would that rogue NSA analyst ideally provide?

  2. Juliette Cowall from Godwin Plumbing & Hardware, November 20, 2013 at 11:32 a.m.

    "fail fast" is a strategy ... although that might not be appropriate when dealing with someone's reputation!

  3. Karen Bellin from Digitaria, November 20, 2013 at 12:19 p.m.

    Scott - obviously, I'm not a TV writer, but I think that in the fictional world of Scandal, Olivia Pope's team would benefit widely from having location data and call records from mobile phone carriers as well as web behavior data for individuals to inform their decision making. That team has no qualms when it comes to privacy!
    For now, I agree with Juliette, that in the absence of data and being short on time, leaders must be prepared to quickly course correct when going off gut.
    That said, the big data tide is rising (the technology to support it is becoming more affordable and scalable), and executives should start thinking blue sky, if they haven't always done so, about the data they would like to have to inform their decisions, because it may already be available.

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