Crunching the numbers can expose myths

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine’s Freakonomics column, and one of my favorite books of the year, both remind me that a careful examination of data can dispel long-held myths. Neither is directly related to a particular marketing challenge. But they both inspire me to continue to goad my clients into thinking beyond the obvious. We can seize a strong competitive advantage by assuming nothing and testing our premises whenever possible.

The Freakonomics article is ostensibly about soccer and an odd correlation between player excellence and the month that player was born. In analyzing data about the birth months of some of Europe’s best soccer players, it was found that they were born far more than you would expect in the first three months of the year. When researchers looked deeper, they realized that a logical explanation is that children born in these months were exposed to more months of coaching in their schools — more repetition, more chances to excel.

It suggests that the power of the Two P’s of practice and passion — as opposed to simply having “raw talent” — is far more important in excellence than is commonly believed. Thus the title of the Freakonomics article: “A Star Is Made.”

If you know me, you know I care little about sports. But after reading Moneyball by Michael Lewis, I was so inspired I bought three copies*. One to keep, one to pass around to co-workers, and a third to give to my father as a gift. The message of the Freakonomics article was that stars are made, not born. Similarly, the message of this book, about the unlikely, data-driven success strategy of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, is: “A winning baseball team is made, not bought.”

Read the book, and marvel at how Billy Beane, the general manager, refused to believe the group think of baseball scouts and the status quo. He wouldn’t listen to them when they told him how to identify promising players for his under-financed, under-performing team.

It’s a great read, and another reminder that looking at the data instead of listening to the way things have always been done can pay huge dividends.

*Thank you Bret Stasiak, my boss from my BVK/respond360 days, for letting me know about this wonderful book!