Data can only get you so far before your human ingenuity needs to kick in

Tony La Russa is a member of the MLB Hall of Fame as a manager. The man helped introduce video study and analytics to the game of baseball when he was manager of the great Oakland A’s teams in the late 1980s and 1990s. He understands the value of data, but he also gets that data only gets you so far before humans have to adjust to the situation in front of them.

In an interview this week with The Boston Globe, La Russa talked about the strengths and limitations of using data. “If you think your info is so strong that it can forecast once the game starts, on how it’s going to flow, how hitters and pitchers are going to react in game situations, then you’re foolish. It’s great stuff until the first pitch is thrown, and then what you have to do is invest in your managers and coaches,” La Russa, who is now a special assistant to Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, told the Globe.

LaRussa’s comment is a variation on the Mike Tyson quote: “Everyone has a plan until the first punch in the mouth.” The fact is the data can only get you so far. Humans have to take that data, use it and react to what’s happening around them. This applies to business as much as it does to baseball.

Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations David Dombrowski and vice president and special assistant Tony La Russa. Photo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox via Getty Images

Every week we hear about some company abusing its customers. The people working with the customers in this age of data collection have a ton of information about those customers on their computers. They know what they like and don’t like, what their interactions with customer service bots and customer service reps have been like. They have all kinds of information to paint a picture of how to deal with that person as an individual, but once that person is standing in front of them or on the phone, they need to execute, just like that baseball player. It’s really game on.

Some tools may help coax you into the right response, but if you are sitting with a customer, you don’t always have the luxury of checking the customer record. You have to use your skills to understand how to help or sell or do whatever you need to do with that fellow human being. All the data in the world sitting in your customer record won’t help your company deliver at that moment if you haven’t been properly trained, or just have the common sense and business skills to execute in the moment.

La Russa added, in the context of baseball, “The key to being successful is the coaching staffs who can adjust on the fly and put players in position to succeed,” he told the Globe. It’s not all that complicated. Managers need to put their workers in a position to succeed, regardless of the context. Of course, you want to give them data. Information is truly power in sports and business, but only if we are coached on how to use it and execute.

Sports and business management have more in common than you think. It’s all about motivation, training and execution. Data helps, but only if your employees are prepared to think on their feet and creatively deal with whatever comes their way.