Photo courtesy of Daniel Hjalmarsson

If you want to be more data-driven, start with houseplants

In today’s world, most of us believe using data to drive our business decisions is crucial to success. However, believing data is important is not the same as having a well-working data-driven system.

In order to be data-driven, you need access to the right data, but more importantly, you need the right attitudes and behaviors to use that data wisely.

I’m focusing on those latter pieces here, the attitudes and behaviors, using an everyday example of houseplants to show how becoming more data-driven is easier than it seems. I’ll show you an approach you can apply, no matter your role. All you need is focus.

What does it mean to be data-driven?

To be data-driven, you look to the data itself to inform a decision rather than using intuition and personal experience. Put another way, It’s what scientists call evidence-based decision making. You look at what worked before and figure out how to apply that knowledge in a new context.

You, like all of us, are on a continuum to being ever more data-driven.

You can’t ask, “Am I data-driven?” and get a yes/no answer. It’s not like you wake up one day to being data-driven, and before that you weren’t.

Instead, we’re each somewhere along a continuum, let’s say a scale of 0 to 100. Some of us are further along than others, that’s ok. We have to start somewhere.

Seeing it as a progression, frees you from a perfectionist mindset so you can continue to grow and learn. An experimental, development-oriented attitude gives you the faith you need to learn and improve.

To become more data-driven, you need two things: to ask clear questions, and to look at the data.

It’s that simple. Let me show you how.

Houseplants can teach you how to use data wisely.

I love plants. I have many in my Brooklyn apartment, and most are a common ivy, the kind you buy at most grocery and corner stores.

When I first got my plants, I cared for them using semi-distracted common sense. I watered them, but not consistently, I didn’t pay attention to where they sat, the fertilizer I did or didn’t use, etc.

Not surprisingly, they didn’t as grow as fast as I wanted. They lost their lushness and became stringy within a few months. When I bought them, I imagined I gorgeous, thriving leaves filling my apartment walls.

I wondered if I could take the approach I use to teach people about data in marketing to my houseplants and get positive results I wanted, so I did an experiment.

  1. Get clear on what you want by asking clear questions.

I made a choice. I had a clear image of what I wanted: vibrant, fast-growing plants that hang over my kitchen cabinets so it feels like I’m cooking in a forest. Having a written out, clear image of my future state enabled me to stay focused on my objective. The same works for you. All your data will do is help you get there.

2. Assess where you are today.

Like I said above, the ivy grew smaller, further-spaced out leaves once it arrived in my apartment. I took photos of the plants after they settled in. The images gave me a clear sense of where I was before I did my experiment. This is similar to your baseline or looking at your overall business performance related to your objective.

3. Define what might be affecting your current state.

I identified a few factors affecting the lushness of my plants: watering frequency, fertilization method, soil type, light exposure, etc.

This list helped me figure out things I could change to improve the lushness of my plants. It provided a set number of items I could could add to down the road. For example, since this is still an ongoing project, bugs could end up affecting my plants in the future. Having an initial set list gave me a starting point and also reminded me that there were things I’d uncover as I went.

In a more complex environment, I’d use this analogy so you don’t try and generate a comprehensive list. Instead list off what you know and keep adding to it in time. Again, it’s a progression, not a perfectionist’s game.

4. Pick one thing to change and give it time to take effect.

You’ll recognize this step from any science class, where you vary the control and test groups for a research project. This is also called A/B testing. For the plants, I decided I’d water them more frequently to start. This was the easiest thing I could control, and also the cheapest.

My advice to you, start with low-hanging fruit, even the obvious stuff.

I chose to change the watering frequency for all my plants rather than a handful. I was confident the conditions of my apartment were otherwise consistent, so I knew comparing my future state to my baseline would work here.

In most cases, keeping a control and a test group is helpful, per typical A/B testing guidelines. I would look for specific tools to help you in more complex environment.

5. Watch and see what changes.

It might be nothing, it might be small, whatever it is, notice it. I stuck to the more frequent watering for 4 weeks. The 3–4 leaves each vine produced were larger and less waxy. But from a distance, the plants didn’t have that vibrant, bushy feel I wanted. I went back to my list of factors and picked something else. I meanwhile continued watering them at the same frequency.

This is a place it’s easy to get caught up with your preconceived attitudes and wonder why things aren’t immediately getting better. Have faith. Keep trying things. Stick to the methods, they work.

6. Try something else. Keep it iterative.

I decided I’d try fertilizer this time, so I bought a bottle and followed it’s instructions for a month. I didn’t see the change I expected, so I did some research. I realized I was about 2 weeks away from seeing significant change. I kept up the watering and the fertilizer.

Again, it’s hard to know what to keep doing and what to stop doing. Like how I did some research to get context for my expectations around change, you might need something similar. This is also a good spot to ask for help from people who know more than you.

7. Note what’s working & keep doing it.

The fertilizer & watering combo worked! I started getting full, bushy leaves, and they started coming more frequently. So I kept that up for a few months. Low and behold, I had a vibrant forest taking over my kitchen.

You can use this approach in other contexts.

Growing plants is pretty easy. The rest of life is not — but the simplicity of plants can help make using data in the rest of life easier.

I followed 7 steps, but like I said, what matters most, is the question I asked, or the objective I had, and looking at the data. Let’s check out a summary:

Ask — then observe, hypothesize, and act

How does this approach help you become more data-driven?

It’s clear, it’s simple, and it’s cyclical. Being data-driven is a progression. As a result, you need a built-in way to integrate the data into your day-to-day. You also need a way to make sure you’re learning more as you go. This approach allows you to do both.

At the start, I said that our attitudes and behaviors are more important than the data itself. Following a simple approach like this, and sticking to it, helps prevent you from reverting to habits or intuition. Sometimes we revert to our old habits and behaviors without even realizing it, so a simple level of rigor will help you, day after day.

Go ahead. Become more data-driven. Ask clear questions and look at the data. That’s it.