When Unpredictability Becomes A Competitive Advantage

The big data revolution has proven masterful in allowing us to achieve new standards of efficiency, and helping to guide us through the murky world of decision making. But it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that everything has a counterpoint.

Despite the pop culture bluster around data, what I’ve observed is that many leaders are avoiding blame by letting the numbers dictate their decisions. That is to say, they’re using data to justify staying with the pack, meaning our newfound ocean of intelligence isn’t helping us to be different, it’s proving potent in making us one of the herd.

But the objective is to be the needle, not the hay stack.

The outlandish artistry of soccer is being diminished as players now refuse to shoot the ball in order to test the goalie from a more high-percentage area of the field. Similarly, ‘best practices’ have destroyed any semblance of creativity in website design, or the show structure of podcasts. And just take a look at how astonishingly similar the logos of this group of iconic luxury brands have become:

As a football coach, data may provide me with intelligence that proves useful in individual player development, or certain in-game scenarios, however over-reliance on data-driven insights can erase those advantages in an instant.

The more predictable we are, the more that unpredictability becomes a competitive advantage.

And we seem to be at a point now where going against the data may be the most effective course of action.

Watch this short clip from the mid-70s era Netherlands soccer team. It looks like defending you’d see at an Under-9s level, but in reality it is an extremely coordinated attempt at shock and awe — disrupting and overwhelming the opposition. Its beauty is in its unpredictability.

The opponents are stunned because Dutch players aren’t in their ‘traditional’ positions, meaning the entire structure of everything they’d learned growing up (plus their game plan) was now out the window. All of the data the opposition players had gathered suggested that you’re not supposed to have six defenders charging at you the second you receive the ball — This isn’t how football is played!

In a more recent example, Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson iced Chicago Bears kicker Cody Parkey in the final seconds of their NFL playoff game. Statistically, it doesn’t help to ice the kicker (call a timeout just as the kicker is about to attempt a field goal) but Pederson’s judgment call resulted in Parkey missing a last-second field goal to win the game.

Pederson went against the data, and won.

The lesson for us all is that we need to question whether data is making us different, or the same. If your aim is to be mid-pack, sticking to the numbers is going to serve you well for the next couple of decades. But if you’re interested in being remarkable, there’s simply no advantage to glean from being the same as everyone else — especially in an age where there’s more competition than ever before.

Hilariously, in the age of data, being unpredictable is now the best way to get ahead.