Blackbean Creative Cane Toad

Hockey, Cane Toads, and Doing the Correct Thing: The Value of Business Intelligence

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How’s that for a title? Sometimes, inspiration comes from unexpected sources. Actually, I’d argue it usually does. This article is a great example of that. It all starts with hockey.

I’m a subscriber to the Athletic, a premium sports reporting platform that’s made huge strides in the last couple years, poaching talent from all manner of ‘old media’ and offering a higher level of creative freedom to its writers. I can’t say enough good things about their coverage, and I think journalists in all fields should take notice. If you’re at all interested in sports, I encourage you to give it a shot. I’m not being paid to say that — I’m just a big fan.

Anyway, one of the best articles I’ve read from the Athletic is this Q&A with former NHL goaltender and current analytics guru Steve Valiquette. He’s the founder of Clear Sight Analytics, a startup that delivers unique analytics insights to the coaching staff for the Toronto Maple Leafs, among others. I won’t spoil too much from the article (seriously — give the Athletic a shot!) but the general concept behind Clear Sight really intrigued me.

As a goaltender, Mr. Valiquette is intimately familiar with shots on goal. He’s got first-hand experience facing tens of thousands of shots from all over the ice throughout his NHL career. What he noticed was that coaches were rewarding players for taking what he considered ‘bad shots’. It’s an old-school hockey attitude: get pucks to the net and good things happen. From Valiquette’s point of view, this was incorrect. Unscreened shots taken from the blue line had about a 0% chance of getting past him. If anything, these low danger shots could easily be gloved, allowing the goalie to either stop play or even pass the puck to his own teammates, creating chances headed the other way.

Conversely, screened deflections (a shot that is redirected off another player’s stick when the goalie has no clear line of sight) were high danger shots, comparatively hard to stop. Valiquette believes that the prevailing attitudes in hockey value quantity over quality, effectively wasting the majority of shots and shot attempts on very low danger scoring chances. His business aims to correct misconceptions for players and coaches, encouraging more efficient offence through superior shot selection.

That’s all a gross oversimplification, and I seriously encourage you to give the whole thing a read. But this isn’t a hockey article. It’s a marketing article. I’ll cut to the chase: after reading Valiquette’s Q&A, I couldn’t help but wonder if his message applied to situations beyond hockey.

What if preconceived notions about running your business or selling your product are wrong? More importantly, what if you could prove they’re wrong?

Valiquette analyzed over 250,000 shots on goal across hundreds of NHL games to prove his concept and build his analytical model. He can say with very strong confidence that an unscreened point shot only goes into the net about 3 percent of the time, while a screened deflection is ten times as likely to result in a goal. He’s providing nuance to the famous Gretzky quote: You might miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, but if you aren’t smart about shot selection, you’ll still miss 97% of the shots you do take.

Perhaps marketing and advertising are the same as coaching in the NHL: caught in the past and overly reliant on intuition and so-called common sense. Are we focusing too much on the shot clocks and not enough on the end result?

This is where the cane toads come in. As you may know, cane toads are a problem in Australia.

In classic ‘Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly’ fashion, the Australian government introduced cane toads to their shores in 1935, hoping they would eat the indigenous beetles that threatened sugar cane crops. Intuitively, it makes good sense. Without access to modern pest control methods, this approach seems logical, at least. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. Like, at all.

Cane toad populations expanded, from a couple hundred in 1935 to over 200 million(!) in 2018. They’re wiping out other species left and right, and their territory is expanding outward by as much as 60km/year. Ironically, they did nothing to solve the beetle issue. It’s an unmitigated disaster.

The Australian government had a problem. They decided on a solution to that problem, and they executed it to disastrous results. They did the wrong thing, and continue to pay for it dearly, nearly a century later.

Mistakes happen. Sometimes, through no fault of your own, you’ll bet on the wrong outcome and lose. Sometimes the odds are in your favour, but an upset occurs anyway. That’s life. But when it comes to marketing, how many wrong choices can you really afford to make? How many are acceptable?

If I can veer off topic again and talk a little bit about cosmology, I’d like to share one of my personal beliefs about the universe. I believe in certain unknowable absolutes. Our lives are dizzying, near-infinite nexuses of choice. If we were able to step outside ourselves and view each choice with a particular outcome in mind, we’d be able to identify the right choice for any situation, where ‘right choice’ refers to the action that best furthers our objectives. For instance, I believe that in any conversation, there’s the possibility of saying the exact right sequence of words to achieve your goal. It’s just wildly unlikely that you’ll ever say or do the perfect thing.

I think this personal philosophy can be applied to marketing. By focusing on decision-making and outcomes, working to avoid mistakes and suboptimal actions, and questioning convention, you can achieve greater success. You will never reach perfection, but if you set the right goals and work to understand the challenge, you can eliminate the ‘worst’ choices and push yourself ever-closer to business Nirvana. Understanding your challenge is key. It’s where business intelligence comes into play.

Business intelligence is a practice that’s really coming into its own in recent years. Put simply, it’s a set of tools and practices that analyze data to encourage positive business outcomes. In the same way that Valiquette analyzes the game of hockey, business intelligence analysts move their clients away from instinctive, conventional, or off-the-cuff decision making to a data-driven approach. To wax poetic, they seek marketing truth by eschewing convention. Data doesn’t care how everyone else is doing things. It doesn’t care how you think your business should run. Business intelligence analysis takes a measured and deliberate approach to problem-solving.

Obviously, business intelligence isn’t easy. Employing better business intelligence practices in your marketing efforts or internal processes generally isn’t cheap. The question shouldn’t be ‘How much will this cost my business?’, though. It should be ‘How much is the right answer worth to me?’, or perhaps even better: ‘How much do I stand to lose by being wrong?’.

In closing, I want to encourage you not to trust your instincts. Yeah, I said it. Humble yourself before the altar of data. You don’t need to become a data scientist to incorporate more strategy, deliberation, and intelligence into your business. You just need to be willing to listen to what your receipts, invoices, emails, and website traffic are trying to tell you. Embrace the uncertainty and complexity of every marketing situation, then challenge yourself to create certainty. Back up your choices with facts, figures, and intelligent consideration, or you might find yourself overrun with cane toads, or being outscored in a hockey game.

These extended metaphors might have gotten away from me.