Don’t Forget the Small Data

Mailboxes in a general store on Martha's Vineyard. November 2014.

Mailboxes in a general store on Martha's Vineyard. November 2014.

So much flies at us that we miss the vast majority of it.

Zip, zing, swish: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, SnapChat, Google+, LinkedIn, e-mail, family and friend and colleague interruptions, text messages, advertisements, meetings to cover data-filled PowerPoint presentations, reports covering dozens of pages. Spreadsheets spanning dozens of tabs.

Heck, even regular mail. Telephone calls.

Far too easily can the wrong piece of information distract us—especially if it loudly and proudly bashes into our consciousness. Far too easily can we miss the important stuff—especially if it flies a little outside our normal fields of vision.

When feeling overwhelmed with information and unsure of where to look or what to trust, it helps to stanch the flood, quiet the cacophony, and think through how we can really get to the crux. Sometimes, as with so many things in life (including leadership and business savvy), the quieter, less obvious sources prove the most valuable:


You prefer nonfiction? Fiction seems frivolous?

Think again.

As I’ve said before, fiction often has more truth than nonfiction. If you want to understand a culture, a place, a way of life, a different manner of thinking, and alternative perspectives, you couldn’t do better than to read stories written by people who live it, breathe it, and think it—especially if they’ve written them for a native audience.

Through reading stories written by people for their people, you’ll learn more about your subjects than you will conducting surveys and interviews, trying to decipher Twitter feeds, and reading sociology studies. In stories told to their peers, people don’t filter, they don’t sugar-coat, they don’t over-analyze, they don’t simplify. You’ll get the raw, real, straightforward insight you need.


Yes, it repeats. Maybe not in exactly the same way, but something happening today has happened before today in one incarnation or another.

Take a deep breath. Step back from the puzzle. See its bigger pattern. Find similar historical examples. Craft case studies. See learning lessons.

Develop game plans.


In my series of screeds about education, I wrote that I would rather hire someone taught the principles of a subject and given training in critical thinking and knowledge acquisition than I would hire someone with a technical skill that, given today’s constantly evolving workplace, will quickly grow obsolete.

When unsure of a course of action, go back to the basics: Review the fundamental principles of the area of business in question and determine how to apply them to your situation.

For example, FrogDog does strategic branding and marketing. Although the tactics may evolve over time—including all the social media and digital advertising I mentioned earlier in this post—the principles of marketing, of what convinces people to do something or to think about something differently, have stayed the same for decades, if not centuries. Perhaps we apply the principles via newfangled methods, but what we apply hasn’t changed all that much.

We’ve grown overly mesmerized by the idea of “big data”—the massive amounts of information collected from myriad sources that we can’t yet figure out how to crunch. Even if we could determine how to crunch it, we could analyze gazillions of bits in umpteen ways and still get nowhere, unsure with how to interpret what pops forward and stymied by what to do with our findings.

Don’t forget: The small data has worth, too. Maybe even greater worth than the bigger, more voluminous kind.

What information sources have you overlooked?

P.S.—William Pora suggested the topic for this post. You can find his blog here and his Twitter feed here. I’d recommend following both.