dinosaurSeptember 15, 2013 was an interesting day for football fans. But you don’t need to be a football fan to enjoy thinking through – and second guessing – key tactical decisions made by the coaches.

In their own way, a few football decisions highlighted some things that are extremely clear to us. Namely:

1. If you want to make good decisions, you’d better be continuously gathering and evaluating key metrics; and

2. The “old way” of doing things – “the way we’ve always done it” – might be the optimal way, but it’s far from automatically so.

If you’re facing an important decision for which you’ve got none of your own data or experience to guide you and the well-worn path seems to point down one particular prong – so much so that you’re nervous about being second-guessed for going the other way – you’re at a “Dinosaur Crossing.”

When all the dinosaurs are marching one way, look out. It might be the right way but … well ….

NFL coaches routinely show up at dinosaur crossings. And that’s in part because they’re under huge media spotlights, spotlights that love to focus solely on outcomes – particularly negative ones. If a decision looks “aggressive” (read: it’s not what an “old-school” coach would be expected to do, i.e. it’s not the way all the dinosaurs are marching) and the actual result isn’t favorable, the media loudly criticizes the coach.

Frequently, however, a criticized decision was the correct decision at the time it was made, regardless of the actual outcome. Outcomes are critical, but they can be affected by all sorts of different factors – not the least of which being competent execution. Looking at outcomes in-and-of themselves is an insufficient way to grade decision quality.

The “right” decision is usually the decision that gives you the highest likelihood, the highest probability, of accomplishing the objective at issue. To identify the “right” decision, you’ve got to know the key metrics. It’s the same in marketing. You must be continually gathering and evaluating key metrics.

Before your firm just buys up a bunch of space in the Yellow Pages, or buys advertising on public benches, in the newspaper or on the radio, you’ve got to understand and evaluate the alternatives against your goals, your metrics, your acceptable cost/new client, and so forth. You can’t just default to what it seems like everyone has done before – sometimes the dinosaur parade isn’t just wrong, it’s deadly. You can get squashed.

And by “squashed”, it means that a path that might actually be right for a large firm might be a very wrong path for a mid-size firm, or a boutique. Moreover, even if you’re a conservative type who is looking for a conservative approach – sometimes the “safe” call isn’t the one you might think.

Consider a specific NFL example from September 15. The Carolina Panthers were 3 points ahead of the Buffalo Bills with under 2 minutes to go in the game, and the Bills have no timeouts remaining. The Panthers had the ball deep in Buffalo territory, and it was 4th-and-1. 2 basic options were at this Dinosaur Crossing:

1. Attempt a short FG, go up by 6 (instead of 3) if successful.

2. Go for the first down, attempt to gain 1 yard.

The “safe” option is …? Old-school football thinking – the dinosaur parade – would say #1, and that’s exactly what the Panthers did. Result: Bills get the ball, score a TD, kick the XP, win the game. (For fans of football analytics, a similar but not identical fact pattern occurred at the end of the Tampa Bay/New Orleans game, with Coach Schiano choosing to following the Dinosaur Parade – and also losing.)

What was the optimal call for the Panthers? We analytics folk will argue, based on probability tables (read: key metrics), that under those precise conditions, the optimal choice is to go for the first down. Why? Success would mean instant victory (running the clock out), and failure had the likely outcome of putting the Bills in a position where they would need to conduct a long drive to, most likely, either lose or tie the game with a FG – still allowing the Panthers a chance to win. Yes, a winning Buffalo TD would’ve been possible in a Panthers failed “go-for-it” attempt as well, but a TD would not have been required for Buffalo to stay alive – a FG attempt would’ve been a viable fallback. Instead, the Panthers took a FG, conceivably gave up field position (by having to kick off to Buffalo), and forced Buffalo into a situation where their only viable option was to go for a winning TD (with the extra point).

Under either #1 or #2, the analytics show that the Panthers were still very likely to win the game. A Bills victory was unlikely either way, but the analytics might’ve lead a truly risk-averse Panthers team to a different decision.

It’s the same for many of your own business decisions, particularly involving your firm’s marketing. The best decision to reach your particular goal, whatever that may be, is often hiding behind the data. Optimal decisions are not always self-evident, they’re certainly not always consistent with “what’s always been done”, and they’re frequently counter-intuitive.