When you’re overwhelmed by an onslaught of big data stop and answer three essential questions: What? So what? Now what? This will help you get a handle on the data, think about its implications, and turn your insights into actions.

Outdoor cafe in 30 degrees and snow!


“What” is about facts. As many people, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, have said, “You are entitled to your own opinion. You are not entitled to your own facts.” A fact looks the same from every perspective and through every filter. The data itself should not be up for debate. Asking “what?” is a search for truth.

Fact: The average temperature in Paris is warmer in summer than in winter.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Andrew McAfee and Erick Brynjolfsson suggest what’s new about data today are its volume, velocity and variety. Much of the new “big” data is the same as the old data. There’s just more of it, allowing for much more refinement. Additionally, the data is available much faster. New data streams from devices like cell phones and websites simply didn’t exist before. The critical element here is to know “what” data to collect and examine; otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.

So What?

“So what?” gets at opinions. What does that data mean to you? What conclusions can you draw from the data? This is where you tie Big Data to meaningful analysis and insights to help you make decisions.

Conclusion: People in Paris will spend more time outdoors in summer than in winter.

Matt Ariker, COO of McKinsey’s global Consumer Analytic Practice, explained in his recent Forbes article the importance of having a crisp business hypothesis to test. “Destination thinking” –is crucial for helping you figure out “what” data to go after in the first place. With your destination thinking in place, you can search for a statistical relationship between data and results. Without it, you run the risk of analysis paralysis because there is always more data to analyze.

Ariker told me “you can’t use Excel on (Big Data),” but that there are all sorts of new tools like Microstrategy, Business Objects, QlikView and Cognos enabling everyday people to ask and answer questions. Advanced users have new tools as well like Aster Data and Hadoop to answer Big Data questions with ease.

Now What?

“Now what?” turns your conclusion into go-forward actions. In line with your conclusions based on the facts, what is your recommendation for what should be done next?

Indicated Action: Employ more waiters for outdoor cafés in Paris in summer than in winter.

Paris Exposition: Eiffel Tower Restaurant, Par...

One of the keys to making this work is linking facts, conclusions and indicated actions. For many, this is not a new idea. A long time ago, statistician, W.E. Deming said, “In God we trust. All others must bring data.”  Culture is the only sustainable competitive advantage and the emergence of Big Data makes embedding fact-based decision making in your culture that much more important.

This is goes to the heart of The New Leader’s Playbook: BRAVE leadership

We’re all new leaders all the time. So remember all the time that leadership is about inspiring and enabling others to do their absolute best together to realize a meaningful and rewarding shared purpose. With that in mind, BRAVE leaders pay attention to their Behaviors, Relationships, Attitude, Values, and Environment – all the time.

Understanding the ever-changing environment means appreciating Big Data and continually reevaluating what, so what and now what. If you don’t figure out how to turn the new types, amounts, and tools of Big Data to your advantage, someone else will use them against you.