5 Takeaways on Interpreting Data from the National Championship Game

Athletes and coaches love the bottom line of a game. You win or you lose. The winner is clear. Usually.

This past year college football addressed a long-standing challenge that many of us in business face. Yes, you won – but how did your win compare to the competition? What do the results really mean? Or to college football fans, who is the real national champion?

College football learned that a win-loss record wasn’t enough to determine a national champion. The competition was too uneven. Win-loss results were simplistic and some conferences seemed to always have the edge.

It was time to level the playing field and make better decisions. By infusing data and information with human interpretation, the College Football Playoff Selection Committee was born.

In 2014 an esteemed Selection Committee was created – a blend of knowledgeable football experts: coaches, student-athletes, college administrators, sports journalists and sitting directors of athletics.

This group began their interpretation of results mid-season and after incorporating new information each week ultimately determined the final four play-off teams in early December: Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State and Florida State.

We can debate the Selection Committee’s rationale (just ask any TCU or Baylor fan), but they took it well beyond bowl matchups or just win/loss records. They blended data with knowledgeable interpretation – a skill needed in business today to not only assess results, but also contrast and compare talent.

Here are five takeaways courtesy of college football and the Selection Committee:

Translate data and information into sound decisions.
When contrasting performance and results, a simple metric often isn’t enough. As an example, comparing this year’s sales results vs. last year’s to determine your top sellers or the best division leaders misses too much. Competition in a market, impact of an industry surge in one geography or a restructure can change everything and should be reflected in not only plans but in assessing results.

Find knowledgeable interpreters.
Wise human interpretation is needed from experts who can see beyond basic metrics and interpret to sound conclusions. Notice that experts is plural. This blend of experts understand the subtleties beyond the numbers and know first hand what it took to realize these results. As an example, recognizing that while your business results look stellar the broader market trends would say otherwise.

Create diversity in perspective.
The selection committee has athletic directors, former coaches, players, sports writers and even a former Secretary of State. The group size of 13 and the multiple perspectives make it difficult for one person or point of view to dominate. The selection committee background material states the committee is “the right size – not too small or too large.”

Champion transparency and clarity.
Even if you disagree with the decisions made (and someone always will), the process was clear. The selection committee was introduced with transparency on how decisions will be made. Reporters were invited to attend a mock selection to understand the process upfront. The process was as transparent as possible while recognizing that individual judgment was certainly applied.

Don’t underestimate being in a room together. 
During their ranking period, from late October to early December, the selection committee met in person every Monday and Tuesday. This was obviously done to enable the need for discussion, debate and interaction across the committee – a goal difficult to achieve in groups through calls or video conferencing. Given the roles and schedules of the committee members, this had to be a very high priority and essential to success.

Using data to assess business results and talent is an inexact science. Yet, the likelihood of wise decisions increases when you have committed and knowledgeable interpreters. This blend can be a game changer.

After all, without this new approach, an Oregon vs. Ohio State match up for the national championship would most likely never have happened.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and you can follow her @pattibjohnson or her company PeopleResults @people_results. She is the author of Make Waves: Be the One to Make Change at Work and in Life.

Patti Johnson