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When an Educated Guess Beats Data Analysis

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Research on data provided by 122 companies in the advertising, digital, publishing, and software sectors (industries characterized by uncertainty over outcomes) suggests that data driven decision-making could be counter-productive under conditions of uncertainty. Heuristics and gut feelings often offered a better tradeoff in terms of decision-making speed and accuracy; the inclusion of analysis in the decision-making process did not bring about any meaningful improvement in accuracy while significantly reducing speed.

Data-driven decision making is often viewed as the gold standard in modern management. And this is for good reason. The explosion of available data and rapid advances in data science enable managers to know substantially more about their business. This knowledge, if used well, should bring about better decision-making on about every aspect of the business.

This is perhaps why most companies are in a horse race in building analytical capabilities to make the most of this unprecedented abundance of data. For example, a recent survey of Fortune 1000 companies shows that 91.9% of firms report increasing investment in data initiatives.

While the potential of big data is irrefutable, is it the panacea for all decision-making situations? Put differently, could a strong emphasis on data and analysis backfire under some circumstances? We explored this in our recent research.

Our intuition was that data-driven decision making could be counterproductive under extreme uncertainty. In such cases, it will be highly challenging and sometimes impossible to collect reliable data. This could explain why 12 publishers were unable to see the potential of Harry Potter and the Philosopher Stone before Bloomsbury Publishing accepted to publish an initial print run of 500 copies. The book was so innovative that there was by definition no prior data available to accurately assess its potential.

To test our intuition, we collected data from 122 companies in creative industries (in advertising, digital, publishing, and software sectors) about their latest innovation projects. We chose creative industries due to high levels of uncertainty about customer reactions and an infinite variety of potential new products and product modifications. For the same reason, we focused on innovation screening decisions — the decision to select what innovation projects to pursue for development. These decisions are characterized by high uncertainty; managers often lack sufficient past data that would enable them to predict customer reactions accurately, market potential, feasibility, and risks. Even if they had such data, it would often be extremely difficult and sometimes even misleading to extrapolate.

We asked managers in these companies to think about their most recent innovation project for which they needed to make a screening decision and included questions to understand how they made this decision. Specifically, the questions addressed the extent to which they relied on analysis (i.e., choosing the option that proved best based upon analyzing the data), instinct (i.e., choosing the option following their instincts), and a range of well-known heuristics (i.e., practical strategies to make decisions faster and more frugally). These heuristics included “tallying” (choosing the option with highest number of favorable points), “experience” (choosing the option most experienced person in team wanted) and “majority” (choosing the option most people wanted) amongst several others. Next, we asked managers to indicate whether they think they got the decision right (perceived decision-making accuracy) and how fast they were in making the decision (perceived decision-making speed).

The results first showed, to our surprise, despite the huge interest in big data, that the managers in our sample did not rely on analysis any more than on their instincts or some of the simple heuristics. The most commonly used heuristic, more than both analysis and instinct, was tallying.

We also find that relying on analysis is not necessarily the ideal way to choose between innovation projects. While the decisions based on data analysis brought about a good level of decision-making accuracy, the process was slow. Managers who relied on their instincts together with some simple heuristics made decisions that were just as accurate but were undertaken much more quickly. That is, heuristics and gut feelings offered a better tradeoff in terms of decision-making speed and accuracy; the inclusion of analysis in the decision-making process did not bring about any meaningful improvement in accuracy while significantly reducing speed.

One note of caution for managers who consider embarking on gut-based innovation decisions: the effectiveness of their intuition might rely on prior experience. Prior research suggests that the effectiveness of intuition compared to analysis is contingent upon domain knowledge; experts in a domain are more likely to make better gut decisions. Managers with limited domain expertise might therefore be better off by refraining from extensive reliance on intuition. Our results suggest relying mainly on heuristic also presents a viable alternative.

The next time when you face a managerial decision that is ambiguous, bear in mind that data might not be the only basis for a choice. Following your instincts, together with some simple heuristics, can lead to quicker and potentially as accurate decisions especially for those with the requisite expertise.

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Managing people

It's never been more clear: companies should give up on back to office and let us all work remotely, permanently

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  • With the rise of the Delta Variant, companies should switch to all remote.
  • All-remote is better for workplace collaboration, the environment, and companies' bottom lines.
  • Companies that switch to all-remote should be intentional about collaboration and technology.
  • Jeff Chow is SVP Product at InVision.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

It's time to go back to the office for good – the home office.

With the CDC's recommendation that even fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with "substantial" and "high" transmission of COVID-19, employees across industries are wondering what the new future of work looks like. As the possibility of another shelter-in-place order looms, companies are deciding whether moving to a hybrid situation – simultaneously in-person and remote – is worth it.

It's not. Simply put, the concept of "forever remote" makes sense for numerous companies and industries. For many, America's "back to work" isn't a simple light switch, but many organizations are better off to shut the lights off at the traditional office. The switch to all remote will broaden a company's talent pool and increase employee happiness and retention, while limiting a lease and lowering its carbon footprint.

There are benefits to becoming a fully-remote organization. A top example is that the talent pool now goes national, or even international. Organizations are no longer limited to recruiting employees from a given radius to their offices. Asynchronous work helps to open the door for employees to work across time zones to get projects and deliverables completed in time.

InVision, where I work, has been all-remote since its inception. We have the luxury of hiring people living across the US and in 25 countries.

Additionally, without the need for a large physical office presence, companies can save hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more, on leasing office space or building an expansive campus.

There is also evidence that eliminating an office for all employees to work remotely is better for the environment. Eliminating a daily commute, whether it's driving a vehicle or taking mass transit, helps cut down on emissions. This was initially noticed back in the spring and summer of 2020, when a decline in transportation due to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a 6.4% decrease in global carbon emissions, which is the equivalent of 2.3 billion tons. The United States had the largest drop in carbon emissions at 12%, followed by the entirety of the European Union at 11%.

In a June 2021 McKinsey survey of over 1,600 employed people, researchers found about one in three workers back in an office said returning to in-person work negatively impacted their mental health. Those surveyed also reported "COVID-19 safety and flexible work arrangements could help alleviate stress" of returning to the office. Not everyone who works for the same company is going to get along. In an all-remote environment, it is far easier for people who are at odds to simply avoid each other. HR won't have to spend nearly as much time mediating between (or terminating) office Hatfields and McCoys.

So, how exactly do you quickly pivot to remote again and stick with it? The key is intentionality. Teach managers to make a point of celebrating wins and good work on group calls. Build encouraging collaboration into managers' Key Performance Indicators (KPI)s. Take advantage of face-to-face opportunities by holding in-person, all-company all-hands meetings as a time to build culture, not a time to just do more work.

Treat working groups to dinner (use some of the money you saved on your lease!) and let them get to know each other as people. To be intentional, invest in new ways of working that are oftentimes better ways of working: reducing necessary meetings and adjusting more feedback sessions to asynchronous collaboration. Meetings that remain on calendars should be reserved for the purpose of being highly engaging and energizing moments for teams to brainstorm and do generative sessions.

Second is technology. By now, we're all familiar with the likes of Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams, but there are other products that can actively improve collaboration (full disclosure: I work for InVision, which makes one such digital collaboration tool, namely Freehand).

Take a thorough look with your IT team (and talk to your employees) to see what they need on a day-to-day basis. What tools does your accounting team need? Do they differ from what the marketing team needs (spoiler alert: they do). And don't force everyone to use the same tools. If your accounting team loves Microsoft Excel, that's fine for them. I can guarantee, however, that your product design team is not going to use it.

Finally, invest in your employees' ability to make the transition (again).

GreenGen, which provides green energy solutions for businesses and infrastructure projects, had one of the most pioneering ideas. "We had our employees do a two-day work-from-home resiliency test. This was to ensure that everyone's home Wi-Fi was adequate so that all of our documents and materials were easily accessible online, and that we could troubleshoot any potential problems preemptively," said Bradford H. Dockser, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder of GreenGen. "Ensuring that our team members got monitors, mice, and keyboards at home made the transition seamless." With that sort of intentional stress test, GreenGen didn't skip a beat.

Above all, the main key to returning to the home office for good lies within communication. Technology and innovative products have helped to bring colleagues closer together virtually, as people work from anywhere at any time. Initial shelter-in-place orders taught many businesses across industries that remote work can be just as effective, if not more so, than the traditional office model. Businesses should make the call to go all-remote permanently. Their employees, their investors, and the environment will all thank you.

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Business Ideas

Some Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor stores will become WeWork coworking spaces for $300 a month – see inside SaksWorks

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The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

  • Hudson's Bay Company has partnered with WeWork to create co-working spaces.
  • The SaksWorks will be built within existing or past Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor stores.
  • The coworking spaces will have amenities like gyms, cafes, and restaurants.
  • See more stories on Insider's business page.
Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) – the mastermind behind Saks Fifth Avenue and formerly Lord and Taylor – has partnered with WeWork to create “SaksWorks.”

SaksWorks' armchairs and coffee tables
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: BusinessWire

That’s right. Your local Saks Fifth Avenue could become the next hotspot for freelancers, startups, and remote workers.

SaksWorks' large coworking desk with a presentation screen and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

To tap into the ongoing coworking craze, HBC will be turning part of its real estate collection into WeWork-run SaksWorks.

SaksWorks' tall shelves with plants and books hiding desks
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

This includes both existing or past Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor stores, Konrad Putzier reported for the Wall Street Journal.

SaksWorks' couch in front of a coffee table surrounded by bookshelves and plants
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: Wall Street Journal

Several SaksWorks will also be located outside of the city for suburbanites who need a break from working from home.

SaksWorks' couch in front of a coffee table surrounded by bookshelves and plants
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

All of the images shown below are from the partnership’s Brookfield Place location in New York City, but there will also be three additional New York locations – in Manhasset, Scarsdale, and Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship in the city – and one in Greenwich, Connecticut.

SaksWorks with a bookshelf in front of a couch, coffee table, and more shelving
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

The Brookfield Place location is replacing a former Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s store, while the SaksWorks in Saks Fifth Avenue is taking the place of a 10th floor children’s section.

SaksWorks' coworking space with armchairs, bookshelves, plants
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: Wall Street Journal

The three other SaksWorks will take the place of Lord and Taylor stores, Steff Yotka reported for Vogue.

a couch with colorful pillows and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source:  Vogue

The first few SaksWorks will open its doors in September, but looking ahead, the team has plans to open more locations across North America.

SaksWorks' coworking space with armchairs, bookshelves, plants, coffee table
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

In the future, this could include Los Angeles, Seattle, Philadelphia, and Boston, Amy Nelson, SaksWorks president, told the Wall Street Journal.

SaksWorks' coworking space with a long line of tables and chairs
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: Wall Street Journal

HBC’s reputation for luxury goods seeps into the SaksWorks spaces …

SaksWorks' armchair and couches and shelves
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

… which will include plush amenities like on-site gyms, retail and restaurant spaces, cafes, and in-house events.

SaksWorks' squat rack in front of a mirror
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Like any other WeWork, SaksWorks will also have the prerequisite meeting spaces and open concept coworking spots.

SaksWorks' large coworking desk with a presentation screen and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

As part of the collaboration, the SaksWorks locations will use WeWork’s “workplace management technology,” such as its booking app, according to a press release.

a couch with colorful pillows and shelves in the back
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: BusinessWire

“With HBC, we take the first step toward expanding our technology platform product offering and providing a differentiated approach to how landlords can incorporate flexible space across their portfolio,” Sandeep Mathrani, WeWork’s CEO, said in the press release.

SaksWorks' coworking space with armchairs, bookshelves, plants, coffee table
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source: BusinessWire

Prices will start at $299 a month, and the waitlist is already a few hundred people deep.

SaksWorks' tall shelves with plants and books hiding desks
The SaksWorks inside Brookfield Place in New York City.

Source:  Vogue

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Finance & Accounting

Section 321 Probably isn’t Going Away Anytime Soon

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With the change of administration in the U.S. in 2021, many American domestic businesses—and some from throughout the world—watched to see if the U.S. imposed trade tariffs would be lifted on China. 

However, the tariffs remain in place which means that Section 321, a regulation that pertains to imports, is here to stay. On the bright side, this statute presents a money-saving opportunity for eCommerce business owners and a continued need for fulfillment companies in Canada and Mexico. 

What is Section 321?

The statute, Section 321, categorizes certain goods that can be cleared through customs without extra taxes or duties. This allows business owners to avoid additional shipping expenses that would usually force them to increase prices and/or gain very little profit.

Likewise, by invoking Section 321 on imports while employing the services of a Mexican or Canadian fulfillment company, businesses can also save time by improving the efficiency of their logistics strategy. 

What Has Prompted Frequent Use of Section 321?

China and the U.S. make up two of the largest economic powers in the world. In fact, as of 2019, trade between both countries equaled almost $559 billion in American dollars. This, in part, resulted from China’s induction into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Flash forward a little over a decade and half later, tariffs were imposed on Chinese goods to hold the economic power accountable for a rash of intellectual theft, unfair trade practices, and to leverage the playing field between the two nations.

While during the election of 2020, President Biden had disagreed with President Trump’s political or economic tactics in relation to dealing with China, he has not made any moves to lift the tariffs that were imposed by the previous administration. Rather, he has chosen to keep these measures in place that cover roughly $350 billion worth in goods imported from China. This decision stems from the first in-person meeting between President Biden and President Xi Jinping which did little to thaw the relationship between the two countries.

Thus, going with the bipartisan support of holding China accountable for its political missteps and for its unfair trade practices on the economic world stage, the tariffs remain in place for the time being. 

Why is Section 321 Here to Stay?

So, what does this mean for companies that have traded with China? 66% of goods that are exported from China to the U.S. carry a tariff at an average rate of 19%. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, that’s about 19% higher than before the trade war started. 

Since American importers bear the cost of those duties, prices on items like televisions, baseball hats, luggage, bikes, and sneakers have gone up. This means that consumers might have noticed a difference on the price tag compared to years ago or a higher shipping cost once they reach “cart” on an eCommerce site. 

Consequently, business owners have invoked Section 321 with the help of Canadian or Mexican fulfillment companies to cut the cost that’s triggered by these tariffs. 

How to Qualify for Section 321

While Section 321 enables businesses to avoid tariffs on some imported goods, you would have to make sure shipments do not exceed $800 in value. Additionally, you would have to remember that not all products fall under the eligibility of Section 321 coverage. These include:

  • Cosmetics
  • Dinnerware
  • Bio samples for lab analysis
  • Raw oysters

Plus, you would have your shipments to Canada or Mexico, where fulfillment companies will divide your goods into parcels that value $800 or less. They are then shipped to the U.S. but not all at the same time so as not to exceed the $800 limit. 

How to Apply Section 321 to Your Business Strategy?

Depending on where you’re located, you would partner with a fulfillment company in Canada or Mexico to come up with a plan of how to divide the shipment and schedule delivery. Furthermore, the fulfillment company would check the proper paperwork to ensure all necessary and correct information is given. With the shipments arriving in either of these two countries, you wouldn’t have to be concerned about the tariffs because the destination from China would be Canada or Mexico. Neither of these countries have to pay a tariff (or as high of a tariff). Plus, technically, your supplies are “arriving from” Canada or Mexico who have a trade agreement in place with the U.S. that doesn’t involve tariffs. So, this practice presents a mutually beneficial situation for your organization and the fulfillment company. 

Because Section 321 doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, you can ensure a timely delivery of your goods by securing the services of a Canadian or Mexican fulfillment company, depending on your location. These companies take care of the logistics and paperwork for you which saves time and money. They double check on the scheduling of the arrival of your imports to guarantee that they will meet the Section 321 criteria. All in all, this means that you won’t have to worry about paying the high tariffs, and your customers can count on reasonable prices and receiving their products on time.

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