be wary of commitments to data driven decisions


It is pretty hard to argue with a commitment to data driven decision making, and its sibling, evidence based strategy. So why have I found it so hard to embrace them with unbridled enthusiasm?

The clue, as always, is what it looks like in practice. How does the business practice of data collection and reporting affect the way leaders engage choices? When the expert data technicians do their thing, what can we expect?

A bit of proverbial wisdom gives us some clues:

  1. As my mate Shawn (@shawncallahan) tweeted recently via Malcolm Gladwell, “data increases confidence, not accuracy”.
  2. Elliot Eisner borrowed from a poster Albert Einstein reportedly hung in his office: “Not everything that matters can be measured and not everything that is measured, matters.”

The best leaders have a clear picture of the future. We somewhat benignly refer to this as vision. This clarity almost always derives from an intuition. Not an intuition devoid of data, but typically the evidence is anecdotal. Vision is cultivated over time by ad hoc sets of experiences and information. I sense sometimes that a stated commitment to evidence based decision making can, paradoxically, be a proxy for clear and courageous leadership.

So how do we use our incredible contemporary capacity to capture and analyse data to complement the kind of leadership that always has, and always will, create the new realities we need and want?

What about the following?

  1. Leaders develop a view of what needs to be done.
  2. The research then tests this hypothesis. However to avoid the scenario where the evidence collected inevitably confirms the leaders position, the research is designed to prove the opposite or an alternative hypothesis.

For example, at Google, there was widespread scepticism about the value of managers … at all. Page and Brin’s early experiment to completely flatten the structure and do away with managers apparently only lasted two months. They realised how dysfunctional they were without managers, but the staff cohort remained unconvinced of their value.

In such a data driven culture, the approach they actually took was to set out to prove the opposite; that managers didn’t add significant value. They failed … and the whole company consequently bought into the need for managers. Not only that, but the data they collected gave them great insight into what effective management looked like in their context.

One of the attributes of effective leadership is self awareness. This includes the self awareness that reality is being denied from, rather than factored into, a conclusion. Just like the fact that like ‘painters paint because they are painters; painting doesn’t make one a painter’, my point is that leaders lead. And for the most part this leadership comes from deep inner convictions about what needs to be done. Collecting data and then determining what to do as a result, does not a leader make!

The research skills that objectively gather data and develop an evidence base matter. But only in concert with, and in service of leadership. Otherwise, the cacophony of information available and the reporting of it, technically beautiful as it may be, becomes a distraction for an organisation or society calling out for definitive, clear leadership. Leadership that, often in my experience, intuitively knows what needs to be done, but is constrained by the need to bend the knee at the throne of data.