“If you torture data long enough, it will confess to anything you’d like.” – R.H. Coase, British economist
An occasional interview question goes something like this: ‘Do you make decisions with your head or your gut?’ If you have embraced the Management Advantage, you answered both. Let’s try this another way: do you practice left-brain management, right-brain management, whole-brain management, … or no-brain management? [Most readers will have encountered at least one unfortunate practitioner of the latter.]
As we said in our last post, facts inform emotions, and emotions fuel action. In the appropriate context, you can invoke discipline about the facts, and practice patient passion about emotions. So if the facts are absolute, what’s the problem? We start to move down a slippery slope when we are called upon, as we all eventually will, to interpret what the facts mean. We are all prone to confirmation bias, a perhaps too-fancy term that means we are all evidence collectors: we keep all the evidence that proves we are right, that the facts fit our preferred narrative, and we subconsciously filter out the evidence that suggests we may be wrong. And as per Ronald Coase’s quote above, there is always plenty of data to support whatever narrative you choose.
There’s no formula for navigating through this human frailty other than to remain mindful that it exists and we need to consider multiple perspectives to find a pathway forward. That’s why it is so important to build your management system to be inclusive.
With so much data coming at us every day, what facts command our attention? The one unequivocal category of information is results. Most companies focus on financial results, and we acknowledge that if you under-attend to these, you could let the tank run dry or be penalized by stakeholders for whom breaking the financial rules of the game constitutes disqualification. But financial metrics are lagging indicators. A finance colleague once observed that by the time you put a $ on something, it’s too late to impact the outcome.
Results don’t just happen. They are the product of the approach you take in each aspect of the business and the degree to which you practice the approach. The other categories of indicators within the balanced scorecard are better measuring the current and future health of the organization. Here again there is no shortage of info. It’s essential that you identify the key metrics that collectively do the best job of describing performance. Think of an aircraft cockpit: there may be dozens or even hundreds of gauges to define current state, but the pilots pay attention to 3: airspeed, altitude, fuel level… all the others are ancillary until one of the key metrics suggests something is not performing per plan.
It’s important to understand the current level of any metric, but you must also analyze the trend over time and assess if you’re getting better or worse. That assessment will create a range of actions to make the trend more favorable no matter where you stand now.
Within the context of managing an inclusive organization, collaboration is the work engine of modern organizations. The tools to facilitate collaboration are many and growing: chat, docs, video, conference calls, and others are all available to those committed to making them valuable. The objective is sharing knowledge so that everyone can be as capable as the best among them. For many years, organizations conducted team building activities that featured a survival exercise, where you have to prioritize 15 items to help you survive in a harsh environment. First individuals rank the items, then form a team to repeat the process by considering individual ideas. Almost always, the team outperformed the highest scoring individual, showing that the group can generate the best results. [Almost being the key word, as occasionally a team would underperform by giving in to dysfunction… a cautionary tale about the importance of team chemistry.]
The tools to collaborate are increasingly information technology tools. The beauty of IT is that most of it is available to all size organizations, a great leveler of the playing field. Foster your team’s development as technologists, people who know how to apply IT to enhance or revolutionize business results… and don’t commingle coders with technologists, as many never advance beyond the software coding skill. At its essence, IT enables processes, and a process orientation is essential for speed and agility in a modern economy. Remember our preferred salt analogy as applied to process: too little will underperform, but too much completely destroys results.