Becoming data-driven is a big, profitable deal, as recent academic work shows. I am delighted to see that more and more companies are looking to become more “data driven,” and that the term is penetrating the lexicon ever more deeply. But not every manager is jumping on board with data. Many are threatened by data and work, perhaps subconsciously, to subvert its penetration into the culture. I call them “anti-datas.”
But this post is not directed at the anti-datas. They’re lost causes, beyond redemption and, frankly, on their way out. Instead, it’s directed at those who are trying hard to become increasingly data-driven and in so doing build stronger futures for their companies, but who may have picked up some bad habits along the way. Over the years I’ve had the good fortune to work with plenty of individual decision-makers and groups, some terrific and some simply awful. From that work, I’ve distilled six bad habits that stymie managers and companies from taking full advantage of their data.
You prefer intuition over the data. We’ve all met managers who say things like, “I’ve been working in this industry twenty-five years and I’ve seen it all. I know I can trust my gut.” They are proud of their experience and are skeptical of anything new. Interestingly, I find many managers who behave this way to be solid in most respects—they care about their companies and people. They desperately want to do the right things, and they are smart. But they go to great lengths to ignore, downplay, or subvert any evidence that suggests a better way. Some even re-interpret the data to reinforce their long-held mental models. The near-certain results are processes, operations, and teams that are increasingly out-of-date.
You rig the system. For some, the decision-making process involves developing the case supporting a decision after you’ve made it, while ignoring other evidence along the way. It is an especially perverse form of trusting one’s intuition, which some might call “CYA.” The Internet has made it easier—no matter what the opinion, there is always some data to support it. People figure out what you’re up to and develop a healthy mistrust pretty quickly. So even when you are right, it becomes much more difficult to gain the support needed to execute your decision.
You second-guess others. The true spirit of second-guessing involves withholding potentially useful information, then pouncing the minute a decision goes wrong. We’ve all made mistakes and practically all of us have been second-guessed. Just because the trait is common, does not mean it is not destructive. Withholding information breeds mistrust and pouncing leads many to make more conservative and easily-defended, but sub-optimal, decisions. One observes this trait all the time in overly-political individuals and companies.
You have analysis-paralysis. Analysis-paralysis plagues people and companies that don’t deal well with uncertainty. They can fall into the trap of seeking “just one more bit of confirmation” before deciding. They delay, delay, delay, seeking to make the perfect decision. It is easy for the paralyzed to argue that they are data-driven—after all, they are seeking more data! They don’t realize that not making a decision is a decision in itself and can have consequences. Delay too long and the competitor may introduce that new product line first; a great candidate may go elsewhere; and an investor may withdraw its offer.
You employ group think. Group think involves packing a decision-making group with people who think in the same way and ignoring those with divergent views or data that points in a different direction. To illustrate the impact, imagine a situation in which there are one hundred options, several of which are “good” and one that is “best. Group think is akin to limiting yourself to only ten options. You greatly reduce your chances of arriving at a good one.
You have misconceptions of or arrogance about data quality. The antis are not opposed to data quality per se. More generally, they truly believe the little data they do use is of high-quality, even though they have no facts to back it up. But in some respects, these points don’t matter, as they have great faith in their own abilities to detect and discount bad data, saying things like “I can spot an error a mile away.” Finally, in some cases, they don’t worry about data quality because they have such high opinions of their own intuition that they don’t use the data anyway. Misconceptions about data make it easier to fall into all other bad habits.
Now take that hard look in the mirror. Look at the full list above and ask yourself, “Do I ever do that?” And if so, stop. It is of course, difficult to break multiple bad habits all at once. So if you’re going to pick one to start, stop second-guessing others. More specifically, stop withholding and start sharing potentially useful information every chance you get. Doing so pays great dividends in the form of increased trust, better teamwork, and others sharing with you (though don’t expect everyone else to be so forthcoming!).
Second, break the group think habit. This may be difficult, especially if you’ve hand-picked your management team and their careers depend on you. It helps to have a colleague who will provide direct, independent perspective. Give him or her a fair chance to “tell you you’re full of it” before finalizing any important decision. And seek far more diverging opinions when they tell you this!
Finally, engage your management team in doing exactly the same thing for your organization. Make a pact with yourselves to call each other out any time you observe the trait. You need to provide true leadership here, as others will follow your example. Snap back at someone who tells you you’re second-guessing and you’ve ended the exercise for good!
Instead, give and take feedback in an open, supportive manner. It’s the only way to advance, and reap the benefits of, a data-driven culture
by Thomas C. Redman, HBR