Cleaning the Data in Data-Driven Decisions

Barry Goldberg On Leadership

Cleaning the Data in Data-Driven Decisions

We might think decision-making is more straightforward in our current “COVID-centric” circumstances. New rules and precautions have limited many options in much of our decision-making.

But if a straw poll of my Vistage members and coaching clients around the country is any indication, the opposite is true. Decision-making (like pretty much everything else) has become more complex, nuanced and more turbulent than it was 13 months ago.

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A leader’s preexisting bias has as much to do with the challenges of decision-making as any amount of data. We have all seen examples of calls made from the “gut” that fly in the face of the data available. Even the best leaders are capable of unconsciously filtering the data they consider. But leaders are paid to make decisions — and need to not only be right, but be able to bring their teams into accord more often than not.

Decisions made in isolation are the most challenging to implement, lacking previous buy-in from the team.

One of my previous coaching clients who runs a large division of a global investment bank in London suggests a parliamentary-style debate. She asks the main proponents of differing points of view about a key decision to debate in front of the entire leadership team. They are given plenty of time and the other team members are allowed to ask questions and cross-examine.

“Early on, people were prearranging support and trying to game the system politically,” she said. “After a while, the team began to see that the debate brought out subtlety and potential consequences we had not seen, so decisions were more robust and sustainable.”

In a similar vein, one of my Little Rock Vistage members indicated that one of his bases to touch when making a decision was to spend at least an hour — even better, a day or more — arguing the opposite point of view to himself.

When I asked how the debates turn out, he said, “I do not often change my mind, but I regularly find important changes in the way I implement a new idea or program.”

The importance of comprehensive, unbiased data came up in every conversation I had as I spoke to executives about decision-making. A common theme was to be certain that whoever collects and analyzes the data is opinion-free as a way to avoid unconscious bias.

In one case, before making a large capital investment on a manufacturing line, the CFO hired two outside firms: one to build a case for the expansion and the other to shoot holes in it.

“While we did push the button on what was a $15 million expansion, the extra due diligence gave us a very solid risk-mitigation plan,” he said.

Of course, not all decisions require this level of time or expense. And not all of the thornier decisions can be made straightaway with data. Often, emotions run high and there is not an economic argument powerful enough to trump the various stakeholders’ feelings. My go-to tool for those highly charged decisions is something I learned in training for facilitation work: the “gradients of agreement.” I described this tool in more depth in a column in February 2017; in any case, a web search will return a lot of information about the tool.

The gradients of agreement require those on different sides of a decision to disclose clearly how strongly they feel (the gradient) and, more importantly, what the reasons are for their opinion. With that information in hand, discussions, debate and compromise solutions are informed not only with the important data, but with a check against personal bias disguised as fact.

After all, while having the quantitative data at hand is critical, it is often the unexpressed or unheard resistance or enthusiasm for a decision that will bring it home successfully — or torpedo it below the waterline and sink it with all hands aboard.

I. Barry Goldberg is an executive coach and facilitator with a global practice. In Little Rock, he hosts Vistage private peer advisory groups for CEOs and key executives and is launching a new group for owners of smaller businesses. Goldberg also supports companies adopting the Entrepreneurial Operating System.