One of the most common excuses leaders give for not using or for ignoring data is fear that it’s not valid. While I’m somewhat sympathetic—getting good data is not easy—I also think that can be a cop out. To be an effective leader, you will need facts you can rely on. If you can’t rely on them, you need to take responsibility to see how you can get better data!
The science of data collection can indeed be complex and technical, but the key questions you can ask to check your data and guide the organization toward better facts and data are not.
How Are We Defining This Measure/Data?
A great deal of the confusion about data arises from inconsistent definitions of the thing being discussed or measured. For example, we usually find simple concepts like “an order” are understood to mean very different things by different people/groups within a company. You need to ask questions to clarify and encourage clear and unambiguous measurement definitions—for example, what we mean by “an order”—both for specific instances as well as to improve your overall data-gathering systems.
An amusing example of misunderstanding data was told by a manager friend of mine whose boss received numerous financial reports in hard copy every day. One day, my friend asked the boss how useful the data was and his leader assured him the reports were a big help. He even pulled one out and pointed to a smiley face drawn on the cover page. “That tells me that our market share is up,” the leader explained. “If it’s there, I don’t even have to look at the data.”
My friend happened to see the person who generated that report the next day and asked about the smiley face. “Oh, that?” she said. “When it’s sunny out, I put a smiley face on every report I send out. It’s just my way of saying ‘Have a nice day.’”
– Excerpt from Pivotal Thought Leadership, Certainty and Doubt. For more on the foundation concepts of Change Leadership, please review Change Leadership: A New Standard for 21st Century Leaders