Analytics Insights: Why being evidence-based is so hard

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Mar 10, 2022

Few of us could disagree with the fact that life would be much better if we adopted more of an evidence-based approach to our decision-making.

The trouble is, it’s much harder than it sounds. A recent paper by Hannes L. Leroy et al, called Walking Our Evidence-Based Talk: The Case of Leadership Development in Business Schools (Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 2022), revealed that even business school professors don’t make evidence-based decisions in leadership development.

Let’s take a quick look at why evidence-based management (EBM) is often so hard:

There are four main problems with EBM:

1) The formal evidence-based management process is too cumbersome

Formally, EBM has six steps: 1) asking, 2) acquiring, 3) appraising, 4) aggregating, 5) applying, and 6) assessing. This can be too difficult for time-starved managers.

2) The evidence you need is often hard to access, hard to interpret, and insufficient for the problem at hand

Whether you are reviewing the scientific literature for evidence or doing analytics on your own data, it is often so difficult that you can’t get a clear answer in the time available.

3) Management is about coalitions, not optimal decisions

Very often the real problem is not making the optimal decision but getting enough people on side. It is more a political process than an analytical process. This derails any attempt at rigorous EBM.

4) Decisions are never really made

As I discuss in my book Management for Scientists & Engineers it is often unclear just when a management decision has been made and who has made it. Without a clear point in time where a decision is being made, there is no opportunity to systematically collect evidence to inform the decision.

Any one of these problems can be enough to derail your efforts to be evidence-based and in any given situation you are likely to face more than one problem.

How to deal with the hard problems of EBM

The simple answer to the hard problems of EBM is not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good.

For example, if the formal EBM is too cumbersome for the situation, cut it down so that it’s manageable. As Dr. Rob Briner says, 15 minutes of evidence-based thinking is better than five minutes, but five minutes is better than none at all.

In terms of the difficulty of getting good evidence, it’s important to focus on the EBM dictum that you want the best available evidence. Sure, sometimes not much evidence is available, but that’s no excuse not to use the best evidence you have. Remember you are not defending at thesis at university, you are speaking to a leader who is saying “Is there anything that will help us choose between option A and option B? Is there any evidence at all or do I need to flip a coin?”

Get stakeholder support

The political side of decision-making is inevitable and this means stakeholder management is a crucial part of evidence-based management. If you had hoped that analytics would free you from the world of organizational politics, then you are mistaken. Just hope that by carefully involving stakeholders you can reach a decision that is directionally correct, even if it falls short of being optimal.

Slow down, and take a moment

The most interesting barrier to evidence-based decision-making is the statement I’ve heard from HR pros that say, “I never make any decisions”. This is rarely true. It’s more a matter that there is never a pause where the individual sits down and carefully makes a deliberate decision. The solution to this is to recognize the importance of the “pause” as a management tool. HR pros need to habitually take a moment to slow down, take a breath, and think “what is one of the key issues I’m facing?” This should lead to the question: “What evidence do I need to make a decision on how to approach this decision?”

A final comment

Leroy et al’s paper proposes one interesting solution to the difficulties of being evidence-based. The authors suggest that professors need to adopt an evidence-based leader developer “identity.” In other words, they shouldn’t see themselves simply as professors who have EBM as one of the tools in their toolkit; they should see the practice of using evidence as a core part of their identity.

Perhaps the same goes for HR pros. We know all the limitations and difficulties of using data and evidence. However, we are committed to using the best available evidence within the constraints of the time and resources available. We see it as simply being part of being a professional.