When It’s Political, the Data Counts Less (Or Not at All)

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Dec 13, 2019

An unfortunate weakness of analytics is that data doesn’t resolve arguments. This is disappointing because, often, that’s exactly what we are hoping it will do. For example, we may want to run a team building program that the CEO thinks is a waste of time. We can do all the analytics we want yet more often than not it won’t change anyone’s mind. Similarly, we might have two departments fighting over which part of the office they’ll get in a new building. Both will present data showing why they should get the desirable space; only rarely will that data make a difference in the decision; it will be decided based on their relative power.

Data works beautifully when you only care about making the best choice. If you are choosing a hotel in Mandalay, you might initially be attracted to one called “Heart of the East” rather than one called “Hotel 17”, but if the reviews (the data) show Hotel 17 is a better bet then you’ll happily be swayed by the data. It’s the same for the CEO, if he has no particular feeling about team building and data shows it’s a good idea, then he’s likely to support it. So yes, data can be wonderful, just not when people already have strong opinions.

The reason data fails to resolve entrenched disagreements is that it is rarely conclusive beyond a shadow of a doubt. People will contest the quality of the data, the nature of analysis, factors overlooked, the relevance of the criteria, how those criteria are weighted and so on. Unless the situation is simple or the evidence overwhelmingly one-sided then you won’t get resolution from data.

These arguments can be resolved in various “political” ways:

  • Tenacity: Sometimes the person who cares the most wins by tenacity
  • Authority: Sometimes the person in authority makes the call
  • Compromise: Sometimes you negotiate a middle ground

Politics is how organizations get things done, but it would be nice if we made more decisions based on data, not via a political structure.

The way to move forward on this (in addition to avoiding battles you can’t win) is to push for a culture where people habitually avoid taking positions before there is data. If you can find a common business objective (e.g. reduce waste in the factory), and how that will be measured, then you are on the road to having everyone eager to see data on what options are best for reducing waste. Without that kind of culture, a culture where leaders genuinely want data to drive a decision, then we are wasting our time using data to address a political battle.

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