Leading with Facts over Opinions

“If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine.”

Jim Barksdale

In late 1940, as the second world war was raging, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill set up a small working group to investigate how to create a central statistical office. The office would be outside the normal chain of government command with the sole aim of feeding Churchill with continuously updated, unfiltered and brutally honest information. Churchill, who was known for his unwavering vision and strong charismatic personality, relied heavily on this information throughout the rest of the war. He famously said “I have no need for opinions, just give me the facts”.

It’s not just Prime Ministers that need a central statistical office to feed them information. In my work helping organisations develop and operationalise their strategy the first hurdle we almost always encounter is the lack of accurate, up-to-date and easily digestible data that can be used to understand the current reality and the progress being made against existing objectives.

In the absence of this data, opinions roam wild.

To be clear, I’m not against opinions, but if the basis for your decision making is opinion it’s statistically only a matter of time before you’re wrong. On the path to achieving breakthrough results organisations almost always need to make multiple good decisions and execute effectively upon them so as leaders we should be looking for ways to increase the number of good decisions we make and reduce the bad to increase our chances of success.

This is strongly backed up by research in the book, Good to Great, which discovered companies that outperformed their competitors overwhelmingly infused their decision making process with the brutal facts of reality. These high performing companies found if they started with an honest and diligent effort to find out the truth of the situation, the right decisions often became self-evident.

So what is stopping so many organisations integrating data into their decision making? Well, getting good quality data can be difficult, expensive and time-consuming but I believe it’s more likely to do with the personality types that lead many organisations.

Strong, charismatic leaders are great at developing and selling opinions but they can all too easily push their opinions so strongly that they become the de-facto reality that drives the company. Without the data to keep these opinions in check employees can become more worried about what the leader thinks than the external reality that the company faces. Indeed without making data available to all within the organisation, the reality may not even be visible to those tasked with making decisions.

Churchill understood the liabilities of his strong, charismatic personality. He knew that without the facts, his personality could prevent others from keeping his opinions in check. He also knew that to enable others to make good decisions they needed to have the facts to do so. The central statistical office was how he made data easily available for those within the government and I would advocate that many companies could learn from this approach to enable anyone within their organisation to see what’s happening, internally and externally.

How could you create a central statistical office within your team or organisation to share the information that will enable people to make decisions based on fact, not opinion?

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