When more evidence and analysis is unhelpful

by | Jun 4, 2013

Think about it. Have you ever read a research paper that did not say more research is needed? The more we learn and discover, the more we know about what we don’t know. Complex change processes are inherently risky, so when stakeholders call for more research and analysis, that means better decisions, right? Not always. It can mean increased delay, confusion and uncertainty.

Industry, government and NRM leaders are often in a situation where changes in direction are needed, but not everyone within and outside the organisation will be enthused. Indeed, beneficiaries of the status quo can be expected to challenge the need and scale of change proposed.

One of the tactics they use that is highly effective is to call for more evidence and analysis. What makes the tactic so successful is that it has the multiple effects of causing delay, confusion and uncertainty.

Often, calls for more evidence and analysis are justified as providing ‘balance’ for decisions about change. However, what the critics really mean is ‘keep analysing until you get an answer we like’. More often, you keep getting the same answer and become trapped on the unproductive analysis treadmill.

But it can be managed.

Confronting big issues involves inherent complexity, ambiguity and risk, along with persistent pressures to gather more evidence. Is water reform on that scale really necessary? Is human activity really influencing climate change?  Do animal welfare practices really need to change that much in our industry? And so on.

To paraphrase Machiavelli, change leaders can expect luke-warm support from potential beneficiaries of change and strong opposition from the beneficiaries of the status quo.

The most risk-averse organisations (often those handling public funds) are most vulnerable. In an operating environment where organisations and whole industries and regions need to adapt faster, change leaders need to adopt some savvy tactics to sustain momentum.

The first point is to be aware of your own belief systems. The underlying assumption that more information and analysis always produces better decisions is a flawed one. Check out Malcolm Gladwell’s classic book ‘Blink’ for a great read on the subject.

If you slip into the mindset that you need all the information, then you slip out of the change leadership position.

Instead, apply a mindset that 20 per cent of the knowledge will likely provide 80 per cent of the evidence needed for a decision. Trying to get all the evidence is both futile and unnecessary.

Secondly, succeeding with change is more about winning the people (hearts and minds) than it is about winning technical arguments. A rational business case is important, but it provides no guarantee of success with change. Think about it – how many people do you know who continue smoking cigarettes in spite of decades of overwhelming evidence of damage to health?

See technical arguments as representing battlegrounds, but the people as the endgame.

Thirdly, because you don’t have all the information does not mean you can’t act (the implicit stance of opponents to change).

In complex systems the best approach is usually to set a direction or trajectory, then monitor and adapt as you learn. Some call it strategic navigation or adaptive management, but the main point is to focus on leading change rather than appeasing calls for delays and unproductive activity.

Don’t analyse too much. Instead, stay focused on achieving valuable results: innovate, engage, act and learn.

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