During the last 9 months, I have heard the same phrase pop up countless times in one to one executive coaching sessions, strategic planning meetings, and leadership training sessions. The phrase is “data-based decision making.” It seems to be the new buzz word and leaders every where are all the rage to say it. Whenever I hear it, I just shake my head and smile.
First, leaders have been making decisions based on data for a long time. The problem is that the best leaders always know they are working with imperfect data and not always timely data. Still, they take this information and blend in a touch of experience and perspective to make their decision. Good leaders are wired this way.
Second, having accurate and timely data does not always mean that one knows what to do with it. Data analysis, let alone data management, is part science and, as I have witnessed, part art. The critical factor is understanding the data not just having it. And in this process, awareness of data is not understanding of data. As someone remarked at the Spring 2012 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, “information is not knowledge.” And I would add knowledge is not wisdom.
Third, the best leaders will always tell you in private that data is only as good as the information that went into it. As my 90+ year old father reminds me, “garbage in equals garbage out.” Too many times, the validity of the data is called into question and thus becomes useless.
Fourth, the best leaders also will tell you privately that data-based decision making will not replace intuition and experience, it only compliments it.
So, this summer as more and more leaders lift up data-based decision making as the new tablets that have come down from the mountain, let us all remember that the goal is to improve our decision-making through improving the kind of data we use. Still, it is important to remember that data will always be imperfect and the best leaders will always trust their gut even if it speaks the uncomfortable truth.