Many companies and even individuals pride themselves on being data-driven. Or at least thatâ€™s what they claim â€“ it is however clear many are data-driven only when it fits their preferred narrative or their view of how the world works.
They are data-driven only when convenient for them. Using data only when convenient is a lame, modern form of confirmation bias.
Letâ€™s look at just three examples where many so-called data-driven companies completely ignore the actual data:
- Working hours
These are all pretty fundamental building blocks of productivity â€“ and as such, should be of paramount interest to organizations of any size and kind. Yet, the vast majority of activity and policies around these flies directly in the face of evidence â€“ the very data that the said organizations claim guides them.
Letâ€™s look at these, and some of the evidence, one at a time:
That long working hours are harmful to productivity has long been known, but equally long mostly ignored by corporations. As evidence keeps piling up that long hours backfire for people and companies and that productivity declines steadily as hours worked increases, what are most companies doing?
At worst, you get reports like the NYT story on Amazonâ€™s culture where companies do exactly the opposite of what research suggests. Or you might get inane stories like BoA Merill Lynch having to exhort their junior bankers to take four weekend days off per month. To say thatâ€™s â€œtoo littleâ€ is a bit of an understatement.
Most organizations pay at least lip service to diversity, because itâ€™s perceived bad to be anti-diversity. At the same time, most organizations are hopelessly homogenous â€“ especially on the executive leadership level. Whatâ€™s worse, most talk about â€œdiversityâ€ is focused on really, really, basic things like gender. But thereâ€™s more to diversity than that; studies have shown that companies with 2-D diversity â€“ both inherent diversity such as gender and ethnicity as well as acquired diversity like working in another country or following a divergent education or career path â€“ are much more likely to grow market share and capture new markets.
As if thatâ€™s not enough, being around different people also makes people more creative, more diligent and harder-working. Like with working hours, the data on the benefits of diversity is not exactly new; people like Bob Sutton have been talking about the topic for 15 odd years (including in his book from 2002 that I can highly recommend: Weird Ideas That Work).
Basically nobody disagrees that sedentary lifestyle is a killer â€“ The Economist recently said it has â€œreached epidemic proportionsâ€. Many organizations may think that has little to do with them and that the best they can do is offer some gym discounts â€“ and they would be wrong.
A Stanford study showed walking improves creativity by an average of 60%; as arranging walking meetings and the like is not exactly complicated, youâ€™d think this would be encouraged more. It has also been shown beyond any reasonable doubt that sitting is bad for you, so simple things like standing desks have many proven benefits. But when was the last time someone asked you for a walking meeting? Does you workplace have adjustable desks all around?
But weâ€™re an exception!
Of course there are genuine exceptions, but they remain precisely that â€“ exceptions. Despite the masses of evidence, Iâ€™m stumped as to why organizations do not act on the data. At best, theyâ€™re being hypocrites. At worst, they are literally killing their employees and/or making them miserable and failing to reach business objectives effectively.
One reason could be the belief that all that evidence is fine for everyone else, but that weâ€™re somehow different. There are a host of biases involved here, but two concepts stand out â€“ exceptionalism (a perception that an institution is exceptional in some way and thus does not need to conform to normal rules and general principles) and illusory superiority (a cognitive bias where individuals overestimate their own qualities and abilities relative to others). Both are likely too common.
Alternatively, given all of the above have been known for years and years, it could be that organizations and individuals and just bloody slow learners even when faced with convincing data. In an age where learning, innovation and operational agility are imperative, this is not good news.
So, data-driven â€“ really?
If youâ€™re a genuine exception to the above â€“ i.e. you strongly advocate reasonable working hours, are active in hiring and developing for multidimensional diversity and provide support and guidance to being physically active at work â€“ congratulations! I would love to hear how you manage them, what benefits you have seen and what your employees think.
On the other hand, if you fail to acknowledge the points above â€“ i.e. you believe that working perpetually stupid hours is a net positive, that homogeneous groups are superior in innovating and productivity, and that exercise doesn’t have any benefits â€“ you could be called many things, but data-driven is not one of them.