Champion evidence-based decision-making

6 October 2017

Evidence-based decision-making means thinking critically, challenging assumptions and questioning best practice, says Richard Mackinnon

Those looking to adopt an evidence-based approach first need to question ‘best practice’. It’s about understanding what works, in what way and for whom. For organisations, operating in this way also means challenging workplace fads and fashions, evaluating the impact of new products, systems and reorganisations and using good quality scientific evidence to make better decisions that impact the people in our business.

But that is often easier said than done. So what makes it so difficult?

1. Our thinking

As humans, our faulty thinking shortcuts regularly let us down. Whether it’s favouring the ideas of someone we like, ignoring information that doesn’t fit our  view or being more attracted to a product because it’s new and exciting, we regularly short-circuit our own success.

2. Enthusiastic stakeholders

In addition to our own thinking failures, we may come under pressure from ‘enthusiastic’ colleagues. They may have read an influential book or been to a conference where a new idea has been promoted. Whatever the mechanism, they are keen to get into purchasing and implementation. And the more senior they are, the harder it can be to challenge.

3. Myths and fads

It won’t be news to you that organisations sometimes seem like breeding grounds for fads and myths. Practitioners want to bring the new and the exciting in, to stay ahead of the competition and ensure they’re operating at the leading edge of innovation.

Organisational fads come and go, usually built on a suggestion of scientific information, but over-simplified and over-generalised to meet the needs of a mass market. The fads are replaced by their successors, leaving a trail of disruption and cost in their wake.

Myths have no scientific basis, but represent pervasive beliefs that are difficult to shake. You may have heard we only use 10% of our brains, or that standing desks are healthier, or that millennials have different values and life goals. Well, they are all complete myths.

In all the excitement of new ideas and jumping on the latest bandwagon, it can be difficult to be the lone voice asking questions. But this lone voice can represent the genesis of an evidence-based approach if its questions spark reflection and consideration. There are several ways to start these conversations:

1. Clarify the problem

Simply ask your colleagues: “What is the problem we’re trying to solve?” They may be caught up in the excitement of a new product, in the absence of evidence that there’s a problem that needs solving. Without good evidence, why explore solutions and incur cost and disruption?

2. Secure the evidence

Challenge suppliers to go beyond slick marketing, case studies and testimonials. If a technology vendor claims their software will make your organisation more productive, they need to be able to back up that claim.

3. Challenge “as we all know”

When stakeholders make a claim that implies cause and effect, listen closely. “As we all know, open-plan offices lead to increased collaboration” might sound plausible, but before investing in an office re-design, are you sure this is true?

4. Insist on evaluation

Ensure that new products and services are piloted and evaluated before committing to them. This can help you understand how well they work in your organisation.

Procurement professionals could add even more value to their organisations by adopting a ‘chief questioning officer’ role. This means a focus on costs and value to the organisation, but in a much more holistic way. It means asking how well products work and evaluating the evidence presented. After all, if you buy something at a significant discount, but without any evidence that it actually works, does it represent a saving at all?

Richard MacKinnon is insight director at the Future Work Centre

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