Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-truths & Total Nonsense

If you had my contentious little soul, you too would like to pick up a book titled "Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths & Total Nonsense", and see if it does indeed live up to the promise of its title.

Written by Stanford Professors, Robert Sutton and Jeffery Pfeffer, this book first came to my attention through an article in The Economic Times back in December 2005. I’d even blogged it on Core77. So when I had the unexpected good luck to have Prof Sutton email me asking me if I’d like to take a look at it, now that it was almost published, I leapt at the chance to get my hot little hands on it. You know me, I need to feed my reading habit, and who doesn’t like a freebie? 🙂

I must say that I ran the gamut of emotions while reading it, from "Oho, that makes sense, I wished I’d said that" to "Hmmm, what is he going on about? That’s a silly idea" and didn’t know whether I like it or not. However, I can say that it fulfills the primary function of any good business book very well. It’s an effective and actionable idea, simple to implement and very powerful. Sutton and Pfeffer’s contention is that managers make decisions all the time based on the wrong reasons and that the "concept" they introduce is evidence based management.

About three years ago, when I was in my first semester of working for the Institute of Design as Director, Graduate Admissions, I first heard about the conventional wisdom long held at ID, that the majority of the enquiries from prospective students came from outside of Illinois and Chicago, therefore there wasn’t any local market. Something didn’t sit right about this factoid, and since I had to respond to enquiries by email, phone or walk ins, I knew that a high proportion of them were local candidates. So I set about analyzing the database of enquiries by State and Country for all our data, in 2003 going back to 1998. So I had enough years to do a trend analysis. The numbers showed that 65% of our enquiries were from Illinois, and almost a third from Chicago alone. This changed our communication focus and style, to respond to the evidence of the numbers rather than a long held belief.

What is so remarkable about this story is that I wouldn’t have understood its significance if I had not read this book. I learnt to analyze the situation and find the words to frame the problem from their articulation of what evidence based management really is. It is using the evidence of the facts to derive goals and strategy rather than beliefs or aphorisms, and thus improving performance in all areas.

It’s a challenging book, but, imho, a much awaited and well deserved one. I’m not comfortable with a book that makes me rethink some of the things I thought, i.e. it challenges some of my long held beliefs, but the force of their argument is such that I was willling to open my mind to read their message. It’s not going to be easy to change the way you think about something, especially when you’ve been around for a while, 15 years of reasonably improving performance sets up little habits, routines and problem approaching techniques that have always served you well and now take on the mystical qualities of a ‘ritual’ or ‘lucky charm’, but Sutton and Pfeffer are worth listening to. That’s scary. Here’s my favourite bit:

Design thinking is one of enlightened trial and error wherein one observes the world, identifies the patterns of behaviour, generates ideas, gets feedback, repeats the process, and keeps on refining.

That’s how I live my life. You see the irony is that here I was hoping Prof Sutton would take me on as a student 🙂 but I found that we’re saying the same things. Just our choice of words are a little different.

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