11 June 2011

When research proves the obvious, why do you need it?

There is a prevalent thought in the business world about the importance of data and research. I have seen places where people can only take decisions if it is absolutely proven by a respectable research firm that a certain course of action or element brings results to the bottom-line.

I am not against data, I am in fact a rather logical and analytical person, but data can only take you so far. The worse of all is when data becomes so important that you start wasting research money on things that should be common sense for anyone with a bigger brain than a monkey. Example: I recently read in McKinsey Quarterly (definitely a place where you have a hell lot of insanely smart people) an article about how talent made the difference in R&D.

What? So you are telling me that putting smarter and more talented people with good cultural fit in a highly intellectual-collaborative activity such as research and development will bring better results than putting incompetent ones? REALLY? That is new *raising the sarcasm sign*. Do you really need a research to show something that obvious? Apparently we do, because (lots of) managers are so obsessed with data that they are completely paralyzed if there is no research that proves a point.

The McKinsey research is not bad and there are useful data there on what are the best initiatives to have a talented team (unsurprisingly, one of them is only recruiting good people, looking not only for current skill, but also potential). Look, in my first leadership role, in a STUDENT organization, we knew that intuitively - fire under performers, hire only A-players, let them work, repeat.

Besides wasting resources with such research, there are 2 main disadvantages of relying too much on data to make decisions:

1 - You start late. If there is time to make research about the results something brings, someone else already tried it and is ahead of you. And while you are trying to copy their results, they already moved on the next level. It is a never ending catch game.

2 - You will miss the insights. Old anecdote: if Ford had made a research with his customers, the data he would have got is that people needed faster horses. Data cannot predict black swams.

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