Leadership

Going Beyond Data in Decision Making

By / Jan 21, 2021 (metamorworks/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Data analysis is an important element in making informed decisions, but it’s not the only one.Your own experience and your team’s expertise can complement your data with a layer of human insight.

Leaders have access to an ever-growing sea of data to inform their decisions. But data is subject to bias, may not tell the whole story, and doesn’t always predict the future, especially as the world becomes more uncertain. That means relying only on data could lead organizations down the wrong path.

Data-based decision making is a powerful strategy, but leaders are more likely to unlock their organizations’ full potential by using data in tandem with other insights that may feel less concrete but are still valuable.

“The limitation is that you never have enough data,” says Meredith Low, a strategy and governance consultant who has experience with associations. “You still have to overlay judgment, intuition, and preferences on top of data.”

Reflect on Experience

The shift toward data-driven decision making “by and large has been a good thing,” Low says. “But you have to understand that data doesn’t tell you what to do. It’s one form of input.”

Data can provide valuable information, challenge preconceived notions, and eliminate incorrect assumptions, but it still might not provide you with a clear road map. That’s when leaders must draw on past experience to assess a situation and make the right call. Studies show that experience is valuable when leaders are confronted with uncertain information and complex decisions.

“Any data that you’ve got does not fully represent the complexity of the situation that you’re in,” Low says.

Don’t Dismiss Intuition

Using your intuition—the ability to understand something immediately without the need for conscious reasoning—might seem unwise when making big decisions. But studies suggest that nonconscious information can boost decision accuracy. And for psychologists like Gerd Gigerenzer, intuition is a valuable decision-making tool.

“We need statistical thinking for a world where we can calculate the risk, but in a world of uncertainty, we need more. We need rules of thumb called heuristics, and good intuitions,” Gigerenzer said in an interview with Harvard Business Review.

Intuition is valuable when you need to make quick decisions under pressure. Research psychologist Gary A. Klein’s Recognition-Primed Decision Model describes how people use past experiences to pick up on situational cues so they can make decisions in high-pressure conditions with little time for assessment.

“Any decision you’re making has to do with the future. And any data that you have, at best, is some kind of signpost to what you think possibly the future might be,” Low says. “There’s always that fundamental point where the data does not tell you what to do.”

On the other hand, relying too heavily on your gut without any critical analysis could cloud your judgment and leave you susceptible to being influenced by the way a problem is posed or framed.

Engage Others

When making decisions, consulting with a diverse group of coworkers or volunteers who offer unique perspectives can lead to better outcomes by mitigating any biases that might influence the way you interpret data or view a situation.

“The more diverse people are in decision-making bodies, the better the decisions are,” Low says.

With that in mind, the Association of American Medical Colleges created an executive committee to make important strategic decisions using a clearly defined process. As a result, the organization became more deliberate and transparent in its decision making, and all relevant parties had an opportunity to vet new ideas before they were finalized.

Michael Hickey

Michael Hickey is a contributor to Associations Now. More »

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