A fact learned is forever.
Planning for an upcoming trip to Southern India involves a whole host of preparations to ensure its success. Experience of travel in South Asia teaches travellers to think about climate differences, cultural norms, visas and most importantly health issues. Indeed previous visits required a significant number of inoculations and a decision on malaria prophylaxis so early consultation with an travel health expert is always recommended. Imagine the surprise when not only did I not need any injections but that whole swathes of the Indian subcontinent are now low or no risk for malaria! As a manager and leader we pride ourselves on making decisions based on the facts, but what I knew about malaria in India was wrong so what about everything else I’ve learned in the past?
Decisions based on our world view.
What sort of facts might change was my next question, and there is a surprisingly large number affecting all sorts of issues. How tall is Mount Everest, that must be constant? Well actually it changes as the snow cap compacts, weight increases/decreases with weather, the tectonic plates move and technology allows more accurate measurement. Where does Israel get its fresh water from?, a significant reason for the failure of the peace talks in the 1990’s. It was largely the river Jordan basin but over the last 20 years has been diversified with desalination and other sources changing the balance. How do the majority of people access the internet? Last year in the UK Ofcom reported more than 62% was via mobile devices rather than desktop’s with ownership of smartphones doubling in just 6 years. What is the most reliable method of oncology diagnosis, a world class specialist or AI? In work at Johns Hopkins in the US, IBM Watson has proved more reliable and certainly quicker at diagnosis. These slowly (and not so slowly) changing facts are called ‘mesofacts’ by Samuel Arbesman and a surprising amount of everyone’s knowledge falls into this category.
Getting right to the (right) facts.
So if the facts can change, logically so should the decisions we base on them. Our decision making biases and heuristics are however firmly rooted in what we already know. It’s much easier to use information where the outcome was OK last time than to constantly start from a blank slate or tabula rasa. If we assume the next digital transformation project we are undertaking will be on desk based PC’s like our last one, will it likely be more successful than one with a mobile first approach? Is our supply chain able to rapidly supply products to service the new customer we just signed? These are real business challenges where recent decisions made by leaders were based on the facts of rear-ward experience. What many describe as critical thinking is required to make sure decisions are made on the right facts looking forward, not just those to hand from previous experience.
A prescription for factfulness.
What can possibly go wrong? It’s clear that facts can and do change and the results really do matter to decision makers. Hans Rosling in his recent book Factfulness suggests that business leaders will need to care more about this in the future than managing daily minutiae. He identifies ten rules of thumb to help getting to the right facts.
Where should we start? Five strategies appear both obvious and hard at the same time now we have some rules of thumb to apply in our testing of the facts.
- Learn- Foster a culture of continuous learning for individuals and the organisation.
- Curiosity – Be open to new ideas and influences and deliberately seek them out.
- Adapt– Change your view to the world as it is, not try to make outdated strategies fit.
- Un-learn – Be prepared to abandon knowledge but retain the learning from gaining it.
- Question – Ask what is important, how transparent and widely shared is this.
Creating a culture which is fact based and has learning and curiosity at its heart should be the aim of every leader to build a successful and resilient organisation.
‘the illiterate of the twenty first century won’t be those who can’t read and write, but those who can’t learn, unlearn, and relearn’ Alvin Toffler.
The foundation of any successful decision should be sound facts. As a designer I frequently fail-safe to tried and tested solutions however in a world where the energy consumption of the buildings I designed have reduced by 80% in my working life, this is not sustainable or realistic. Change is the new normal and we each need to learn new ways to succeed, by preparing in advance, developing strategies and tools to thrive and grow in the face of disruption.
Rosling, H et al., 2018. Factfulness. Ten reasons we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think. Hodder & Stoughton.
The author, Paul Hancock is a Resilience Consultant at 360 Resilience Ltd. www.360resilience.com