My stint with an organizational development group taught me an important principle expressed in a saying often attributed to Benjamin Disraeli but popularized by Mark Twain: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
Regardless of when it first originated, this maxim appears to have anticipated my misfortune, which served as an eye-opener to me on a number of levels. The practices of a Fortune 500 company that frequently claimed allegiance to a mantra of "data-driven" became an assault on my sense of right and wrong. In the end though, the absurd level of hypocrisy surrounding this principle helped me redeem my focus on the need for real information.
A culture of collecting data. From the time I set foot at this company, I noted that information, rather than serving as a stabilizing force for sound judgment, was used mainly as a blunt instrument to control people. Under most circumstances, if someone was veering toward a decision, or in some cases, threatening someone's pet project, then all questioning was silenced with a terse interjection, "This needs to go offline so we can gather more data."
I learned that the "data-driven" flag became the pat response to everything. If you had evidence, then you generally needed more evidence to move forward with any course of action. But there was rarely enough real evidence to generate a case admissible in the court of the executive staff. So often we were pushed to cook up evidence for those above.
If the most senior management wanted to throw out a decision or create a new mandate, the standard of data required often went away.
I learned the most profound lesson about this "data-driven" phenomenon from a top executive at the company when I sent out a very simple email that evidently ruffled feathers. For my part, I had been only pressuring a handful of managers who had committed to an initiative I was driving at the time.
The company had professed that this program was crucial and essential to the organization, with everyone from the CEO on down had saying so. As a midlevel manager, I took it at face value that the program I was managing needed to deploy.
Cashing out. The problem was that since the company stock's was at an all-time high, a number of the senior-level managers had begun to exercise their stock options and were heading out the door to retire. Now I certainly did not blame anyone for wanting to retire. But each manager had committed to the initiative long before the start of that year.
When retirement started coming into the picture, all bets were off. I received notices that four managers would be leaving. It was apparent that they all intended to blow off their previous commitments. These guys were done with the company, and my group would be left holding the bag.
I was frustrated, but in a moment of clarity, I drafted an email that put the responsibility on each of the business groups represented by the retiring managers. I was not rude or accusatory. I simply stated the facts: Four senior-level managers were retiring and had walked out on the initiative. I stated that I understood that the initiative was important to the groups, that many people were counting on the program to deploy; I asked if there were other managers willing to step up to serve the needs of their respective groups.
The email was sent to five people, so it certainly was not broadcast. The email had its intended result, and I received enough offers from managers willing to step up for the initiative to go forward. As far as I was concerned, my quick thinking had fixed the problem and saved us all from potential turmoil and significant losses.
A potential crisis in management. A few weeks later, my manager mentioned that I had really ticked off one of the executives with my email. He wanted to let me know that this message had caused the executive to launch a "study" of the crisis of management departing the firm. He also explained that the "study group" had determined that there was no crisis.
I could not believe it. I may have started chuckling. I told him that I had said absolutely nothing that would suggest a crisis of management. It seemed to me that someone was being a bit defensive.
Really? Launch a study? I stated somewhat sarcastically that from now on, I would be more careful with my communications about factual information.
This set me to thinking about the conversations surrounding the executive "study" and how it had been conclusively determined there wasn't a management crisis. Valuable time and effort had apparently been wasted on such nonsense, and I was left with a bad feeling about this person and the company.
Had I been approached, I would have gladly shared all sorts of valuable information that I had received directly from a handful of senior managers. Behind the scenes what I was hearing from senior managers was that there was in fact a crisis of management: The handful that I talked reguarly said that the company's culture had become one where everything was merely a show, with no real decisions, just double talk and nonsense.
But I realized that members of the executive staff did not want to actually engage with a lowly project manager and that much of what we did within the company was simply weak image management. Real information obviously held no value for this executive nor the people at the company; it was much preferable to exist in a perpetual "data-driven" delusion of their own creation.