The Value of Fact-Based Analysis
After the first ten years of my career, and landing my first management position, I became friends with a professor at a local university.
I came to respect him for his knowledge and capabilities, and through our work, he developed an interest in some of the projects and investments we were making in my part of the business. During one discussion, he asked if I had thought about pursuing my master’s degree. I told him that with a wife and two small children at home, a demanding job, and precious little time available already to spend with my family, that there would have to be a compelling case to do so. He basically shared that an advanced degree would not guarantee anything in terms of my career or compensation, but that I should consider it as an investment in myself and an investment in my capabilities, especially the capability to analyze facts in order to make better business decisions. After discussing the whole idea with my wife, she fully supported moving forward to pursue my master’s degree.
I won’t share the stories about the immense workload and sacrifices made by the entire family through three and a half years to complete my MBA, because any decision you make as an individual to invest dollars and time in yourself and your career has to be a personal one. Each situation is different and has its own set of criteria to help make that decision. But upon completion, I found myself with a valuable new set of capabilities and skills, ones that gave me confidence in how to best study and tackle any business problem.
In a nutshell, the best description of this capability was ‘fact-based and knowledge-based analysis and fact-based decision-making.’
It is critical to understand that in the white-collar professional world, the thing most business leaders hate the most is listening to opinion after opinion about business problems, including their opinions as to what the solutions to these problems should be. To quote an eighth-grade basketball coach I had: “Opinions are like rear ends; everybody has one.”
What business leaders find refreshing are those rare instances where someone within their organization takes ownership and takes on the work to:
(1) define, in writing, a problem the business is having
(2) study the problem via collecting very good data and facts about the situation
(3) perform objective analysis to reveal problem causes and possible solutions
(4) develop options to solve the problem
(5) compare and contrast options and recommend one.
Hell, even if someone would define the problem well and collect some decent data about the problem, this would be cause for celebration!
What you begin to discover around mid-career in the white-collar world is that tough problems rarely are solved through exchanges of opinions, although opinions will abound because they are so easy to generate. Good solutions to difficult problems nearly always (no, ALWAYS) require a very logical process, beginning with problem definition, collection of data, analysis of data, developing solution options based upon the analysis, then well-planned and thoughtful implementation.
My MBA work forced me to learn, and adopt, new ways of thinking and analysis, including a mindset of being rigorous in the approach used to problem-solving. My old ways of thinking about problems were gone for good.
What was fantastic about this new skillset was that when peers or others within the company would complain about a certain problem, I would always try to turn the discussion to asking what they would do to solve the problem. Once they fell into the trap of extolling the virtues of their opinion and solution, I would ask if they had any facts to support that solution. The normal reaction was a blank stare, or some comment about, ‘Well, I don’t have the facts, but any idiot would know that this is what we should do.’
But then, interestingly, they tended to not bring up the topic anymore. I found that later, in various management roles, that approach with complainers in my organization worked very well. Those reporting to me learned that I did not want to listen to them tell me about their problems without facts and analysis, and without their recommendations on solutions.
That, in turn, created a culture of setting expectations of finding solutions to tough problems, for getting results, and of fact-based analysis.
Just as one example, after a significant merger with a competitor, employee opinions began to abound revolving around which company had superior customer service and what should be done to bring the other ‘company’ up to par. In discussions with customers, there was no consistent message we heard to resolve the debate.
So, I assembled a small team of management from both organizations, and asked them to develop a very thorough survey that we would send to our customers. The goal was to gather facts about how our customer service was viewed by customers, and to have them contrast the two organizations before the merger, and to compare the customer service after the merger to what it was before.
In the kickoff meeting for the team, I heard from some that this was a waste of time, that we already knew the answer, and that it was clear that there was a solution that should be pursued immediately. I asked if they had any facts to support this opinion. You can imagine some of the responses. “No, but I just talked to customer X yesterday, and they agreed with me what ought to be done.” “No, but I have been around this industry for twenty years, and what has always been proven to be effective is….”
I urged the team that this issue was critical to get right, that excellent customer service was a key to our success. I wanted to see facts gathered objectively, and analysis of those facts to demonstrate what was really going on.
The team began their work, and in parallel, I began to search for the best books about excellent customer service, and I bought a copy of one particular book for every team member to read and discuss.
After about four months of excellent work, the study was complete and the facts and analysis showed some very clear options for us to pursue. What was extremely valuable was that this management team, having done the hard work, were in complete agreement about the real problems we faced and the best solutions to pursue. The study had built alignment, and a clear agreement about next steps!
This began a five-year transformation of our business, to one that was absolutely obsessed with excellent customer satisfaction. We learned that to solve such a big problem, there was no simple fix, that instead, we needed to pursue a series of projects over time to improve various aspects of our business processes. Over time, our customers took notice and began to compliment us for the changes they were seeing. Most rewarding of all, we began to see solid growth in our business, both in terms of revenue and in profitability.
This success all began with a foundation of solid fact-based analysis.