Evidence-based management: My No.-1 top hit

29 Mar

Evidence-Based Management, a Harvard Business Review article by the legendary Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton, should be enshrined in the B-School Pantheon, if there is such a place. Out of the articles and cases we’ve examined so far, this one tops my “most influential” list.

The business world is full of bluff and bluster. Everywhere from books to blogs, authors, consultants and charlatans are proposing this essential business principle or that. And the average beleaguered manager gamely goes along, seldom questioning whether there is really evidence to support this latest and greatest, and whether the “evidence” presented holds up to scrutiny or is even applicable to his company.

An example from my own experience: Back in 2000, AOL executives wanted to meet with my company’s CEO to pitch an internet advertising package. Normally, no media pitchperson ever met with the CEO – they were immediately routed to the experts in our department. We evaluated the merits of these sorts of pitches day in and day out. But AOL was about to buy Time Warner and was the hottest thing in business at that moment, the Google of its day. The AOL salespeople used this leverage to get a meeting with the CEO, and we ended up buying an expensive package which also happened to be ineffective. This purchase wasn’t made based on the evidence we usually applied to assess proposals, but on two of Pfeffer and Sutton’s six substitutes for evidence: mindless mimicry and hype.

Evidence-based management requires a change of thinking, a critical eye. To become an evidence-based manager, Pfeffer and Sutton suggest four habits:

  • Demand evidence – develop data and metrics to support your decisions
  • Examine logic – “What would have to be true if this idea were going to be effective?”
  • Treat the organization as an unfinished prototype – run trials, tests and experiments
  • Embrace the attitude of wisdom – appreciate how much you don’t know

To illustrate, here’s a great hypothesis about lack of evidence for social media building closer relationships, as posted on HBR last week. Quite honestly, I find Pfeffer and Sutton’s article so rich that even after three readings I am having a hard time cogently parsing it in one meager blog post. I’ll pore over it for years to come.


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