Have you ever argued with someone on a topic you feel passionately about and feel you’re pretty well versed in when the other person has researched the topic and can refer to a variety of credible sources that have helped them to form their perspective. Chances are you came out accepting the other argument or feeling a bit silly. You’re shouting your opinions out, but you very quickly feel like you’re on loose footing.

In a world obsessed with data, many organisations still make critical decisions with enthusiasm, ambition and a bucket load of previous experience without really searching for a neutral base of evidence to support or debunk their choices. The danger of this is not only the bias of those involved (what has worked in the past, their own mistakes, looking for confirmation – to name but a few) but also the chance of missing changes in the external factors that impact the outcome. In our practice, we find the bias towards action can make clients shy away from taking a small amount of time to search out evidence, that critical extra stage. In these cases, it’s our job to gently remind them of the assumptions that might be stacking up and hopefully persuade them to, as one client put it, ‘challenge their arrogance’ that they have the answer right.

It’s not that opinions are not welcome, or that experience is not valuable. It’s that opinions and experience are not anywhere near as useful as good evidence. By good I mean well-considered, properly gathered and current – any amount of this stuff is better than none.

Evidence divides opinion

This idea of gathering evidence seems to split opinion, which is odd really when it has so many obvious benefits. Common arguments are it slows things down, it hampers creativity, we don’t have access to people to research with. All these things have simple responses. Evidence should speed up processes, the more confident we are about the foundations of a decision, the quicker we can make progress with our next steps. Evidence should unlock creativity. With a firm start point, you can push the boundaries without asking a client or team to take a huge leap of faith. Finally, if you can’t or are not willing to get some access to the people your decision is designed to serve, then you should probably lower your expectation of your ideas working in the first place.

What is an idea without evidence?

To take a step back, does an idea or initiative have any substantial basis without evidence? What is it? A hypothesis, a concept, a best-guess, a thought experiment. Until you test it – until you get some feedback from the real world it is just that. If you treat it like that, it’s incredibly valuable. With an understanding that it is not yet a ‘real’ thing, it’s an opinion, then testing it, in some way, to support or destroy it becomes an obvious next step.

Evidence is liberating

Without evidence, you risk going in the wrong direction – even if only slightly. Assumptions that start as harmless become baked into future thinking. Over time, that minor misdirection can become an enormous and/or expensive detour. Money and time are wasted, the pace you had gained can be quickly lost. Disagreements become all too common when everyone is guided by their own opinion, decisions are often dominated by those with the loudest voice or the biggest salary.

Evidence liberates teams and individuals – why agonise over the decision when you could approach it with fresh eyes and clarity. Stress rises as confidence decreases. Be guided by evidence and you can remove some of the strain that exists for most business leaders, convincing those around them a course of action is worth pursuing.

Ask yourself next time you make a confident statement in a meeting or team discussion: Is that an opinion? Do I categorically know it to be true? What could I point too that would help to guide me? If I got some evidence might it be proved wrong? How could I test it? Challenge yourself to let the evidence change your opinion.

One of the ways to gather evidence is to carry out research. If you want to a beginner’s guide, you should watch the recording of our Getting Started With Research webinar.

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