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Deep Thoughts

Beware The Court Of Opinions

We all spend a lot of time with data. Whether that’s at work, in our personal lives or with companies collating and using our data to influence us.

Data is everywhere and it’s more precious than oil (perhaps).

We use a wealth of data to inform our decision-making processes. From using comparison sites to find the best home and car insurance, to company metrics to report on performance and growth. It’s an essential component of how we live and work.

With access to so much data in the modern era. Decisions based purely on opinions and assumptions should be far rarer than they are.

Yet, what I call the court of opinions, is used as a matter of fact in too many personal and professional settings.

I’ve experienced this many times in my 16 years in the HR/People/L&D space. Too many decisions are based on opinions and assumptions!

We still have (and have had for some time) a constant call for those in the profession of the people world to be data-savvy and evidence-based.

And that makes a lot of sense considering those of us in this industry are making decisions to impact people’s lives.

So a court of opinions is a dangerous thing to entertain in these matters.

I’m sure my fellow friends in the world of Learning and Development often experience this when it comes to the capability requirements of an organisation.

I’ve often found this area littered with opinions and assumptions off the back of behind-closed-door conversations and isolated comments. 

With little regard for data in these matters, it can be hard for us L&D folk to get clear on what’s actually needed.

Before I go on to share a few pointers on creating a more evidence-based culture amongst your stakeholders, let me first highlight that the very situation above is why I don’t do any TNA (training needs analysis) ever!

That might come to shock many people, but here’s why.

A TNA is the equivalent of asking a 5-year-old to write a wish list for Santa. This means it’s full of a bunch of crap that is designed to excite for a short moment but often has no real long-term need or value. (Sorry to all the 5-year-olds out there, I’m sure your parents take the list seriously 😒).

Basically, IMO a TNA is asking for trouble. 

Your giddy-eyed leaders will ask for stuff that’s fun vs actual impact, and you’re going to have a series of difficult conversations in explaining why your local L&D Santa is not going to deliver little Jimmy that 5-day leadership jolly in Dubai.

What people want and want they need are often two very different things.

Ok, rant over…

Let’s focus on how each of us can influence a culture of evidence-based conversations within a court of opinions. For me, this all comes down to asking better questions in the role of a coach. We could call this coaching for L&D folks!

The first question in a scenario like this has to be “Do you have any data to support these opinions?”. You can of course make that sound much friendlier than I have.

If the answer is Yes, then great. An easy decision tree and you can break down the data to get a deeper understanding of the potential problems at hand. But if it’s a No (and 9 times out of 10 it is), then we have some work to do.

If we reach a No, ideally the outcome is to encourage a pause in the discussion and seek that data.

Yet, I imagine, this probably won’t be an option that your stakeholders take a liking to. However, we can deploy a series of questions in the moment to either a) point to a real need for that data before any decisions are made or b) wipe the opinion off the table completely.

Now, a certain finesse in the delivery of this will be needed. You’ll have to make that assessment yourself based on the recipients. Here’s a list of questions you could use to get to either outcome.

  • What are we trying to solve?
  • What exists today?
  • Why is this important?
  • Is your audience aware of x problem?
  • How will you measure x?
  • What’s your metric of success?
  • Do you have any data on that?

Often I’ve found the right combination of these questions helps in landing at A or B.

By frequently bringing this inquisitive mode of challenge to the court of opinions, you can start to shape the culture in which decisions are made toward a more data-based approach.

The goal here is to influence behaviours towards a data-first line of investigation.

In making this more conversational at first, you can build a sense of credibility and trust among your stakeholder groups. Over time the introduction of data visualisations and outputs of any data gathering tools you use can be integrated to validate decisions made from your conversations.

Challenging perceptions, opinions and assumptions are all part of not just the modern learning professionals day to day but in anything we do.

If like me, you’ll probably find this spills into your personal life and go as far as to question whether one chocolate brownie is better than the other based on data from reviews and nutritional info.

To be clear, I’m not saying that perceptions, opinions and assumptions are evil. They can be useful forms of what I call emotional data when used with the right intention. 

However, they can be deceiving. Especially to those who hold them tightly. 

As always, these are just my two cents on the subject. I hope these thoughts might be of help in your own work and who knows? Other areas of life too! (P.S…learn more about the consulting approach of a performance engineer here).


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