All Articles Leadership Strategy Don't let data trick you if you want to create a new future

Don’t let data trick you if you want to create a new future

Data can identify patterns and illuminate future choices, but relying exclusively on data is like driving relying only on the rearview mirror.

7 min read



SmartBrief illustration

I want to begin by saying I don’t believe in judgment calls. Or, better said, I don’t believe that when we make judgment calls, we are judging with our guts. No, I believe that what we call “judgment calls” are just decisions where factors other than facts and past evidence are considered in the decision-making process.

What we should be asking is: When do we allow factors others than facts and evidence to be considered in the decision-making process? Do these other factors belong in the decision-making process? How do we know when to consider those other factors when decision-making?

Consider my situation: On a Friday, I was invited to facilitate a three-day retreat with the top management of a nonprofit organization I’ve never worked with before. Because it was a new organization (to me) and considering the high stakes of the work (the nonprofit was considering closing its doors), I would normally take a few weeks to prep (as past failures have taught me the importance of distinguishing between the espoused purpose and outcome of a retreat versus the real reason for having it.)  But the CEO said the retreat was in two Mondays. Knowing the risk involved, knowing that — rationally speaking — it was not a good idea, I decided to take the assignment. Why?

The factors that played a role in my judgment call to facilitate the retreat:

  • I wanted the new client and was determined to make it work.
  • I wanted to test my own ability to improvise with little information.
  • I engaged with a sense of adventure and the thrill of getting into a potentially risky situation.
  • I was curious to experiment with shorter preparation time and wanted to see how I would bring a typically much longer preparation process to bear in only five days.

Now, I am not a big believer in asking why people do things because I think we often make up answers. We tend to answer with the noblest explanation — “I did the retreat because I am risk-adverse and flexible” — and discard the less complimentary one —“I need a new client” or “I am crazy.” But we do the exact opposite when we have to explain why other people do things. We tend to discard their noble explanations and often believe the less generous ones.

I will put this objection on hold for a moment and will continue, despite the impossibility of considering every factor in my decision and being fully aware of my limited capacity for an objective account of my own decision-making process.

No doubts: based on past data I should have said no. Yet if I were to rely on past data only and not on those other factors, I would have foregone an opportunity to learn about myself and given up a great experience for my client’s organization.

I believe that the challenge of creating a future for ourselves and others lives in a different domain than relying on fixing, changing or re-engineering based on past data. Simply, it relies on creating. That starts right in the decision-making moment of saying yes!

(I should confess: During that decision-making process, I felt the thrill of the possible failure, and like a gambler ready to lose all his money for just one more bet, I was OK with it. I had no idea how I would handle it, but my answer to “How?” was “Yes!” Yes, I was ready to lose it all.)

Credit: Stencil

In business, like in personal life, we rely on data. Yet data is about yesterday, not tomorrow. Data can identify patterns and illuminate future choices, but relying exclusively on data is like driving relying only on the rearview mirror.

Based on the past, I should not have accepted the job. So, clearly the decision to facilitate the retreat was a different kind of decision — the kind of decision where faith has a role because it was about creating a new future. I had faith that this retreat was a way to stretch myself and experiment with the intention of helping others. I had faith in the power of coming together to create a new future for this organization. I had faith in people’s ability in that organization in crisis to make things better for themselves.

This raises the question: When should we rely on faith to make decisions in business? I believe the answer is every time we are creating the future rather than fixing the past, every time we are trying to answer questions we don’t even know we have. (I am sure you would admit that this is pretty weird territory!) We should rely on faith every time the work is not about not knowing in the domain of fixing — because if it were, we would simply look for an answer — but about not knowing about not knowing, in the domain of creating the future.

This is a strange place to be for business-oriented, fact-finding, strategy-minded, brilliant people!  Yet when we are in a place where we aren’t looking for answers but for better questions, when inquiry takes over it brings unexpected insights on our way of being in the world. And we soon discover that these kinds of decisions aren’t about “what to do” but more about “who we are.”

Data has been on the wrong side of history every time the world has changed. Data tells us that Goliath always has and will win against David, that 13 small colonies under British rule have no business asking for independence and will not prevail against the biggest empire on Earth, that women have never voted before and should not have the right now. Real entrepreneurship, even in large organizations, is about creation. Corporations, organizations and communities like to make decisions based on data, yet the entrepreneurial spirit of the founders who gave birth to those companies, organizations or communities is often the result of the courage of upholding dreams — that goes well beyond the present data, to make connections, establish patterns and venture into unpredictable, frustrating and uncomfortable territory to create a place of possibilities.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t take into account data or that there aren’t more or less effective ways when we are in this strange, new territory of creating a future.  The decision-making process in this domain is less about data and more about adopting a different mindset, another way of being like: being faithful and idealistic about the future, being open to being wrong, having the courage to face reality, thriving in uncertainty, creating clear parameters for what success and failure look like, being committed to the experiment.

If I were to discuss the process I used when making a judgment call that couldn’t be analyzed entirely on past data, I would say: “I don’t know why I say ‘yes’ to the retreat. All I know is I wanted to create a new future for myself and that organization and felt that facilitating the retreat was the way to start doing it.”


Adriano Pianesi is a leadership practitioner, faculty member of the Carey Business School, Johns Hopkins University, where he also teaches for the Office of Executive Education. Through ParticipAction Consulting, his consulting practice, he helps diverse groups of people come together to solve tough problems, and helps leaders work for change by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity. He is a faculty member of the World Bank “Team Leadership Program” and of the State Department “Experiential Learning Program”. He is the author of the e‐book “Teachable Moments of Leadership” where he describes a state‐of‐the‐art experiential leadership learning methodology that gets real results. Visit his website.

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for SmartBrief’s free e-mail on leadership, among SmartBrief’s more than 200 industry-focused newsletters.