If we had better data, we would make better decisions – or would we?

I have spent most of my career getting data, improving data, analyzing data and interpreting what data means. In the early part of my career I was engaged in research as an academic, for the pure curiosity of learning and developing a better understanding of human systems (in my case, family and work place). I left academics because I wanted my data analysis to make a difference in real decisions, and entered the “real world” of organizations trying to accomplish something – providing better health care, building better cities, or saving and improving people’s lives. I have been operating with the basic assumption that if decision makers have access to data, including analysis and what it means, they will make better decisions. I have worked hard to establish data governance and improve data quality, with the belief that better data means better decisions.

Recently, however, I have started to question this hypothesis. While many decision makers say that they would use data to make decisions, if it were only better, I am no longer sure about that. I see some people use whatever data they can get to learn more about whatever problem they are grappling with, while others use their own intuition, which to be fair is built on their experience, which is a form of data. So perhaps the distinction between “data-driven” and making decisions based on intuition and experience is really about being open to data from other sources outside oneself.

It begs the question, how do people actually make decisions? To what extent do they look outside themselves, and allow themselves to be influenced? There has been extensive research demonstrating that many of us don’t make “rational” decisions, meaning our decisions are contrary to what evidence would support (Dan Ariely’s work is really interesting, if you want to read more on this).

My question to you – have you seen someone in a leadership position make decisions based on data and analysis? If so, what supported that?

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