Recently I had a conversation with a retired vice-president of a billion dollar company about America’s youthful entrepreneurs. Of course, he mentioned the CEOs of Facebook, Google and Microsoft. He immediately got into his admiration for the youngsters who started their businesses barely out of their teens, commenting that if it wasn’t for youth we wouldn’t have much in the way of new business.
I’m too old to be governed by obviously-wrongheaded ideas, no matter where they come from, even when they’re from major executives. So after he finished, I paused and then started sharing the research on entrepreneurs: in sum, he was dead wrong. The huge majority of successful entrepreneurs are past the age of 40 when they start their first company.
He was silent for a moment. Then he started disagreeing with me, totally ignoring the fact that I’d emphasized the research. I listened quietly, then commented that it was all very romantic to believe in Gen-Yers. They certainly bring a lot of useful stuff to the party. But the facts of the matter just wouldn’t support his notions. He’s a very nice guy who occasionally pays attention to me, not least because I drive a Mercedes (crazy). It was clear, however that his intuition was working overtime, and I wanted to suggest to him that he tell his gut to shut up. . . .
Who gives a crap?
That’s the easy question. Anybody that wants to up their success rate will find that research is a very handy tool. The research can sometimes tell you what you don’t know and what you need to know. But sometimes the research will do more than that. Sometimes, at least from my point of view, the research stinks. It tells me that answers to our questions don’t exist and may never exist.
In fact, for all the secrets and formulas, for all the great offers from so-called thought leaders, we’re still clueless about what makes for real, consistent success in business. Success, especially with increasingly global competition and technological change moving at break-neck speed, is still not supported by definitive answers. Though there are a lot of helpful answers to success, there’s no plug and play solution for gaining a leg up on your rivals. What we do know is that the more successful people and businesses work very hard at managing all the probabilities. And since that kind of research is available in bits and pieces, I’d give a crap for finding out about it and the biases that keep me from believing and using it. I’ve learned that systematic research can up my batting average even though there are no home-runs.
Why don’t people believe in research?
I’ll vent my spleen on the first answer to my question. The media is just not very helpful. The media love to figure out a conflict, point out when quirky research was wrong and misunderstand research in the first place. So one reason people don’t believe in research is that they’re almost congenitally set up to reject it by the media.
But there are a number of reasons that fit in the general category of learning. My intellectual buddy, Max Bazerman, lays out a number of them that, to my mind, apply to the question:
---The desire for balance
For those who have achieved some level of success in their profession, like my executive crony, the idea that their intuition could be lacking just doesn’t compute. In fact, balance theory suggests that we seek consistency when organizing our thoughts. So we continue to believe that we have no lack of insight and intuition. To maintain this cognitive balance, we are likely to avoid such hard truths.
---Missing the big picture
Even when they try to learn new ideas people get so wrapped up in the details of new situations, that they miss the big picture. When looking at research, you always need to be asking questions like how’s this skill going to fit in my toolkit, how will it impact my overall performance, where does it fit in our strategy of client relationships?
---The truth is hard to take
Many have relied on their current intuitions--and skill sets-- for years and years. The desire to change requires you to admit that you’ve made costly mistakes in the past—a realization that’s bound to be unsettling. No surprise that most of us seek to avoid feedback, or the truth about our intuitional deficiencies.
--If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Assuming you’ve reached a level of professional success, it’s likely that you have been praised in the past for your prowess. According to reinforcement theory, we tend to continue behaviors that reap positive rewards such as raises and promotions. If your intuitive strategies have brought you to the top, you’ll tend to resist information—and that includes research--suggesting that your judgment could be systematically improved.
--Lack of effective information gathering tools
Even if people know that they need to add research, including evidence-based research, to their toolkit, they’re hamstrung by lack of information-gathering tools. They don’t have a useful network, don’t know how to identify cutting-edge tools, or don’t have any awareness of how to Googlize their way to needed tools—and won’t ask directly for help. And candidly, the communication people and org behavior scientists are just beginning to deal with this problem. All of which means that business person needs to be proactive to pick up on research needs.
I think it's good to have research studies and books and articles and blogs that show why it's important for us to use research. It's also crazy that we need so much proof. The argument is as simple as this.
Photo by flickr: fishbel