“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

A few months ago I attended a High School soccer match downtown which was scheduled to end just in time to get the spectators (who were largely from the suburbs) out into afternoon traffic. As the game wound down the usual debate began amongst the local traffic experts sitting in the stands about how to make the 25 mile drive back to our home town. “Take I-40 straight to 67 then go on up,” says one. “You’ll be stuck for an hour that way. Better to go through town and up I-30,” retorts another expert. “I never go that way at this time of day! It’s sure to be backed up,” says a third. I watched in fascination as these guys speculated as to the likelihood of traffic delays and the usual traffic patterns. No consensus was found and I was interested as to whether this was going to turn into a live experiment after the game.

Meanwhile I opened Waze (a crowd-sourced traffic and navigation app that gives near-real-time traffic updates and does a great job re-routing you). I looked at the traffic reports and estimated times on each of the routes that the local experts espoused. None of the options presented by these gurus was even close to being the best. The route around the downtown area to the south was at least 15 minutes faster than their options. I casually mentioned that the traffic reports disagreed with their assessments, and that real time information was available to them. Each of them had a reason why the app couldn’t possibly be right. “Oh that won’t be right today, it’s Thursday and some people don’t work on Friday so there will be more people crossing over at I-30.” “That way is at least 3 miles further. Even if you sit in a little traffic the direct route is better.”

I smiled and let it go. Not my problem if these cats want to spend more time in traffic than they need to. The app, by the way, compares current traffic speeds and determines the quickest route to your destination regardless of distance.

What interested me, though, is how adamant they were that their speculative knowledge was superior to the actual data available to anyone willing to pull it up on the little super computers in their pockets. Not only were they unwilling to consider data-based evidence, they justified in their own minds how their knowledge (based on personal experience) must be better than new knowledge gained from actual evidence.

It reminded me of other times I have seen people ignore facts and data available to them, instead relying on their intuition, experience or the “local knowledge” derived from anecdotes and conversations with the people they know. “This is how I was taught.” “Ask so-and-so… they’re the expert.” “This is the policy our higher headquarters put out.” “Oh, the regulation says this.” I can’t tell you how many times I have asked to see said policy or regulation in writing only to have a chagrined subordinate bring me the book with an updated understanding. Sure, sometimes they were spot on. Many times they were not. Sometimes people thought the regulation said something because they had seen it interpreted that way once, and for the rest of their lives they insisted on the same interpretation.

It’s really not their fault, though. We are kinda wired that way. Humans are a social animal and have descended from narrative societies. We prefer information we receive from people we know rather than from data. We like stories. We believe stories, even if they are not representative of the majority of cases in the world. We believe stories even when data exists that refute them. This is partially because stories are so often intuitively believable. If a story matches your personal observations you can just store it away as further evidence of your rightness.

The fatal flaw in relying on information gained from “everyone you talk to” is that the number of people you know is a ridiculously small sample size and is probably not very diverse. If data exists from reliable sources, why wouldn’t you use data instead of relying on word of mouth? And believing stories simply because they match your personal observations has some hangups as well: your observations are very limited compared to the evidence available in the world. Think about that for a second. If you’ve never been up in space your personal observations as to the shape of Earth would likely lead you to believe it is flat. Your personal observations are not always reliable. Neither are your friends’ and coworkers’.  So why do so many people ignore data and instead rely on anecdotes and stories?

It turns out that lazy thinking is far easier than applying critical thinking skills. It’s far faster and simpler to just go with what you’re told.

It also has to do with how much we love to hear those stories. Even if we know and understand the statistics regarding an issue we let personal stories influence us more than we allow data to (see Don’t Believe Everything You Think by Thomas E. Kida). Politicians, by the way, run on this human characteristic. This is why we rarely have useful political debates: the anecdote about the grandmother who has to choose between eating and her medicine is so compelling that we don’t pay attention to the other potential causes of her plight or the data that speaks to how well the system may be performing for the vast majority of people. It’s the story that sells.

The thing is that we are wired to listen to and understand stories, particularly ones that confirm our already-held beliefs and personal observations. We are wildly attracted to anecdotes, and often confuse them with data points. It’s important to note that the plural of anecdote is not “data.” It’s just another story.

It reminds me of the old Army adage: never let facts get in the way of a good war story!

So how do you deal with this as a leader? Skepticism. Skepticism is the art of questioning claims and holding that the accumulation of evidence is essential. This doesn’t mean that you don’t believe anything. Skepticism means that you are interested in understanding why you should believe things.

I often find myself asking my team, “How do we know we are on the right track? What evidence do we have?” If I get answers like, “This is what we’ve always done,” or, “Nobody is complaining so it must be ok,” I know we haven’t thought it through. When I ask for evidence and I get a story, I nearly always dig deeper. I often find that we have collected a couple of anecdotes and stopped looking.

Cutting through our tendency to believe urban legends and myths (my glib nickname for the anecdote-as-evidence approach) has helped avoid many common traps. Whether avoiding a traffic jam or heading off a million dollar folly in one of your programs, being appropriately skeptical can help you be a better leader. Asking the “why should I believe this” question and then seeking data-based evidence can truly help you and your organization make better decisions. It can also get you home faster.


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