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Navigating the Unseen: Assessing, Decisions, & Data in the Workplace

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

Rob Scalise, MS, MBA

The Manager Practitioner Series Part 3

In every organization lies a world unseen. A never-ending web of relationships, variables, and unknowns that can make or break earnings, start lifelong romances, or change the world. Navigating these turbulent waters is a struggle for even the most prestigious organizations to wade. It’s clear that some organizations do it better than others. Real humans are behind these successes, navigating this unseen world like pros, mostly people you’ve never heard of.

Part 3 explores decision-making and assessing your surroundings. Every organization looks and works differently. So does every leader. There are underlying factors to their success. We’ll build on Part 2 of the series and give you strategies to utilize the causal compass to enhance your effectiveness in almost any role. In a fast-paced business environment with resources on the line, assessments are mostly prioritized when something goes superbly wrong or surprisingly right. Pros, though, are vigilant assessors, constantly on the lookout for the right relationships to leverage strengths and plan for the barriers in front of them. So when the winds change, they have their reference points to guide their decisions.

Leadership & management is an exercise in navigation. To conquer the unseen world around you, you need physical markers. Gaining the high ground. Maintaining your bearings. Getting a lay of the land. These simple maxims may get overlooked, but their utility has stood the test of time. This same concept holds true in other unseeable events, like grounding activities for anxiety and symptom trackers for chronic illnesses. Their function is to provide points of reference. Giving you the vantage point to navigate your surroundings and spot opportunities or danger. After all, having a vision means nothing if you can’t see what’s right in front of you.

Just as great explorers constantly assess their environment to better prepare for the unknowns and unseen, so do great managers.

That Ship Has Sailed: The Downfall of Deductive Methodologies

A sinking ship of business and market fads that have since sunk.

Let’s try a bunch of stuff and see what sticks.

Somewhere between baking soda volcanoes, frog dissections, and igneous rock – we learned the scientific method. The classic procedure - hypothesis, experiment, measure, evaluate – has no doubt led us to humanity’s success and understanding of the world. Mostly beneficial in situations with many unknowns and a long leash, this deductive methodology doesn’t fit the pace modern organizations need. It’s also part of the reason assessments are considered second-class management tools. A big part of science is learning from failure, a great lesson indeed! The deductive process is often an exhibition of failure. The only problem is the real world doesn’t treat failure as kindly as the scientific community.

In business, the deductive approach (decide-measure-analyze-repeat) encompasses a large range of commonly repeated “strategies.”

The thing is – these are fads and buzzwords, not maxims. They’re now as dead as the dumb NFT apes. Sure, we can find the Zuckerbergs and Jay-Zs, but they are annoying outliers feeding those people chasing their success, not necessarily their wisdom. Most of these “strategies” were born out of idolization and hot takes from influential personalities, not any real kind of good management or leadership.

Some arguments can be made for these approaches in product development and start-up work where it may be beneficial to withdraw the “constraints” placed by management structure, budgets, and guidelines. A professor of mine coined this (and smiled way too many times) the “fuzzy front end.” I can argue just as easily that if you have guidelines and structure that leave people feeling constrained, you’re likely doing it wrong. Google (project oxygen) poured 10 years and all its resources into determining if management really mattered. Spoiler, it does, even for all the engineers out there.

We covered humans’ tendencies to take shortcuts in Part 1, a deductive approach strengthens behavior patterns that lead to shortcuts. From the great sunk costs to squalls of decision biases, the risk of framing personal assumptions as the main point of reference instead of the actual conditions is high. Drawing a map relying on your assumptions robs you of the physical markers needed to navigate. Leaving others to rely on a person’s ideas instead of the conditions affecting them, further straining relationships and motivation. A corrosive way to dim your light as a beacon of leadership. Once started down this path, even the most charismatic navigators can’t keep their company from turning sideways, even when they have decent ideas (see Adam Neumann at WeWork and Carly Fiorina at HP). The term to describe this best comes from the sports world – losing the locker room.

Charting a New Course: The Rise of Inductive Methodologies

A captain in control of her ship that is represented by a business building.

An inductive approach serves a modern professional leader well. In contrast with previous examples, the conditions in your environment become the focus. You can’t find the answers or see the barriers by searching in your head, you need to go to where the work is being done. Generally described as a data-driven, process-driven, bottom-up or solution-neutral approach, don’t get hung up on the names. The main function of an inductive approach is to provide physical markers to navigate the changing winds and conditions influencing your decisions. In other words, utilizing the causal compass like a pro.

Measure-analyze-decide-repeat. The inductive method is the basis for most modern management models and productivity software. From Google to Amazon, successful companies everywhere integrate technology and data into their management decisions. The pros are becoming experts at it. The cool thing is that these tools are available and affordable to companies of any size - from fully open and customizable to industry-specific options, If used properly, can provide a tangible advantage in any company’s operations. However, it’s important to remember that the software is only as good as those using it. Access to data and seemingly daily advances in technology can put the necessary tools at any manager’s fingertips and you won’t get far in a modern business environment without learning to use them.

The inductive method isn’t limited to software use and internal operations. Modern marketing and product development strategies live by it. Companies are spending increasing money on R&D and reaping the benefits. Top firms that employ a robust, bottom-up approach have been shown to have as much as 30% higher success rates and a 25% increase in profits from new product development.

A comparison of inductive (measure, analyze, decide, repeat) and deductive (decide, measure, analyze, repeat) approaches

The strategy isn’t challenging – it just goes against our instincts. This can be as simple as opening your workflow by asking questions instead of just going with your gut. Of course, there are clear-cut everyday decisions that do not need increased scrutiny. However, you wouldn’t make a deal without seeing the math first. It is up to the practitioner to use the tools at their disposal as they see fit. Often, this is an exercise in self-management.

The Treasure Map: Using Data and the Compass

A treasure map where data leads you the treasure

When I talk about this stuff, there’s always the feeling that executives and managers picture themselves running around with clipboards or running numbers through a database all day.

This is where the power of the causal compass comes into play. We can start viewing data not as a chore but as a treasure map, guiding us through the unseen world. Data becomes the building blocks for our new-found map, the physical markers to chart our journey. For example, knowing the average time your team spends on specific tasks can be insightful data. It can help you identify bottlenecks, determine if the workload distribution is balanced, or find tasks that could be automated or outsourced, freeing up your people's time for more important work.

To be clear, this isn’t about adding additional work for you or your teams. It’s about becoming more intentional with the information you’re already using. It’s about knowing and learning how to leverage the cause-and-effect relationships that drive outcomes. If you’re clear on what conditions lead to the behaviors you want (antecedent), you can then create the circumstances to foster those behaviors. This is akin to shaping the environment to make the 'right' behavior more likely. But, it doesn't stop there. A crucial part of this model also involves being intentional with the aftermath of those behaviors (consequence).

Let’s illustrate this with a simple example. Let’s say one of your team’s goals is to increase customer retention. Through assessment, you find that retention rates increase when the team holds regular check-ins with clients. The check-ins (antecedent conditions) foster better communication, leading to improved customer relationships and, therefore, higher retention (consequence). By understanding this, you can create the conditions that lead to more regular check-ins, such as setting policies and incentives that prioritize check-ins over sales call volume and rewarding more culture and customer focused work behaviors.

The beauty of data is that it comes in many forms and from various sources. It's not just numbers and spreadsheets. It's the feedback you receive, the observations you make, the experiences you gather. The point is, you can translate the desired goals into what those conditions (antecedents) look like for your people and motivate them toward those goals (behavior) by making the results (consequences) more meaningful. You need to know what will get your people moving to leverage data effectively.

The key here is to use data in an ongoing, interactive way to draw actionable insights for informed decision-making. Data, coupled with an inductive approach to management, helps create a robust strategy. A strategy that is based on reality, not assumptions.

Leadership & management is much more than a title to hold. It’s a journey into the unseen. Much like a Captain on the high seas, this journey is marked by continual adaptation, course corrections, and difficult decisions. This world may be complex. If you pay attention to the causal compass, understand the science of human behavior, and try to incorporate data into your decision-making process, you’ll find that the complexity is manageable. And, perhaps, you might even start to see the beauty in it.

Managing is not about controlling people, but about guiding them to control their own situations. It’s not about knowing all the answers but about asking the right questions and having the tools and methodologies to seek them. So, dive in, explore the data, use the compass, and let the unseen world reveal itself to you. Embrace the journey of discovery, one decision, one data point at a time.

Rob Scalise - Author and owner of Villiv

Learn more about Rob Scalise

The Villiv logo and motto "redesign the path"

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