Decision Death Spiral

Scott Berkun, the author of The Art of Project Management just blogged about the data death spiral:

Whenever data is misused as the only means for making decisions, a death spiral begins. The lust for data overwhelms all sensibilities. Cowardly decision makers howl in glee at reams of unnecessary data, while bright people sit handcuffed to ugly slidedecks and mediocre ideas. Decision makers forget their brains and wait for numbers, fueling an organizational addiction to unnecessary and distracting data.

What I like about Berkun’s writing (I’ve been flipping through his book) is that he makes claims like the one above, then gives examples. Sadly, the examples often sound too familiar. Here are two of his four examples for the above:

  • No opinions are considered without data. Opinions are good if they come from smart thoughtful experts. If you are in a world where you, as an expert, can’t make obvious improvements without 10 pages of supporting material, guess what happens? Nothing happens. People spend all their time defending the obvious and the scale of work, and the energy to improve, drops dramatically.
  • Creatives are hiding in the corner. (Good) Designers and other creative people know how to make things. Lots of things. They experiment and explore. When used properly they are a piston of progress. But if the landscape is data and analysis obsessed, creative types are relegated to refinement work, the least leveraged use of their talents. The team gets a fraction of their possible value.

Fortunately, he also offers solutions, including the suggestions that “instincts matter”, “people are better than data”, and consensus leads to group think. Most importantly, however, is the following:

  • Let go of the fear. Many people collect data to defend their choices should things go wrong. When bad things happen they point to the data and say “See! We did the right thing!” despite the results. This kind of paranoid, self-protective thinking weighs on a team: instead of ensuring success, people are protecting their asses. Most of us can smell it when a leader is in this mode and it puts the entire project on its heels. Insurance is for the birds: A good manager earns the trust of his team and lets them know that even in failure, he’ll take responsibility for what was done.