Management by fact or management WITH facts?

In a recent discussion with colleagues, we considered the management approach taken by a progressive university in the US to enable change and improvement. One element of this change was a philosophy of ‘management by fact’. This particular university had found this approach to be helpful and made a difference to the way they made decisions and identified improvements. What had made a difference was not only that they used facts, but that they looked at those facts and considered them in a sensible (and helpful) manner.

But what are facts and why are they useful?

The sky is not less blue because the blind man does not see it.” (Danish proverb)

“Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please” (Mark Twain)

“It is not the facts which guide the conduct of men, but their opinions about facts; which may be entirely wrong. We can only make them right by discussion” (Sir Norman Angell)

Of course any person works and makes decisions using facts – don’t they? In reality people can use, ignore, interpret or distort facts. An emphasis of ‘facts’ can sometimes actually disguise a lack of understanding or  can be merely a knee-jerk demonstration of what a person sees as ‘effective’ management. In these cases the shortcomings are  inevitable:

paralysis by analysis’: an inability to consider options or initiatives if there are not facts to back-up the case. Analysis continues to be pursued ad infinitum (many organisations have missed major opportunities as a result).

deferred decision-making’: a continuation of paralysis by analysis. Decisions are only made when there is enough data to support them, so consequently no decision is EVER made.

If we can’t measure it we can’t manage it’: a mentality which although apparently plausible is simply not true; it just gives an excuse for not attempting to manage difficult things like behaviour, culture, trust, respect, potential, commitment, opinion, loyalty and reputation: ‘the sky is not less blue….

Management by numbers’: a command-and-control approach that expects people to jump through hoops to reach their targets. This only drives behaviour to get the numbers, but if those numbers measure the wrong things…

Game playing’ (or at least one variant): distorting numbers to make an argument (see Mark Twain’s quote); this can be creatively negative or positive, but both risk giving a warped sense of reality, and is an approach which is often fairly annoying for other people  and undermines trust and collaboration.

For the university in the case study (and it is a real institution), successful management-by-fact required a fundamental foundation of shared values & mutual trust between colleagues. Trust is important – it helps to avoid playing games with numbers or using numbers as sticks to beat over the heads of other people. Trust enables us to look at the facts together and have a discussion (see Angell’s suggestion above). We should use what we know and be ready to discuss the issues; as the case study university itself prefers to describe it; management with facts.


Further Reading:

Change Academy Recommended Resources,

Pfeffer, J. and Sutton, R.I. (2006) Why Managing by Facts Works, Strategy & Business enews, Booz & co.

4 thoughts on “Management by fact or management WITH facts?”

  1. Thanks for this, Simon. I agree that information is power and that what information is used and how that information is interpreted must be considered carefully. I look forward to more on the topic. Also, watch this space for a series on trust – starting later this week.

    1. I look forward to your post on trust, Cindy. A lack of trust is definitely a destructive influence in unhealthy organisations. Yet why trust is important is a poorly understood and often neglected aspect of work, although its advantages are very tangible. Trust not only oils the wheels of effective work, but it enables us to build positive relationships and frees up our ideas, effort and innovation (instead of wasting time thinking about how we can be better at ‘game playing’ and second-guessing other people). If we make working relationships more transparent it also gives us space to enjoy work with colleagues and allows us to engage in better sharing and collaborative work. You can’t buy trust, nor swap it, nor learn it (at least not on your own). It requires effort, which I suppose is why we use the term ‘building’ trust.

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