Let’s Be Scientific

As leaders, we are required to constantly evaluate evidence and make decisions.  In doing so, we often succumb to “winging it” and making decisions on the fly, trusting our gut.  While this might work for some decisions, it does not work for long term success.

Instead, we need to be scientific in our analysis of data and in our decision making.  Below, I offer some general guidelines on how we can all be more scientific in our daily leadership activities.

Know the Difference Between a Belief and Science: The easy way to differentiate the two is that if something cannot be disproved, it is not science. We see this most often in people’s ideology and viewpoint when we ask the question: what would it take for you to change your mind?  Without a good, open-minded answer to this question, you are dealing with a person’s beliefs.  As someone’s beliefs are strongly influenced by confirmation bias and are difficult to change, we need to avoid making a decision based on beliefs.

Use the Scientific Method: When doing data analysis, we must always begin with a hypothesis and see if our data proves or disproves that hypothesis.  When we look at data and then try to create a hypothesis after the fact, we are usually hypothesis hunting – looking for a pattern that confirms our current thinking.  And we have not proved anything.

Be Skeptical of Conclusions Drawn from Data.  In analyzing data, we need to remember five fundamentals:

  1. As the astronomer Carl Sagan said: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”  In other words, if something seems too good to be true, we need to have overwhelming evidence to prove that it is true.
  2. Popularity does not determine proof.  Just because a lot of people believe something to be true does not make it true.
  3. Correlation is not causality.  Just because two things happen at the same time or one after the other does not mean that one event caused the other.
  4. Small sample sizes do not usually determine anything.  In short, one or two anecdotes does not equal a trend.
  5. Data usually is messy.  When the data lines up too perfectly, it is usually too good to be true and shows either a flaw in the data or the result of some after the fact hypothesis hunting.

Consider the Base Rate: As I have written before: Use the Base Rate For Better Decision Making, we need to consider the base rate in analyzing our data and making a decision.  Just because something is now twice as risky does not mean much if the initial risk is infinitesimally small.

Evaluate the Decisions That We Have Made: We need to look at the decisions that we make and evaluate them.  Did we make the right decision?  Why or why not? Then, ask what we can do to make a better decision in the future.  Decision-making is not a pure science; but, we do well to make our decision-making more scientific.  This evaluation of our own decisions and re-calibrating our probability or views when we receive new evidence, has been shown repeatedly to improve projections and forecasting.  If we ignore our decision-making track record, we get too confident in our decision-making abilities and begin to make poorer decisions.  If we do not evaluate our decisions, we will end up being like those talking head ‘experts’ on television, social media, or the newspapers – ‘always certain, usually wrong.’


By being scientific and following these guidelines, we can make better decisions that will move our companies forward.


About David Shedd

David has been a President - CEO - COO of an up to $350M group of manufacturing, distribution, specialty retail and services companies, having led 22 different businesses from turnarounds to start-ups to fast growth companies.
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