Data Driven to Do Nothing that Matters

It’s been one of those months where the phrase “data-driven” just keeps popping up in conversations to the point where I am both irritated and intrigued.

Irritated because I suspect some of these people are just claiming they use data because the experts tell them they should. Irritated because I know very few organizations ask good questions, have the right metrics or systematically use all their expensive data.

Intrigued because I am starting to wonder how much data we really need to make good decisions. Intrigued because I suspect no matter how loud the numbers may scream, tough decisions still require wisdom and leadership.

Data driven strategies is number 3 on the short list of things remarkable associations do, according to ASAE and the Center for Association Leadership’s landmark research study, 7 Measures of Success. No wonder everyone wants to become data driven. This book advises that remarkable associations continuously track member needs and issues as well as the wider environment, analyze that data, and then decide what to do about it.

But what if it isn’t even the right data? Associations track how many members or customers they have, but they rarely probe for any measures of engagement. Too many organizations simply ask how satisfied people are with their products and services, rather than did they achieve their intended purpose. They measure progress against their strategic plan as if it is a to-do list of tasks to be completed rather than strategies to accomplish real outcomes.

I’m drowning in some of that data right now to help an association board make smarter decisions about the stewardship of its resources. This association has been asking better questions than most do. This association asked how valuable each product and service is in advancing the member’s career, promoting the profession or contributing to society. These are all dimensions of the association’s mission and vision. The association also tried to quantify the level of effort by adding up staff and volunteer time, direct expenditures, and judging the degree of difficulty.

Now I’ve got the entire portfolio of products and services arrayed on a stewardship matrix. It presents a very striking picture of the association. We could talk about the patterns and insights for an entire board retreat and probably will because this board has looked at less elegant versions of similar data before. Its leaders would be the first to admit they have sidestepped the tough decisions too long. I’ll have to report back on how well they did this time. This road to hell is always paved with good intentions until the small constituencies who care object to the change.

So the next time I hear an organization leader say we’re data driven, maybe I will have the courage to ask: what is your data driving you to do? Is it even the right data to drive the outcomes you want?

If all you really have is numbers on a spreadsheet, no sense of what really matters, and little courage to act, nothing will change except finding a new management mantra of the month to substitute for leadership.