Boardroom Rules 1: The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data’

Mar 3, 2011

I can’t take credit for this saying (it appears to have been coined by a chap called Frank Kostonis), but it is a phrase that succinctly captures the problem most management teams face in the boardroom when dealing with Whitewater. When I coach management teams on how to make the most of their boardroom sessions, almost always the single biggest issue is in preventing anecdotal experience from hijacking the process.

You know the drill – someone arrives at the meeting with a bee in their bonnet about something that just happened (or an issue is raised that triggers in someone a painful memory of something that happened).

OK so far – but then someone else chimes in with a similar anecdote, and before you know it, the anecdote becomes data, and we’re off and running with analysis, prognosis and solutions…whether or not that particular topic / event / issue is truly central, strategic, or even valid.

And a month later, when the next meeting rolls round, guess what has happened to our hot button anecdotal topic? Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s lost. Gone. Forgotten…only to be replaced by a new anecdote…

All this may be fun to watch, but it’s highly destructive to achieving Predictable Success. The time, energy and wasted resources invested in ‘chasing the anecdote’ simply keeps the organization off track and shifts focus from what is really important.

Why does this happen? Two reasons:

1. It’s work avoidance.

Simply put, it’s easier to sit around talking ‘anecdote’ than doing the hard work of concentrating on real issues and analyzing real data.

2. It feeds the ego.

We all like talking about ourselves, and anecdotes usually insert the speaker into the discussion in some shape or form.

Eradicating anecdote-based discussions takes discipline, but will reward the organization (and the management team) with a highly accelerated path to Predictable Success.

Try these two simple rules:

1. Appoint an anecdote-buster. Someone whose specific job it is to monitor your management meetings and be alert for when anecdote is threatening to derail the discussion. [Hint: Processors are great for this.]

2. Learn to defer. If one or more of the management team are adamant that a particular group of anecdotes are indeed indicators of a real problem, schedule it for detailed discussion at the next meeting, and task them to come armed with real statistics and factual evidence to support their anecdotal concerns – often, you’ll find that the issue goes away in between.