Show me the evidence!

by | Nov 1, 2011 | Blog | 2 comments

“In God we trust; all others must bring data.” This quote, widely attributed to W. Edwards Deming, father of business effectiveness and quality improvement, could be the rallying cry for another movement: evidence-based management.

The goal of this nascent movement is to apply the current, best evidence in research to everyday business practices. In other words, don’t go just with your gut. Instead, consult the scientific knowledge. Make decisions that take into the account the science and act accordingly.

Even though I’m a believer, it’s not easy to always follow the practice.

For example, take the study How Managers Use Multiple Media: Discrepant Events, Power, and Timing in Redundant Communication. The study’s kernel of truth is: When you need employees to act, repeat your message. Redundancy is more effective than clarity in getting your message across.

Based on this research conducted by Harvard’s Tsedal Neeley and Northwestern’s Paul Leonardi, effective managers repeated their requests of employees at least twice in order to get employees to act. Furthermore, the academic researchers found that managers who were deliberately redundant using different media were able to advance their projects faster and more smoothly.

Admittedly, when I first heard about the study, I was horrified. As explained in the blog post Reinforce, yes; repeat, no, I was concerned that redundancy creates waste, specifically overproduction. Who needs or wants multiple messages saying the same thing clogging your email box?

But as I re-read the study, thought about it, and observed myself and others over the past few months, the research results proved more accurate than my instincts. Repetition works. I’m not going to change my company tagline from “clear credible change” to “repetitive credible change.” However, I am strategically building more repetition into my plans.

Who knows how long repetition over clarity will rule? Message fatigue is a concern. And as Spotify investor and former Facebook President Sean Parker recently said at a conference, “The world is changing so quickly that it’s hard – very hard – to get anything right for long.”

You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. Unless you keep on top of the science, you can easily find you’re adopting upside down solutions.

For example, consider Google’s Project Oxygen, as described in the New York Time’s article Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss. A team of Google statisticians extensively analyzed the company’s performance reviews, feedback surveys and nominations for top-manager awards, studying and correlating comments (kudos and complaints) as well as phrases and words.

In a nutshell, the Google experts discovered that the technical expertise they thought was so important for managing at Google ranked dead last. Instead, people preferred a different profile.

Google used this knowledge to revise its selection, training and coaching of managers, which paid off quickly. According to the article, Google noted statistically significant improvement in manager quality for 75% of its worst-performing managers.

This data-driven approach helps bridge the huge gap between what business often does and what science knows. This is one of the many powerful points author and Northwestern alum Dan Pink makes in his groundbreaking book, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us.

For some simpler ways to link research to actions, join David Youssefnia, PhD of Critical Metrics, one of my long-time collaborators, and me on Nov. 17 at 9 am PT for a free one-hour teleclass Measurement beyond engagement surveys. I’ll interview David on how to measure more and reap the benefits. You can sign up now at (Registration also gives you access to the recording.)

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, you also can join me on Monday, Nov 7 at Generating Innovation In Your Business and Career: Information, Collaboration, and New Ideas, sponsored by the Northwestern University Alumni Association. Professor Paul Leonardi (yes the redundancy researcher), who’s a Professor in Northwestern’s School of Communication and McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the keynoter. He’ll share his cutting-edge research that shows how effective management of information can improve innovation.

Online registration is open through Thursday, Nov 3 at If you attend, please be sure to say “hello” during the networking reception. I’m one of several industry experts participating.

Even though the road to good intentions is paved with hell, I continue to try to bridge the gap between what science knows and what business does. While there is a place for intuition in business, we need to respect science. Where are you on this road?


  1. Deb

    I’ve picked this up for my curation stream on change (Change Leaders Watch) on ScoopIt. It goes with a maxim I’ve found useful when communication change, “Not one method, not one time, not one group.”

    Thinking in systems, those reinforcing messages keep the learning moving, the momentum building.

    Right-sizing the repetition, and finding the different ways to say the same thing so it can been heard & reinforced by all, seems to be part of the skill & art!

    Thanks for the thoughtful post, Liz!

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Deb, What a great maxim! “Not one method, not one time, not one group.” Thanks for sharing.

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