Alternative Facts or Alternative Conclusions?

Alternative Facts

Or alternative conclusions?

FactsWe seem to be learning from the current political debate that not only is it OK to invent alternative facts, (what we used to call lying), but that they are useful to explain and justify bad ideas. It may have proven to be effective in political campaigns, but it is definitely not recommended for subsequently making good management decisions.

In government and business, we will eventually have to deal with the real facts. Both those that help us define the problem and those that help us understand the consequences of our decisions and actions.

But even if we agree on the facts, the answers are not obvious. Alternative conclusions are still possible. And some people will be determined to ignore the facts and continue to rely on their pre-conceived notions.

There is a lot of research and commentary explaining our universal human tendency toward confirmation bias. That is, our consistent unquestioning acceptance of evidence that confirms our established beliefs and our equally stubborn denial of those that contradict our beliefs. Or as my mother wisely observed during my own brief venture into political campaigning over fifteen years ago, “There is no use in confusing them with the facts, they’ve already made up their minds.”

Important to remember though that the phenomenon applies to us all, not just those on the other side of the argument.

Arriving at agreed conclusions even from an accepted set of facts will always remain a challenge for leaders and managers. I had a memorable lesson in that principle early in my consulting career. I was responsible for an engineering work study to analyze a production bonus system that was unsatisfactory to both the union and management at a Canadian mining operation in Ireland. After thorough analysis, we made our objective fact-based presentation to each side and were astonished to hear them both conclude what they already thought before we started, “I knew those bastards were stealing from us!”

So for good management decisions and effective leadership, it is important to start with an agreed set of facts, then apply both rational argument and appeals to emotion, if necessary. Even then, some will not be persuaded until they see the results after the fact.

So how do we develop better solutions based on rational decision making? First, check that the facts are legitimate, verified and proven. Then accept that the selection and presentation of the facts is always biased by the source and their intent to support a particular argument or point of view. Consider your own biases and how they are affecting your assessment of the facts and the source. What are the alternative explanations and potential conclusions based on the same set of facts?

Then make the choices and develop your rationale before trying to persuade anyone else of your decisions and plans. It’s never as simple as “Just the facts, sir, just the facts.”

Your Uncle Ralph, Del Chatterson

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