Robert I. Sutton: Making a Case for Evidence-Based Management

Business wisdom is pretty straightforward, says author and Stanford professor Robert I. Sutton: Act on the best evidence possible, and learn from your mistakes.

Robert I. Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford Engineering School, has tried several times to complete a book about wisdom and management. After two stalled attempts to write a book with the prospective title The Attitude of Wisdom, he and Jeffrey Pfeffer, coauthor with Sutton of The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), set out to write the forthcoming Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management (HBS Press, March 2006). When they finished it, says Sutton, "Jeff turned to me and said, 'We finally wrote the book on wisdom when we wrote this book.' "

Sutton, who is also codirector of the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization at Stanford, notes that, like the vast majority of ideas, the notion of evidence-based management is not new.

"You know, in 1911, Frederick Winslow Taylor had a bestseller called Scientific Management that examined the same ideas. Still, I think we have a somewhat different point of view on the topic." For Sutton, evidence-based management isn't just about sifting through mountains of management research before making decisions. It's about testing ideas, and learning from your mistakes. It's really an attitude—in fact, you could call it the Attitude of Wisdom.

Sutton, a member of CIO Insight's advisory board, spoke at length with Editor-in-Chief Ellen Pearlman about what makes a manager wise, and about how to further that attitude in your own organization. An edited version of their conversation follows.

CIO INSIGHT: How did you and Jeffrey Pfeffer come to write this book?

Sutton: The basic idea of our last book, The Knowing-Doing Gap, was that there are many situations where people in organizations know what the best practices are, or have a very strong belief about what it'll take to make their organization as effective as possible. But there's something about the organization that makes it difficult, or impossible, to turn that knowledge into action.

As we went around and worked with companies on the issue, we kept running into managers who would tell us about these great practices they were implementing. Yet we knew that, based on the best of our knowledge, they were at least half wrong. We started looking at the notion that there's a lot of bad advice in the business-knowledge market that makes it harder for people to tell what's good and what's bad. So we felt we had to write the opposite book. I guess the sound bite is that the last book was on the knowing-doing gap, and this one is on the doing-knowing gap.

Can you define evidence-based management?

To me it's a simple willingness to find the best evidence you can, and then act on it. That may sound incredibly simplistic, yet the market for business knowledge works in such a way that it is incredibly hard to do that. Here's a political analogy: The Economist magazine, which is not exactly a bastion of liberal thinking, recently noted that during the run-up to the war in Iraq, if somebody had evidence for weapons of mass destruction, they had to jump over a matchbox, but if they had evidence against WMDs, they had to jump over a mountain.

Also see: an interview with Bob Sutton on The Learning-Doing Gap at LiNEZine by Beth Garlington Scofield

All of us as human beings have trouble getting past our biases and ideologies. Moreover, it's one thing to seek out and find good evidence, but you must also face it and act on it. It's not an amazingly complicated idea, but it's amazing how rarely it's done and how hard it is to actually do it in everyday life.

Why is it so hard to find good evidence?

It's hard to tell what's right and what's wrong, and anybody can bea management expert. It's a signal-to-noise ratio kind of problem: There's just too much stuff out there. And what sells best is by no means the best way to actually practice management.

People are attracted to brand-new ideas and things. The way most knowledge is developed is that people build on one idea, or on nothing at all. A consequence is that the same new things get discovered every six or seven years, and just relabeled. Think of business process reengineering, which is built on a whole lot of earlier ideas.

One of my colleagues in the School of Education here describes our country as the United States of Amnesia. We keep pretending the same old ideas are brand-new, and we never learn from what's already happened. Consider the idea of incentive-based pay for teachers. Once again, it's the rage throughout the U.S. Yet this idea actually gets debunked about every eight years, going back almost a hundred years.

Yet there is good evidence for business decisions, right?

Yes, but it's just amazing to me how many companies refuse to accept even the strongest evidence. The two strongest bits of evidence that I can think of in business that are routinely ignored are the evidence of the dangers of ERP implementations and the evidence on the failure of most mergers. Everybody who considers a merger either pretends they don't believe the evidence, or they say it can't happen to them.

This article was originally published on 02-06-2006
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