In Control in Spite of the Facts

25/07/2016 09:36 | Updated 25 July 2016

The illusion of facts

If there is one thing I have learned following Brexit, it is the meaningless value of "facts". They provide an illusion of credibility that rarely exists in reality. Brexit was a brilliant illustration, a wealth of facts and a poverty of reason. Whether we remained in the EU or decided to leave, it would result in a complex interplay of variables of which the impact couldn't possibly be understood or fully anticipated. The decision required judgement. And yet, both sides asked us to believe a carefully curated set of facts offering a breathtaking simplistic perspective on what the future would behold. We see the same in business.

Companies are expected to present a future of great certainty that satisfies the markets as to the integrity of their strategic plan. This is because "We're going to have a go at growing the business by doing 'X', but it's difficult to be certain it will work because there are so many factors involved such as competitors, politics, other markets, competing products, general economic stability, changing commodity prices etc.". When things don't go as planned, the leadership of the business is torn apart as if somehow "they should have known". It's nonsense. They played their hand of cards as best they could, but others either had a better hand or were better players.

Similarly, the same phenomenon can be observed within organisations. Learning programmes are evaluated using a numerical scale that gives an average value that is treated as a fact as to how good the programme was. It's just a number. It doesn't tell you how willing or unwilling the delegates were, nor the broader context. It might have been a stifling hot day in a room without air conditioning, trying to cover a technical, dry topic. Factually it's correct, but to rely on the number alone is nonsense.

It's about judgement

What we all end up doing to a lesser or greater extent is interpreting the evidence from today and combining this with gut feel, prior experience and an insight into how people behave to predict the future. We pick up a vibe or a feeling for what is the right thing to do. When someone says "I'm a bit worried about Johnny, I think he might be going to...." They do so based on knowing what Johnny has done in the past, the context in which Johnny is operating and a sense of how someone like Johnny might behave in those circumstances. The gut feel that results gives them cause for worry.

A great sports coach will look at the numeric data such as power output and then look at the context. Training when tired with lots of pressure at work might be a better explanation of why the numbers are lower than expected rather than the athlete not trying.

Feeling in control

Judgement is a messy, unsatisfactory process but it gives us a sense of control, and control, more than anything else is what we all need to feel. As Will Davies, from the Political Economy Research Centre, so ably demonstrated, it was this 'taking back control' that proved so effective for the 'leave' campaign. He pointed out that it was not so much the facts that mattered but the feeling it gave people about owning their future. With so many competing facts, there was no certainty about the future. People had to make a judgement. Being in control was judged to be a good place to be. And that's no surprise. Experience has shown us that if you want to stymie change, create a situation where people feel out of control. They will find all sorts of reasons not to do what you want. These reasons on the face of it make perfect sense, but really their purpose is to stall, to prevaricate until people feel they understand what's happening. Once in control, they are then willing to pick up speed and do what you want, when you want it done. The trouble is, as Will Davies pointed out, the most disaffected in our communities felt out of control (despite being the greatest beneficiaries of EU money).

Nothing demonstrates this need for control more than a colleague whose relative was made redundant. Decades of his life given to the firm were of absolutely no relevance when it came to the crunch. He was, like so many others, an expendable commodity in the eyes of the business leaders. Without certainty over his future, his sense of not being in control fuelled his anger, frustration and disbelief in equal measure. For many, the EU was something that was done to them rather than something they felt part of.

Judging the future

In the past, facts provided a comfort blanket that created a sense of control. The richness of data available today means you can pretty much have any fact you want to support your chosen position. It's the successful deployment of PR that will determine whether your fact becomes the accepted wisdom over those of others. This is but a temporary phase. Firstly, the future rests with helping people judge what feels right based on the vast amount of available data. What feels right is that which enables them to feel in control. As a client once said to me, I don't mind if the ambush is going to come from somewhere as long as I know that's the case. It's when you think you will be ambushed ahead and it comes from behind that frustrates you. Secondly, the real lesson from Brexit is do it with people don't do it to people. Working with the EU is something we will need to do together and not have done to us.