If you have already read any of the earlier parts in this series you might realise just how many wonderful opportunities await the dedicated, evidence-based manager. On the other hand, you could be snug and cosy in your little comfort zone and the only reason you got this far is that it helps to feed your antagonism. Ah well, each to his, or her, own.
Assuming that the wide-ranging critique of conventional management presented here has not deterred you (particularly the HR variety), then you are probably still asking yourself – ‘so, tell me again, what is EBM exactly?’ Perhaps the best and most practical way to give you a straight answer to that straight, and totally valid, question is to offer some simple lessons that you can start trying today.
A word of warning though. You might be tempted to approach these lessons with a ‘Step 1-2-3’ mentality but that would be the sort of attitude I would only expect from simplistic managers. You know the ones, they think the ‘One Minute Manager’ is the bible and a personal development plan is something to get HR off their backs. EBM is the very antithesis of that way of thinking – it should move you onto a higher management plane altogether – otherwise why bother? Also, if it could be explained in one minute somebody would already have done so and I have no intention of patronising any readers.
So here is the first lesson but I would ask you not to jump to any conclusions and be prepared for many more lessons to follow; requiring increasing levels of complexity and skill. You will probably also come to realise, if you have not already done so, that EBM and EB-HR are inseparable.
Establish an agreed evidence base at the beginning.
This is based very closely on an actual conversation I had with a client nearly 20 years ago – one of my earliest recollections of attempting to work as an evidence-based practitioner – although it was intuitive rather than explicit at the time: I just used to refer to them as ‘measurement questions’. The dialogue shown below is reasonably accurate and was as awkward as it sounds – it would be a much smoother conversation now (honest).
An experienced sales director (SD) in a medical supplies company was experiencing falling sales and was considering what action to take. As an EB adviser (EBA) you have to help and so you ask a series of questions to establish the evidence base they are working from.
EBA: So what do we have to achieve?
SD: More sales.
EBA: You’re sure you mean more sales – not profit.
SD: If we don’t get the sales we won’t get the profit
EBA: Are all sales profitable?
SD: I’m not responsible for profit I’m only responsible for sales.
EBA: So who is responsible for profit?
SD: The Managing Director
EBA: How does the MD measure your performance?
SD: Sales volumes
EBA: OK, leaving the profit question aside for now*, have you got volume figures for each member of the sales team
EBA: Can you show me a performance curve with the relative performances of the whole team**?
SD: I don’t think that’s relevant – all we need to do is get general sales activity levels up and the sales will follow.
EBA: Is that what you have found in the past?
SD: Yes – believe me – sales always follow activity
EBA: What – there is a direct connection between, say, customer visits and sales volume?
EBA: Would you mind if I had a look at your data?
SD: It’s not hard data – trust me I know what I’m talking about.
Here endeth the first lesson. Simple wasn’t it?
Yes, you already guessed it. After physically collecting the data myself it was readily apparent there was no such connection or correlation between sales activity and sales volumes.
An EB manager or adviser does not have to be a pain in the ass but equally they accept very little data at face value and certainly do not automatically regard data as evidence. So it is inevitable that they will keep asking questions until they have a solid base to work from. They also have to be confident that their questions are valid, even if this might appear to imply a lack of respect for the person they are asking – hence the need to refine a few soft skills along the way. But be prepared also for a condescending reaction from your client if they start to feel uncomfortable – this is a very common mechanism used by human beings when they are trying to convince themselves it is you who is the ‘idiot’ and not them.
This is a very simple lesson that can be applied in any organisation, in any context. It is something any sensible manager would already be doing but it is only one lesson and, on its own, does not make you an EB manager.
Finally, imagine if I was speaking to a Director of Learning and Development and asked to see the evidence base for their leadership programme? Or if I asked an HR Director for the evidence that led to them installing a job evaluation scheme?
* We will come to that question in Lesson 2
** Will be the subject of several future lessons