Why Evidence Trumps Opinion

Added on by Alexander Osterwalder.

Opinions can play a dangerous role in the feedback and development of ideas. Executives and leaders should avoid deciding what's right and wrong when teams present the evidence from their experiments. In this post, I'll point out how leaders can use their experience to help teams explore, evolve, and improve the experiments being conducted. 

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I was conducting a workshop with a group from a large Fortune 500 consumer goods company.

Throughout the 2 ½ day session, 3 teams explored different ideas that they would then spend 2 months testing, validating, and invalidating.

After conducting experiments for a couple of months, the teams gave a presentation to the CTO and CMO of the company. They weren’t just presenting the ideas; they were presenting evidence gathered from the small experiments they had built. This was a hard process for the teams because they weren’t use to going beyond surveys and building something like a simple landing page. All 3 groups did a lot of great work to reduce the risk of failure and uncertainty.

So the CTO and CMO come in and you can really feel that these are powerful people within the organization. They are both nice people but it’s clear that the executives are big shots with influence. Both executives sit down and as we go over the purpose of the meeting, the CTO says, “oh so it’s basically like a Shark’s Tank thing.”

I really had to make a case and say no, this isn’t as black and white as the show. Shows like Shark Tank value opinions of the Sharks over evidence. The teams at the presentation were here to present evidence to the CTO and CMO.

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The role of the CTO and CMO at this meeting were not to decide which idea they liked or not, it was to dig deeper and ask if there are still risks associated with the experiments. Has the idea been validated or invalidated?

Now sometimes you’ll see a pitch on Shark Tank and evidence is presented or asked for, but the show is mostly framed around the dramatized opinions of each Shark. Another more extreme example is Donald Trump and what was his Apprentice series. Trump’s catchphrase “You’re Fired” was all based on his big fat opinion. The show emphasized his point of view to make the series more provocative and I just believe that’s so wrong.

The danger of portraying business in this way is that it forces teams to please the opinion leader or power leader in an organization at the expense of evidence. It’s this harmful idea that someone who has made it big has a more valuable opinion than the data and findings.

Don’t get me wrong: the Sharks are smart and successful people. But the TV shows portrays this myth that somebody who has been successful knows it all. Just because you’ve been successful before in one context doesn’t mean you’ll be able to recreate it for another. You may not have the same variables.

You see this really strongly in Russian business cultures. They’re very patriarchal; very top down in company culture, and oligarchs or CEOs are very powerful people with opinions that matter more than anything else.

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The person who gives feedback in these situations should help the team explore what they could further investigate. They should consider how good the evidence is; and based on this, the person can help the team improve the business model. The last thing someone should do is offer pure opinion and decide if an idea is good or bad.  

Of course in some cases, like with technical problems, opinions are valid and experience is important. But when we’re building a new venture, evidence if an idea can work or not is far more important than opinion and history.

We should be fostering a design critique culture where the purpose of feedback is to help improve the business model; to help improve the experiments; and to help produce even stronger evidence that the ideas can work. The experience of the executive can help to point out any pitfalls or even point out what kind of evidence teams should be looking for. But they shouldn’t be judging.

Remember: evidence trumps opinion.

Have you experienced a scenario like this before? Share your story in the comments.