Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: A book review by Bob Morris

Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense
: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton
Harvard Business Press (2006)

In this book, Pfeffer and Sutton examine what they call “the doing-knowing gap”: doing without knowing, or at least without knowing enough.” People kept telling us about the wonderful things they were doing to implement knowledge – but those things clashed with, and at times were the opposite of, what we knew about organizations and people. Upon probing, we soon discovered that many managers had been prompted by a seminar, book, or consultants to do things that were at odds with the best evidence about what works.” Pfeffer and Sutton identify some of the barriers to what they call “evidence-based management” and recommend specific steps that leaders can take to overcome those barriers. Of special interest to me is what they have to say about “half-truths that bedevil organizations.”

As I read this book, I thought about what Pfeffer and Sutton had said about “the knowing-doing gap” in their previous book bearing that title. Whereas that gap indicated that people could possess sufficient skills and knowledge but are unable to take effective action, “the doing-knowing gap” suggests problems of a quite different nature. Perhaps Pfeffer and Sutton share my own concern that many of those who read their book will then exclaim “Aha! That’s it! Now I understand!” In fact, some of them will “get it” but most won’t…at least not immediately. I agree with Pfeffer and Sutton’s suggestion that each organization be viewed as an “unfinished prototype.” Readers would be well-advised to consider Pfeffer and Sutton’s ideas with the same perspective.

In my opinion, hard facts are not enough. They must also be the right facts and there must be enough of them. Although I fully appreciate the importance of faith, trust, hope, empathy, and decency, the fact remains that what cannot be verified cannot be managed. What about half-truths? I suggest that they be treated like cockroaches: Turn on bright lights and refuse to let them hide or escape. One of my favorite techniques, “fishboning,” involves saying “Why?” to each response until neither you nor anyone else can bear to continue. When subjected to such rigorous scrutiny, half-truths don’t have a chance. Fishboning worked well for Socrates and it will also work well for us.

With regard to “total nonsense,” it is amazing how durable it can be. The fact remains that some people are convinced that wet highways cause rain…and that’s that. For whatever reasons, it is very important to them to cling to such beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary. It seems a fool’s errand to waste time and energy trying to convince them of the merits of evidence-based management…or of anything else.



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