Exile & the kingdom

Critical thinking. Those who know this blog will be familiar with my call for it over many years, exhausting as it’s become to fend off the repetition-to-truth bullshithousery of a snappy conference soundbite, a shameless sales initiative or a clumsy misquote from outdated or quack research. Unlike the use of the tactic in political circles it is – in the main – not intentionally harmful, it just litters the path to progress in Workplace with detritus.

Thanks to Rob Briner (whose excellent intro to evidence-based practice – EBP – at Workplace Trends earlier this year was my first proper exposure to this field) my attention was drawn (also by Rob) to a paper by Criado-Perez, Collins, Jackson, Oldfield, Pollard and Sanders (apparently a handy six-a-side team) on the use of evidence in decision-making in the built environment. You know, the stuff that helps us make good decisions and avoids some of the deposits on the road. Or even just decisions. In a carefully guarded manner, as an academic paper would, it paints a damning picture of an industry not bothering with the nuisance of it all.

By evidence – and in keeping with the EBP description – we mean the conscientious, explicit and judicious evaluation of relevant, applicable and trustworthy contributions from four sources – expertise, organisational data, research and stakeholder knowledge and perspective. This creates likelihoods and probabilities (not certainties) that improve the chances of better decision making. Hopefully I’ve done it justice there or I’ll be hearing from Rob.

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The part in the paper that disturbed me most was a paragraph on the ‘observed constraints’ in the industry to the exploration of evidence. They’re not ‘constraints’ – they’re aspects of a self-imposed exile in our own kingdom. Or at least backyard. It listed five reasons people don’t bother. Here they are with a few suggestions as to what to do about them.

Considering academic work irrelevant

It’s easy for practitioners to scoff at academic work – it’s often dry, slow, often unentertaining to read, doesn’t come in neat packages that can be consumed as Euan Semple would say during a visit to the executive bathroom, seems to take the reader on a circular journey through the work of a coach-load of the author’s mates and back to where it started, lacks the nuance of context and then calls at the end for more research leaving you wondering why you (or he author) bothered. Like listening to Freebird without the guitar solo. You could say academics don’t help themselves.

But its bloody important because it has what most stuff you find on the internet doesn’t, and that’s credibility – it’s come out of a university or similar where methodology is important, and it’s been peer reviewed before being published. I’m on a journal peer review board and I can tell you I’ve read some utter garbage that might otherwise have snaffled a lungfull of printer’s ink. They even tell you how they did it and what stuff they read to get there. Academics can of course help themselves and make sure their work is written to be read by non-academics too, with a little less self-indulgence and a little more verve and a sprinkle of wit over fifteen pages of closely typed and multi-footnoted text. So, let’s all agree to try a little harder, and we’ll all benefit.

Seeing evidence as constraining

In other words, if I have some facts or data or perspectives based on reliable experience that don’t support what I think/want to do, it’s in my way. Cue the claim to be disruptive or wanting to break something. In this sense we’ve made a rod for our own backs, we’ve convinced ourselves we can just do anything we want, and that genius has the right to trample Raskolnikov-like over the fractured carcass of convention. But that misunderstands genius and inspiration. Far from being a captor, evidence is a liberator. And we’re often not quite the genius or disruptor we imagine, most of the time we’re just trying to do the best job we can.

Lacking awareness that more evidence enables self-improvement

So, basically, having no evidence (the basis of awareness) that evidence is good for you, and helps you learn and grow. It’s a circular lock-out. If you deny evidence is important, you’re not about to seek it to prove that you need it. In which case you’re a bit stuffed. So perhaps for a moment watch those who seek evidence and use it in their work and see how they are appreciated for their contribution. Or perhaps ask for some help to get over the barrier – compare the decisions you would have made on particular problems without the evidence alongside those with – and test your reliance on instinct alone. I’ve got a hunch I know which will emerge the more effective path (see what I did there?).

Relying heavily on intuition and heuristics

Intuition is important – trusting your gut. A huge amount of our emotion resides in our gut, it’s a reservoir of resource. Heuristic is important too – Bismarck once remarked ‘only a fool learns by his own mistakes’ – clearly before the popularity of the Agile Manifesto. They were both vital in the fig-leaf years of our species where we hunted for our dinner under moonlight rather than apping for it by blue light. But we’ve added a few more talents to drawn on since, that stand us in far better stead to make decent decisions. Evidence sharpens our intuition, rather than obstructs it. I used to think I always trusted my instinct over designers – but I wasn’t that sharp, there was usually a heap of duff work on the table to have informed me.

Cherry picking evidence to support a previously made decision

This is probably where Workplace is at its worst – drawing a conclusion and then hunting down the supporting material. Let’s face it, with the ease of access to content in the broadest description of the term there is always supporting material. The open plan debate is a case in point – ‘everyone hates it, at last here’s proof of why’. If you could be bothered you could trace the times I’ve changed my views on things through the eight years of writing this blog, as new information or experience has emerged. If you think you’ve never been wrong, you’re kidding yourself. If you’ve erred and never owned up, you’re not kidding us. It’s not about winning or shouting down it’s about progressing our profession. We won’t do that without an open mind and a willingness to admit we were wrong.

The built environment (property, architecture, design, workplace, FM…) is an industry desperately in need of less, but better-quality contributions. Less ‘content’, less half-arsed ‘studies’ sponsored by suppliers and manufacturers in search of a click-bait headline, less events and talks and (heaven-forbid) panels, less shadow-plagiarism – and more considered thought. As it stands, we’re standing. Still. We can lift the constraints we have imposed on ourselves, but it will call for a little patience. That might just be the hardest part.

6 thoughts on “Exile & the kingdom

  1. Ah, Neil. How nice to read another elegant discussion from you about something complex.

    I once heard an interview when someone described a new academic paper as bollocks. That’s not exactly the discourse of academic writing, is it? said the interviewer. The interviewee replied – The discourse of academic writing is why nobody reads it.

    But the idea is that subjecting your work to peer-reviewing gives your readers confidence that your claims are robust. As you say, soundbites may be true or they may be nonsense. It’s a bad idea to decide which based on how easy they are to digest.

    The evidence-based people like Rob Briner are serious and useful. It’s a good thing to help people in organisations make decisions by carefully weighing up the available knowledge.

    Like every other movement, this one should also be treated with some disrespect. Evidence is one kind of knowledge; it’s not the high water mark of all knowledge. It’s no guarantee of rigour and it’s not always helpful: it makes people confident about rubbish data and it closes down conversations that could be valuable. How often are HR people told to turn their know-how into ‘objective evidence’ if they want to be taken seriously? The problem isn’t evidence so much as people having too much reverence for it. It’s weird but true that the most zealous fans of EBP are semi-religious about it.

    The inspiration for EBP is evidence-based medicine (EBM). A British Medical Journal article on the subject stresses the importance of SITUATED expertise – ie ‘the proficiency and judgement that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice…’ *

    Judgement first and last, with whatever help evidence may offer.

    all the best

    * Sackett, D. L., Rosenberg, W. M., Gray, J. A. M., Haynes, R. B. and Richardson, W. S. (1996). ‘Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t’. British Medical Journal, 312, 71–2.

    • Thanks Jamie and great to hear from you. I’m certainly not in the fanatical category – but where there is an almost institutional disregard for evidence within a sector, the balance (there I go again with balance) needs re-setting. Cheers my friend

  2. Hi Neil
    I read your EBP piece with great interest. As you know, I’m not an academic, but I’ve been producing evidence-based research in the built environment for over thirty years. And I can offer you some comfort that evidence based work in large parts of ‘the industry’ is in rude health; valued and well paid for. I work in planning, development, investment and workplace: our work is applied (rather than academic) and it is used to make real decisions with real outcomes.

    The problem you allude to, I think, is that the ‘property industry’ is unusually prone to ‘fadism’, and this is particularly the case currently in Workplace (see open/enclosed, wellbeing and millennials as just three recent areas). I believe you saw me present my views on ‘bullshit research’ at the spring Workplace Trends conference and they’ve since been published in Work & Place (Maybe the Time has Come to Shoot the Workplace Messenger). Like you, I call for more quality and less quantity.

    But in an era when a lack of mental rigour is acceptable (“busy people don’t have time to read the full report”) and compensated for with infographics, and PRs who filter nothing, it’s difficult to know what we do about it.

    I just get on with producing good work and leave the click-bait brigade to talk amongst themselves. Be good to catch up sometime. All the best

  3. I (want to) believe that we are in a time of fundamental change in the organization and performance of business. That is, I try to resist remaining in mainstream arguments about the planning and design of the workspace fearing that it holds me/us/clients/striving people back from discovering the places and spaces that will truly support their work.

    I tend, therefore, to resist data (evidence) about the workspace since it measures and describes existing concepts that no longer seem to have value. So I embrace Roger Martin’s argument that “Science explains the world as it is; a story imagines the world as it could be.”

    He goes on to say that, “when we use science in contexts in which things can be other than they are, we inadvertently convince ourselves that change isn’t possible. And that will leave the field open to others who invent something better—and we will watch in disbelief, assuming it’s an anomaly that will go away. Only when it is too late will we realize that the insurgent has demonstrated to our former customers that things indeed can be different. That is the price of applying analytics to the entire business world rather than just to the appropriate part of it.”

    Here: https://hbr.org/2017/09/management-is-much-more-than-a-science

    • Thanks Jim. It’s all about balance as the next post will show. Part evidence, part imagination. Right now we’re ignoring the evidence – and could be a bit more imaginative too.

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