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bullshithousery of a snappy conference soundbite, a shameless sales initiative or a clumsy misquote from outdated or quack research.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.
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.