I’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of workshops on the value of data in support of leadership -- especially leadership without formal authority. A key issue is that the environment is changing such that we have less face-to-face time for leadership. This increases the value of complements to interpersonal leadership, things like training, tools, and feedback from the work itself. A culture of data can also be an excellent complement to leadership. (Slides from the most recent workshop: Notes are available if you download the slides).

In these workshops, I use a John Trumbull painting of George Washington resigning his commission and position as commander-in-chief. I love how the golden light shines down on Washington. Washington resigned as a signal that power should be in civilian hands - he led by letting go. The point of the image in my presentation is to contrast traditional face-to-face leadership with the next image in the presentation, that of shifts in population density before (diffuse) and after (dense) the industrial revolution. Our moves to more global and virtual work are the swinging of the pendulum again -- though not everywhere as noted by San Francisco Bay Area housing prices. But even in the dense Bay Area, leadership needs to work from afar.

Data is a language understood across a global organization. Data is beautifulData is actionable. Data is (often) apolitical. And, yes, I understand the important differences across data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, but data is the starting point.

Data is the starting point for decisions to be made via evidence rather than formal authority. Scott Cook, founder and chair of the executive committee at Intuit, describes “leadership by experiment” (see too, this article by Bryan Eisenberg). Bob Sutton and Jeff Pfeffer highlight similar issues in their book, Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management .

In the workshop, I then switch to a micro course on lightweight experiments for management decision-making. For my last audience, it wasn't a big leap from their scientific and engineering backgrounds to the idea of prototypes and experiments focused on anticipation, visioning, creating flexible alternatives, and initiating change - leadership behaviors identified by Ireland and Hitt (1999). They have a culture of data already and I expect this is just a new tool in their toolbox.

Data has a special power for situations where you have little other authority. Think about a negotiation: You both are and act (!) more powerfully when you have a good BATNA (Best Alternative To the Negotiated Agreement). Data is what helps you find and develop that great BATNA.

How has data benefited you in situations where you have little or no formal authority? Please add to the comments here. As I tell my audiences, when I walk into an organization, I generally have no formal authority. I don’t have a strong network inside their structure. All I have is my data and what I’m able to do with it. Hopefully I have enough data underlying this post to trigger a few lightweight experiments.

Thank you to Lucie Newcomb of NewCommGlobal for the LinkedIn comment that got me rolling with this.

For some wonderful and sometimes free resources around lightweight experiments, see MovesTheNeedle’s page.