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Asking the Right Questions

Can't Decide Which Way To Go
A colleague once told me that he never tires of Stephen Leacock’s (humourist, author, political scientist) description of the brave knight who “flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse, and rode madly off in all directions.”

Unfortunately, for associations at risk, that’s often the temptation. When executives sense a problem, or run into a full-fledged crisis, there’s an almost irresistible urge to do something, anything, to make the pain go away.

And once that mindset takes hold, we may not want to be confused or delayed by a proper interpretation of the facts.

In the third of her five-part series on associations at risk, blogger Shelly Alcorn talks about the denial that can set in when an organization’s best-laid plans begin going awry.

“Even if your organizational leadership drank the Kool-aid and invested a tremendous amount of time and money into ventures that appear to be going wrong, there may still be time to fix the situation if they can confront the facts,” she writes. “When discussing the future of your association, it is wise to make sure issues are framed correctly and all parties are conducting honest assessments of the potential risks involved.”

Which is why Alcorn points to the risk of being too selective in gathering and interpreting the data and market intelligence that are the necessary cornerstone of any business decision.

“Leaders can invest a significant amount of energy in finding data to support their own conclusions,” she says. But “pollsters know the difference between getting actual numbers and getting numbers that support a particular position—it all depends on which question you ask.”
But here’s the good news: This is one problem that is easy enough to solve. Here are some simple steps to gather reliable data you can count on:

  1. Be honest with yourself and your team about the risks your organization faces and the biases you’ve acquired as a result.
  2. If you’re gathering data, ask a professional pollster or research team to develop the questions. Or…
  3. …if you’re conducting the research in-house, ask an independent professional to review your survey.
  4. When the survey results come back, ask two or three team members to help interpret the data. If you can, involve outside advisors in the conversation. And if there are disagreements…value them! The decisions you reach will be exactly as good as the process of discussion and deliberation by which you reach them.

Your strategy decisions matter, and that’s reason enough to avoid selective interpretation of critical research. But in an era of social media, the stakes are even higher. In days gone by, if executives drew incomplete conclusions from their data, they often had time to reconsider. Today, your community is watching on social media—and if your analysis is incomplete, they may catch it before you do.

That’s just one more reason to set the right direction the first time. Stephen Leacock’s brave knight was probably pretty tired by the time he finished his day, and 75 years later, we’re still talking about him.