By: Suzanne Bates

The other day, our firm's executive team was debating whether to launch a new "big rock" initiative for the coming quarter. I couldn't ignore the feeling that a key metric we were relying on to help us set our priorities was just plain fiction. You know how it is when it just doesn't feel right. Whatever is on the screen or in the report is out of sync with your intuition. After hitting the pause button for a couple of days to allow for a closer examination of said data, we found the flaw. I believe the technical term for the phenomenon is "garbage in, garbage out."

Had we not stopped to ask the question "Is this correct?" we would have made some time-sucking, costly choices. I share this in part because I do believe it is a common experience, and because leaders need to be less afraid of admitting to each other that this sort of thing happens. It's just part of the fallible human condition.  People make collective assumptions that somebody else is minding the store, making sure the input is good.  We need to remind everyone they have ownership in attending to timely, accurate information. Sure, data can be construed to mean what you want it to, but with baseline garbage assumptions, you're doomed.

This whole thing also got me thinking about something else- individually, we also have to pay attention to where we direct our brains. As leaders we need high quality input. We don't make enough time for that, as a rule. Over the years I have noticed some executives are voracious readers, but a far higher percentage just struggle to get a couple of books read a year. I love to read but must admit the pile beside my bed looks like a mountain.  

It isn't because I am not curious. It's that I feel pulled to do something "productive." My bias is for action, and action equals output. As I sit here on a shuttle to New York, I find myself feeling guilty and conflicted. Should I pick up the Harvard Business Review and at least skim the two or three articles that really interest me? Or should I write to you and ironically engage in an output activity - producing an article on my thoughts about input?

You know which impulse won, at least this time around.

Like everything, getting enough high quality, timely, insightful input is a matter of striking a balance. We need to get things done while pursuing our intellectual interests and occasionally ignoring the ever present drive to meet some demand. Finding that balance is essential to our ability to deliver practical wisdom - a high level quality of mature executive leadership, one that is the foundation of good decision making. It is what fosters quality dialogue and deliberation.

I don't believe it is a choice for leaders to exercise this discipline. We have to seek the best input available and do it all the time. Our organizations are counting on us to provide insights, based on knowledge that is both broad and deep. We have an obligation to our peers, colleagues and teams to be on top of industry trends, political, social and cultural influences.  Knowing stuff isn't just a nice to have for cocktail party conversation- it results in better, faster, more sensible decisions.

And now, we've been told we're landing in ten minutes, so I will sign off and turn to that article in HBR.

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