Monday, August 24, 2009

In Search of Evidence

In June I wrote about Creativity: Luck or Preparation and Navigating the New Normal. The first post concluded that creative outcomes aren't the result of luck but rather the result of preparation, attitude, discipline and mindset. The second focused on research for business in turbulent times, concluding that the key factors are organizational discipline, core values and preparation. My interest in these topics specifically relates to the corporate practice of architecture and engineering, and the search for research and evidence from many other fields that impact that practice.

In the architectural engineering world, particularly in the area of health care, the topic of evidence-based design has expanded and evolved. An article in the current issue of Architect Magazine, Is EDAC the Next Leed? tracks the background from evidence-based medicine to the creation of a new professional accreditation and certification program. While there may be confusing definitions in this evolving design methodology, there is no doubt about its goal: to move design decisions from intuitive to informed. The Center for Health Design, which is dedicated to advancing such practices, defines evidence-based design as "the process of basing decisions about the built environment on credible research to achieve the best possible outcomes." Such credible research is not only changing the way we look at our professional practice, but at all the other claims and promises so often presented by product manufacturers.

Continuing the search for meaningful research brings me to an interesting and related article from the Boston Globe Ideas section, Luck Inc. by Drake Bennett, regarding business success books. The article challenges the content of business success books beginning with In Search of Excellence, and continues through a string of other best sellers:
"...the basic idea underlying the literature is the same: that the secrets of success can be divined by careful study of the institutional habits of the world's business all-stars... At their most ambitious, these books purport to elevate the study of excellence to a science, its nuggets culled from exhaustive research and refined by painstaking analysis."
The remainder of the article focuses on recent books, article and papers arguing that success books are not actually based on science. Bennett cites The Halo Effect, by Phil Rosenzweig, along with books by Robert Sutton and Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford, which see problems with the reliability of the data upon which success literature is built. Rosenzweig states "These books try to impress you with the massive amounts of data that they gather, but much of the data are not valid." Fueled in part by the same quantitative urge that is behind evidence-based medical care, Bennett notes that many of the recent critiques argue "for a more truly evidence-based business-success literature." In perhaps the most radical critique, Bennett explores the findings of Michael Raynor and Mumtaz Ahmed of Deloitte Consulting, and University of Texas business school professor Andrew Henderson, that success books are not good at identifying the cause of success and cannot truly distinguish success from mere luck. They say the data is too inconsistent and suggest performance could be equally well explained by random chance. It would be nice if such challenges to the current business success books result in more rigorous future publications.

In spite of these claims, I have personally read many such business books and found the advice useful, even if not based on science. I am not a fan however, of the "luck" school of thought, and am confident that future, and deeper investigation of the topic of business success will turn up pertinent information related to organizational preparation and discipline. In all fields - medicine, business texts, product design and architecture - patients, readers, users and clients are looking for proof of promises. Perhaps the next best-selling business success book should be "In Search of Evidence".

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