Where Proof Can Really Hurt Us

proofAt a conference the other day, Jeff De Cagna was making a presentation about ways in which the association community needs to think differently. He was covering topics from his ebook, Associations Unorthodox. I liked some of his provocations, including transforming our budget process and going “all in” on digital. Towards the end of his presentation, a skeptical person in the audience asked him for “proof.” Where are the data, he asked, that prove that the ways associations are doing things now is wrong?

Now, I am a big fan of data, and I’m a big fan of evidence. Maddie and I argue in Humanize that many of today’s “best practices” in management have effectively been disproven with experimental evidence over the years (yet we keep doing them!), so I do think that evidence and data matter.

But that’s one reason why I think we usually head down the wrong path when we demand “proof” from someone with whom we disagree. Think about what it means to ask for proof. You are asking me to show you that I can demonstrate with absolute certainty that my thesis is correct. In other words, you’re asking me to demonstrate that my thesis is already proven to be consistent with our current body of knowledge. There are plenty of places where that demand is reasonable, and plenty of situations (like a murder trial) where we’d better hold ourselves to a high standard in that regard.

But folks, what Jeff was talking about is management. He’s talking about how we lead and manage associations (though his ideas are applicable beyond the nonprofit world). This is a space where what is “known” is actually very smal, and what is unknown is very large. If you ask me to prove it all the time, then you will skew the conversation down towards what we already know, and in the case of management, that does us a disservice. It keeps us small. It leaves money on the table.

We need to confront the fact that when it comes to management and leadership, we are mostly making stuff up. We throw spaghetti on the wall, and we see if it sticks. We do have some science to back it up, but unfortunately much of it is 100 years old now. Imagine how creative we could be if we just came clean about how little we know about management. Imagine the power we could tap into if we opened ourselves up to more possibility.

I watched this TED talk today that has some great research about what motivates us to work, and it’s quite different than the traditional management party line. Dan Pink said the same thing a few years ago in Drive, yet I haven’t seen a lot of organizations start to integrate those ideas. There is so much that we don’t know about how best to bring people together in an organization and get things done, yet we act as if we know most of it. And that demand for proof when a new idea is presented seems to come from that dangerous, narrowing place.

We should stop that. Yes, let’s be disciplined about evidence and research and learning. No, of course we should not take proclamations about what’s happening as unquestionable truth–it’s okay to challenge. But when it comes to leadership and management, we have a better shot at ROI in blazing some new trails than manicuring the paths we’ve been walking on for decades, simply because that uncharted wilderness is so vast in this case. While you wait for your proof that we have a problem, I’m going to be creating new, more powerful organizations. By embracing what I DON’T know, I’ll unlock more value at a faster pace, and I think that’s just what we need right now.

image credit


  1. 08.05.2013 at 2:37 am

    Hi Jamie – agreed – “We need to confront the fact that when it comes to management and leadership, we are mostly making stuff up”… I’m all for calling out the elephants in the room!

    It reminds me of something similar said by Eric Schmidt in an interview with Gary Hamel. The soundbite is here but the full question and context starts here.