Evidence and Experience in Management, Medicine, and more

20 August 2015

Let’s start and end with some evidence and experience about “more”—first about bicycling and last about global warming—with that about management and medicine in between.

On the right side of the handlebar of your bicycle, you see a little number—let’s say 4—which tells you what gear the back wheel is in. This is evidence. Experience is what you live while cycling in that gear—perhaps that the pedals are going around too quickly for the flat terrain you are on. Evidence is what we’re told; experience is what we feel.

A couple of weeks ago, in our health care management program, we asked the participants, mostly physicians, to plot their work on a diagram from evidence to experience. Despite all the hype about “evidence-based medicine”, they put themselves across the whole spectrum, with few at the extremes. Out of the subsequent discussion came a consensus that in medicine as well as management, some kind of balance is needed between the use of evidence and experience. (One physician in an earlier cohort proposed that the term above should be “evidence-guided medicine.”)

Medical training achieves this by combining evidence-based lecturing in the classroom with experience acquired during clinical rotations and internships. But conventional management education—really business education, in the MBA and EMBA—is not balanced. It tilts heavily to the use of evidence, and away from experience. When the students are given a lecture in finance, or are taught some technique in strategy, the focus is on theory, research, and data, not on lived experience.

And don’t think case studies are any different. The experience in question is three-times removed from the students: it happened in some company, was later described by some case writer, and has finally been orchestrated by a professor before it gets to the students, many of whom lack significant experience of their own.

Thus do business schools graduate people who are more comfortable analyzing evidence than learning from experience. No wonder so many of them gravitate to jobs in finance, marketing, and consulting, instead of sales, production, and initially managing itself.

It needn’t be this way. Truly management education becomes significantly impactful when it draws on the lived experience of practicing managers. That is why we have a 50:50 rule in our classrooms (mcgill.ca/imhl for health care and impm.org for business managers): our mid-career participants, who sit at small round tables, spend half the class time discussing their concerns, sharing their experiences, and generally learning from each other. The other half is for us, as faculty, to maintain the balance by introducing broader evidence in our lectures and exercises. It thus becomes natural for the participants to carry this blend of experience with evidence back into their organizations. (See the earlier TWOGs under “Developing Managers.”)

But what do the graduates of conventional business school education carry into their workplaces, especially the ones who do eventually get into significant positions of management? Too many manage as they were taught, by favoring evidence over experience. They disconnect: managing by the numbers, relying on techniques, and overemphasizing leadership at the expense of communityship. (See also the earlier TWOGs under “Simply Managing” and “Simply Measuring.”)

Such imbalanced managing has been dragging many of our organizations down. Or else, when detached strategizing emanating from the executive suite fails, their inclination in many large organizations these days is to favour political strategies. They merge to reduce competition, lobby to get from governments what their strategies cannot get from markets, trash their brands to exploit their companies’ established reputations, and so on. And this has been having destructive effects on our societies, and on the state of this planet. (See the earlier TWOGs under “Rebalancing Society.”)

This brings us to global warming, for which the evidence is now overwhelming. So why are we doing so little about it? One reason is that many powerful institutions are benefiting from it: better to maintain the bonuses of energy company executives than to save the planet

But a more significant reason may lie in our own behaviors. While we hear plenty about global warming, most of us have hardly lived its consequences. Like those disconnected managers, we know the evidence but lack the experience. So we carry on as usual. (“Somebody ought to be doing something about this.”) After all, really “getting it” is a nuisance, actually doing something about it is an inconvenience. On television we see the devastating effects of typhoons and tornados, fires and floods, without feeling these effects firsthand.

Shall we wait until we all do?

© Henry Mintzberg 2015. I presented some of these thoughts at the Academy of Management Conference in Vancouver last week.