In the age of Big Data there has been a real push among funders, government, and thought leaders to encourage nonprofit leaders to make decisions based on data. I have been among the many who have heralded the importance of gathering and using data to improve performance. And I still believe data is incredibly important.
But recently I’ve begun to wonder if the pendulum has swung too far. Have we encouraged nonprofit leaders to stop checking their gut when making critical decisions?
I was coaching a nonprofit leader the other day about the composition of her new advisory board. She and I had very diligently created a board matrix, listing all of the potential candidate names along the left hand side and itemizing the various criteria necessary in her advisory members (deep knowledge of the specific industry, connections to key decision-makers, access to funding, etc.). We had analyzed each potential board member along those criteria and filled out the data accordingly. The completed matrix was pushing her toward a certain list of potential members to pursue. But I could tell she was struggling with a couple of potential members that the matrix was telling her would be right for her advisory board.
So I asked her to take a big step back: “Ignore what this is saying for a second. Who does your gut tell you would be right for the future of your organization?” She paused for a minute, and then her answer was very clear. She just knew the right direction.
Call it intuition, or a gut instinct, or just a feeling. I think in our data-driven, reason-propelled world we increasingly forget the critical importance of listening to that little voice inside that often knows the right direction.
This particular nonprofit leader, like so many of you, had years of experience and knowledge not only in her particular domain area, but also in working with and around these potential advisory board members. She was heavily networked in the space and had knowledge, intuition, a feeling that went far deeper and was far more valuable than simply what the matrix was telling her. Sometimes as a leader you need to get really quiet and listen to what you instinctively know is the right path forward.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all suggesting that we toss out the data or we stop using tools to organize and clarify our thinking. Rather, I am suggesting that after we gather, organize, and analyze the data, we take a big step back and check in with our gut. Perhaps it agrees with what the data says, but maybe it doesn’t.
Reason and data can only get us so far. Our data-driven knowledge will always be limited by what we are able to gather and analyze. We have to lead not only with our heads, but also with our guts.
Photo by Heidi Sandstrom