In times of crisis we need data more than ever

Posted on March 20, 2020

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation, said on COVID-19 “Our key message is: test, test, test” because “you cannot fight a fire blindfolded”. The WHO was putting all efforts to increase the availability of tests so they could meet the demand. At the time they had shipped almost 1.5 million tests to 120 countries.

Essentially his message was: focus on collecting data first. Without data, you are blind. Without data you will not know if the decisions you made today had the right effect tomorrow.

It was in the UK where this was most striking. On Monday 16th March the government announced a complete change in strategy after modelling by Imperial College showed that their default action would have led to deaths of 250,000 people. A decision which sounded scientifically plausible at the time, was shown to be catastrophic and without data from China, Italy and the UK itself, the government would have continued to pursue this deadly action.

It is in times of crisis, when things are fast moving and unpredictable, that the quality and impact of leader’s decisions are critical. And the only way to tell if the decisions being made had the desired effect are by ensuring that decisions are clearly framed and are data driven. A crisis is not a time to rely on gut feel and confirmation bias.

Yet decision makers, in such times of urgency, feeling compelled to act with speed, will often sacrifice investment in data in the belief that fast decisions are better than good decisions and execution cannot afford to be delayed. As this crisis shows, the opposite is true and it is even more critical to spend effort to clarify the decision criteria first and invest in collecting the data to validate your hypothesis before leaping into blind action based on hope alone.

Right now, every leader in every business will be facing unprecedented and uncertain times. And whilst poor decision making may not be as fatal as those faced by governments, they will still impact their organisation’s and people’s livelihoods. In these moments the first thing decision makers need to ask themselves is “do they have the data to drive good decisions?” and if not, can they really afford to risk going on their gut instinct alone? Or to quote the Director-General “you cannot fight a fire blindfolded… test, test, test”.