Evidence is defined as the available body of information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or untrue. Chain of custody is a legal term for the rigorous procedure that is to be followed and documented when evidence is collected, held, transferred, analyzed, interpreted, and delivered. The purpose of the process is to maintain the integrity of all the evidence – pro and con – as it passes from one person to the next. As many of us have learned from watching forensic investigation shows on television, the failure of any single step in the process contaminates the evidence and renders it completely useless.
The most important thing leaders do is make decisions.
Of the many models they use to structure their decision-making, all agree on two baseline activities: define the issues and gather the evidence. It follows that the better our definition of the issues and higher the quality of our evidence, the better our decisions. A big problem I see is that while most companies do a good job of defining their business issues, they do a poor job of gathering and handling their evidence.
Modern evidence-gathering deadlines and budgets are too often capricious in nature. When arbitrary and unrealistic constraints are imposed upon an organization’s consumer and market research (too broad, too narrow, wrong method, wrong sample), they doom the research before it even begins. Every research study proposal includes a dollar figure, of course, and a schedule. What surprises most is how so few proposals provide detailed appraisals of the value of the evidence to the business. Even more shocking is how almost none calculate the likely ROI. As a result,
- Too many resources are allocated to studies that contribute little to decision-makers’ real information needs.
- Too few resources are devoted to the kind of investigative studies that can provide the greatest benefit to the organization.
The more important the business issues, the better the evidence needs be.
And the better the evidence needs to be, the greater the need for the top brass to step in and demand unimpeachable credibility from their research and how it is handled. To be any good at all, research must rigorously follow a series of steps from aligning research objectives with business objectives to selecting methods, choosing samples, designing testing instruments, collecting and processing the data, analyzing the results, and preparing and presenting the findings.
For investigations to be worth funding, every one of these steps must be done well. Each is a critical link in the chain and the failure of any one of them renders your entire study useless. Diligent and systematic investigations (real research, not the corner-cutting, box-checking, or boss-pleasing types) also demand the integrity of the evidence be maintained every step of the way. Like the legal system’s chain of custody, the failure of any step dooms the entire outcome.
Your gatekeepers do not document the handling of your research evidence but they sure do tamper with it.
Information gatekeepers are not always good stewards who carefully and responsibly manage that which you have entrusted to their care. When information comes across their desks, most gatekeepers change it before passing it along, particularly in ways that make themselves look good. Most of the original evidence is withheld and what remains is elaborately embroidered. The more gatekeepers there are between you and the research, the more manipulations, distortions, and fabrications get delivered to your desk – disguised as evidence.
Without a fully-accountable chain of custody, the evidence you are counting on to provide the fact base for your most important decisions has been rendered worse than useless. A waggish colleague likes to say what is supposed to be evidence-based decision-making is actually decision-based evidence-making, and it is more widespread than most leaders believe to be the case. The only “evidence” that makes it past most gatekeepers is what they want you to see.
How rigorous is your organization’s research chain of custody? I hope it’s better than this video clip.