Just Say No to No: Be able to counter any objections to using data analytics in management decisions

Thursday, March 3, 2016 - 23:43

Articles, consultants and conferences repeatedly praise data as an antidote to misimpressions and a supplement to experience. Most general counsel agree and, in their own fashion, rely on the data their department generates. Why, however, do some law department managers oppose investments in metrics as aids to their decision-making? Law departments store troves of data about matters, costs, law firms, time allocations and more, yet sometimes it goes unused, unvalued or even unrecognized.  

While writing a book about management metrics for lawyers, analyzing such metrics and creating charts to convey findings, it occurred to me that we boosters of data-based decision-making can advance many arguments in favor of it, give examples, appeal to logic and history, but sometimes we make little headway. So I started collecting what I project to be the legitimately held beliefs of those who oppose enlisting data for decisions. Let’s refer to those beliefs as “objections.” 

As the number of objections grew, a taxonomy drawn from several disciplines differentiated and grouped them. Here are the six disciplines and a thumbnail definition that guided assigning objections to them.

 

Anthropology: tribal mores and the culture of a law firm

Biology: primal fears from the brain stem (fight or flight)

Economics: profit, money, allocation of resources, trade-offs, ROI

Math: statistics and numbers

Psychology: cognitive defenses more from the cerebral cortex 

Sociology: interaction with the larger community outside a firm

 

Having identified more than 40 objections to the collection, calculation, consideration and communication of legal management data, it seemed an additional useful step to write a mock quote that a data resistor might say; the quotes crystallize and make memorable the objection.

Given the constraints of this column, let’s narrow down to the nine psychological objections. If psychological, the objection stems mostly from the individual’s cognitive view of the world. The objection may be completely sound, or it may be a warped take on how the world works. We admit readily that this disciplinary categorization has fuzziness, and the objections themselves lack precise clarity, but at least the effort described moves in the direction of recognizing that some kinds of arguments against use of legal management data can be clustered. 

The table below has a shorthand code for the objection; the graphic underneath it uses that code. The quote cuts to the core of the objection and states it bluntly. Below it is a network diagram of the psychological objections, one objection being stacked on another means nothing about its relative strength or relationship. The NA on the lower right can be thought of as “other.” 

 

 

If we want to make headway against people who have objections, we should think through the counterarguments. To that end, consider these points if someone voices psychological objections regarding efforts to collect and make sense of metrics intended to improve the efficiency and value of a law department. Consider the coded objections in the table in order.

Ad hominem arguments criticize the person making the argument, not the arguments themselves. To counter them, point out that the ideas, not the speaker, are the focus. 

The gaming objection raises a fundamental and real flaw: If people cheat when they submit data or artificially alter their behavior to “look good on the numbers,” the law department needs to deal with the underlying dishonesty. But don’t throw out all baby data with the gamed bathwater! 

If data gives someone more power, the response should be along the lines of “Information is neutral. Whether someone makes better use of it than someone else is a different story.”  Focus on the politics, not
the data.

Yes, changes to the department’s operating model of how it gets work done might follow from empirical analysis. The fear of change is psychologically palpable, but not a Pandora ’s box argument. 

The FA error ascribes to an individual a stereotype about a group the person belongs to. All graduates of universities that grant an MBA are not clones. 

Fear that someone’s privacy will be invaded is a variant objection to “Don’t track me and my results or my efforts; let me remain a black box.” Income tax returns and surveillance cameras track information but for a larger, benign purpose. 

Fads in management come and go, for sure, and data analytics has certainly been hyped hugely (“Big Data Will Transform the Universe!”). But for someone to refuse to delve into the legitimacy of metrics is intellectual laziness. Or to be an ostrich and hope the current enthusiasm washes over is timid and an abdication of what a responsible manager should undertake.  

Many experienced lawyers trust their managerial instincts. But for them to dismiss metrics as not capable of strengthening their experiential depth – or perhaps challenging the shibboleths they stick to – leaves them fossils of their past. 

Finally, metrics almost always invite comparisons and can spawn competition. Some degree of competition can be healthy; the good potential of data outweighs the bad worries about competition.

We have not explored the other categories of objections. The purpose here is to introduce the approach of isolating, characterizing and rebutting objections. If apathy or explicit objections to law-department data analytics arise, the counterpoints set forth here demonstrate that, with the insights of statistics and the persuasiveness of graphics, law departments can flourish.

 

 

Rees MorrisonA principal at Altman Weil, Inc. who also leads General Counsel Metrics, which offers the largest benchmark report of law departments ever done. rwmorrison@altmanweil.com