Data Vs. Your Gut

When I was thinking about what to write today, I figured a good intersection between yesterday’s post about productive employees not necessarily being good manager material and Drew McManus’ recent post about the “Shit Arts Administrators Say” Twitter account is Colleen Dilenschneider’s post, “Three Phrases That Effective Leaders Do Not Say”

Written last summer, Dilenschneider’s primary goal is to advocate for a proper approach to using all the data arts leaders have available to them. She argues that it can often feel easier, and therefore preferable, to rely on gut instinct rather than think critically about what is best for the organization.

Dilenschneider goes to great effort to explain these ideas so visit her page rather than being satisfied with my synopsis.

That said, in brief, the three phrases and suggested alternatives are:

1) “That doesn’t apply to me”
Say instead: “Let’s uncover the extent to which this finding applies to our organization, and explore what can be learned from this information.”

2) “I agree/disagree with the data”
Say instead: “Given these findings, I think our biggest challenge is…

3) “We need more information before we can do anything (on this topic where we already have meaningful information)”
Say instead, “Let’s consider what needs to change and what items need to be tackled to make the most of this information.”

It is in connection with phrase 2, that she addresses the problem of insiders using their gut feelings by warning against things like weighing the opinion of one person (board chair/executive director) more heavily than the hundreds/thousand whose responses comprise the data. Likewise, she points out that not only aren’t industry insiders the target market for the services and products arts organizations provide, insiders tend to have all sorts of blind spots and skewed perspectives due to their position.

One thing she doesn’t mention here, though I am sure she would acknowledge, is that it takes work to understand and evaluate whether data is valid and relevant to you.   It is often also easier to utter these phrases than to invest the time to look at the methodology behind the data to determine whether the results are dependable.

For example, radio and television stations trying to sell you ad space will cite all sorts of numbers about how much exposure you will get. With a little thought, you will quickly come to realize you won’t be reaching anywhere near those numbers as a result of any number of factors.  Your experience as a consumer helps inform a healthy skepticism.

When faced with data for an area in which you have no frame of reference or expertise, it can definitely require some effort to understand and evaluate. It is much more expedient and comfortable to go with one’s gut.

Dilenschneider does say there are times in which these phrases are useful. Note that final caveat though:

  • For instance, it’s a good idea to say, “That doesn’t apply to me” after you’ve collected the data and understand the true extent to which it applies to your organization, and you’ve found that it doesn’t.
  • It’s okay to say, “I disagree with this data” to discount findings when it is data about you and only you.
  • And it’s wise to say, “We need more information before we can do anything,” when it’s a big or expensive change and the takeaway is unclear. In such a case, you should absolutely gather more information!

This said, these phrases are all too often uttered defensively. If these words are about to escape your lips, think twice.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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