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Strategic Leadership Institute

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About Dead Horses, Arabs and Following the EVIDENCE

18/04/2011 15:57


Two of the most common mistakes managers make is to either desperately cling to the practices and theories which served them well in the past, or to fall for every new hype and fad that cross their cluttered desks. The one continues to “hee-hah” and occasionally kicks his spurs into the horse’s flanks, not noticing that the horse is long dead and that he’s sitting astride dry skin and bones going nowhere. The other is frantically jumping from a Shetland Pony to an Arab (horse) to a Saddlebred, not noticing that in spite of the impressive acrobatics vaulting is still performed in an arena where the horses just go round and round...

An often-proposed sollution to counter these two extreme performance-killers is to impliment a system of evidence based management (EBM). EBM has its origin in evidence-based medicine, a term which, although probably practiced by ancient Greek and Chinese physicians, was first used in medical journals during 1992.1 The Center for Evidence Based Medicine in Oxford, Uk, defines it as “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients”.2 For the uninformed it might sound as if they’re simply saying medical practitioners should only use medicine and techniques that really work. For the more informed and sophisticated it means... well, pretty much the same thing.

Although some claim that the phrase ‘evidence based management’ was coined by Pfeffer and Sutton when they used it in a 2006 Harvard Business Review article, the term had in fact been used by other authors before them.3 However, the concept of EBM only gained prominence as an emerging 21st Century management philosophy after the publication of Pfeffer and Sutton’s article. They basically stated that many managers get their companies into trouble by blindly applying performance management and measurement practices from their own past experience. To avoid mistakes resulting from what managers assume to be the best practice and thus become more effective, they should be “routinely guided by the best logic and evidence – and if they relentlessly seek new knowledge and insight, from both inside and outside their companies, to keep updating their assumptions, knowledge, and skills”.4

Robert I. Sutton, professor of management science and engineering at the Stanford Engineering School, defines EBM as “a simple willingness to find the best evidence you can, and then act on it”. Unlike the impression created by some proponents of EBM, Sutton believes that it isn't about sifting through “mountains of management research” before deciding what to do. In stead, it is more about testing ideas, and learning from your mistakes. In a sense, he believes, EBM is an attitude—an “attitude of wisdom”.5

Okay, so if the “hee-hah”-ing and vaulting hasn’t been working for you lately, perhaps this is an option to consider. In my view EBM is essentially a call for managers to become constant learners. Nothing should be assumed – as far as practically possible, available and current evidence from all possible fields of science should be combined with experience and own observations in order to make the best possible decision in any given situation. This also means that whatever worked yesterday and whatever works for everyone else should be scrutinized and frequently be re-evaluated to ensure constant forward movement.





1 Greenwood, H. & Cleeve, M. (2008). Embracing change: evidence-based management in action. Library Management, 29 (3), 173-184.

2 Center for Evidence Based Medicine. (2009). What is EBM? Retrieved on June 30, 2009, from  

3 Chung, L. H., Chong, S., & French, P. (2002). The efficiency of fluid balance charting: An evidence-based management project. Journal of Nursing Management, 10, 103-113.

4 Pfeffer, J. & Sutton, R. I. (2006). Evidence based management. Harvard Business Review, January, 63-74.

5 Pearlman, E. (2006). Robert I. Sutton: Making a case for evidence-based management. Retrieved April 14, 2011 from