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Facts, Business

Facts Are Stubborn Things

In defending British soldiers against murder charges arising from the Boston Massacre, John Adams said this to overcome the jury’s thirst for vengeance:  “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

In this day of “alternative facts” and Orwellian discourse, one wonders whether Mr. Adams would still attribute “stubbornness” to facts.  Perhaps today, “facts” can be understood as pliable, relative, and subject to manipulation to suit the speaker’s argument and the audience’s desires.  If you’re the CEO of a company, however, don’t count on it.

Smart business decisions have to be based to the greatest extent possible on the truth, on factual facts.  So how do you know what the truth is, what the facts really are? Can reasonable people disagree about what happened yesterday or is happening this minute?  I’m reminded of graduate business school programs that employ the “case method” of education. Students learning that way are given the facts bearing on the decision the company manager has in front of her.  The case itself presents the facts and wraps them for the students in a ribbon and a bow.

The same is true of the appellate court decisions that law students study.  In every one of them, the appellate court has written an opinion setting forth its understanding of the facts that were established in the trial, or lower, court.  Students take those facts as given in determining what principles of law the appellate court applied and why. Nevertheless, disagreement in class abounds. The students bring diverse perspectives to bear in expressing their understandings of what’s really going on in both the business and law school cases.   

But Facts Aren’t Spoon Fed To Us In Business

In real life, facts aren’t spoon fed to us the way they were in school.  We have to learn them. What’s the best way to go about that? Does Mr. Adams’ quote have something to teach us as we try to learn what the real facts are?

The answer to the last question is: of course it does.  It remains today every bit as wise as it was in 1780 to put aside “our wishes, our inclinations … and our passions” in order to evaluate what is true and what is not.  Today, as we try to cope with so many sources of information, and sometimes experience “information overload,” it’s probably more important and more difficult than it was in 1780 to separate the wheat from the chaff.  As the leader of a company facing an important decision, how can you best ensure objectivity? Here are what I consider to be the “best practices.”

Start By Demanding The Facts

First, you can demand it of your people.  Start conversations with your people by telling them you want just the facts, not the arguments. “We can talk about arguments, feelings, concerns later.”  I need you to tell me straight up what your best recollection is.” If there is a reason, even then, to believe that what you’re hearing is colored, biased in favor of the employee or the company, and the issues or financial implications are significant enough, you may be well advised to engage an outsider to conduct an independent evaluation for you.

Second, you must be a great listener.  So much has been written about the importance of listening, and listening skills, precisely because listening is not just fundamental to understanding, but also because it’s hard for most of us to do.   So-called “active listening” has been the subject of mixed reviews. It may work for you; it may not. Here are my two cents, based on commonsense and experience: pay attention, listen carefully, don’t finish other’s sentences for them, and be patient. If you don’t get it the first time ask to hear it again, close your eyes and visualize it happening the way you’re being told.  Does it have the ring of truth or doesn’t it? Trust your reaction either way.

Third, you must know and keep in mind the difference between corroborated and uncorroborated facts, stories, or narratives.  The accuracy of the former is confirmed, or at least supported to various degrees, by contemporaneous documents, email transmissions, notes of phone calls, and conversations with others who needed to know.  The latter is any account of events that lacks such earmarks of truth and instead depends on the veracity and objectivity of the interviewee, measured in part by the interviewee’s role and participation in the event and his ability to perceive and relate what he saw or heard.  

Fourth, I think that you are hampered in understanding any complex series of events if you aren’t able to read, think about, and visualize a written chronology of those events, from the start to the present, with exhibits if there are any.  Your role as CEO is essentially to turn on the lights for others. A chronology will help turn on those lights for you and, at the very least, help you question what the participants have to say. We tend to think chronologically. So too do judges and juries when they evaluate the merits of lawsuits.  

Get A Written Chronology

Fifth, and this goes back to Socrates, always recognize that “wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.”  Among other things, unless or until you ask or find yourself in a lawsuit, you won’t know what your counterpart or the persons your employees dealt with at your supplier, for instance, have to say about the negotiations they had over reps and warranties and other terms in the purchase and supply contract.  Realizing that you don’t “know” the perspectives of others will help you remember the importance of trying―at the very least―to think through these other perspectives as best you can during your decision-making process.

Further, nothing will help you appreciate uncertainties and ambiguities and follow-up questions begging for answers better than a complete chronology of the transaction or transactions as suggested above. Making decisions without the clear picture a chronology affords of what you do know and what you don’t is not best practice.   

Richard Kaplan is a partner in the firm of Anderson & Karrenberg. His law practice focuses on complex commercial litigation, mediation, arbitration, and risk assessment and evaluation. He is an honors graduate of Harvard Business School and the University of Minnesota Law School, where he served as President of the Law Review.

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