I think that one of the unintended consequences of our near-obsession with data has been a massive dilution of agency – our ability to direct our actions based on our judgement at the time.

I’ve been very aware recently of the number of reports and reviews in areas from healthcare to farming where the actions of those doing the work have been the subject of endless analysis by those who do not. Sometimes, as in the case of corruption in the police force or the care of children in care, the reports are vital, whereas in others – an analysis of the nature of farming by academics – seems, well, academic.

We seem to have arrived at a point where nothing is confirmed until we have evidence for it. There are two obvious problems with this for me. Firstly, the analysis is, by definition, retrospective, and secondly, it is a third-party perspective. It is valuable information for feedback but rarely for judgement. 

Situational awareness is primarily personal. What John Boyd started with his OODA loop model has morphed into situational awareness theory as part of the study of “human factors”. If we strip away the complications, it boils down to four things – what we perceive, how we interpret it, what we decide, and the conditions in which the action is taking place. Put another way, we all make the best decision we can, given our experience and training. As Roosevelt put it, we have to do what we can, with what we’ve got, where we are. 

If, however, part of our awareness is that everything we do will be subject to retrospective judgement by people who weren’t there, our decisions will be affected, and we are probably going to be more risk-averse.

Goethe said that “boldness has genius, power and magic in it”. We cannot say the same of bureaucracy. 

We are in a time of great uncertainty, and we could do with all the genius, power and magic we can access. Still, if we make retrospective judgement and analysis by those who weren’t there a feature of everyday business practice, we will smother it. 

Of course we have to learn from mistakes, and where conscious malpractice has occurred, bring people to account – but we have to get the balance right. 

Most people, after all, given agency, will do the best they can, where they are, with what they’ve got. And we need people to do that.

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