True But Useless

uselessBy David Cygielman

For the past several years, I have had the unique opportunity to spend two days with fellow CEOs and Executive Directors from leading national organizations in the Jewish community. The common thread binding us is the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, bringing us together since we are all core grantees. The annual gathering, titled Tzimtzum, is a chance to learn from each other, the Schusterman Foundation team and some incredible outside presenters.

Last month during Tzimtzum, we welcomed Dan Heath, co-author of the bestselling books Made to Stick and Switch. We heard plenty of stories and examples of different ways to tackle existing problems, but the biggest takeaway by far was three simple letters – T.B.U. (True But Useless). The concept is simple: we may have information or data that we know to be true but since we choose not to act differently upon gaining that information, it is useless. For example, I drive to work every day in Charlotte. The office is walking distance from my house, just over a mile. I have excellent information that is all true: It is healthier to walk, it is good for the environment to drive less and it would save me some money on gas. All of this information is true but useless because it has not impacted my actual behavior or decision making. Before moving to Charlotte, I walked everyday to work in Oakland, where our office was actually slightly further away. All the same above information was true with the addition of one more piece, which is that it cost $150/month to park at our Oakland office while parking was free in Charlotte. The only piece of information that actually affects whether I drive or walk to work is free parking. That’s it. While there is plenty of other evidence, data and information that could inform my decision making, it is true but useless because it does not change my behavior, regardless of the findings.

In the Jewish community we have grown to value data and evaluation. It is crucial to be learning but only if we are using that information to make better and often times, different decisions than we made prior to obtaining this information. What I see much more, Moishe House included, is the less healthy process of making a decision based on beliefs and then working to find or create data to show why we actually made the best decision. If the initial information or data doesn’t make our case compelling, we will find new information or data. This data and evaluation that we spend so much time, money and energy on is only beneficial if it is used to change or inform our decision making; yet, if it doesn’t, the facts remain True But Useless. We have good information but it does not affect our behavior.

Of course, we all believe this does not apply to us because we use evaluation and data to make the best decisions moving forward, but is that true? How many weak evaluations have you ever read? I am guessing very few, if any. How many programs have shut down because of a weak evaluation? I cannot think of any. From my perspective, the biggest factor or influence on what we do or do not do as organizations is not the data or evaluation, it is where we have funding. As such, data has become a means to generate funding rather than its most useful purpose, decision making.

Jewish organizations like Moishe House do not sit alone in this space. We see it in foundations, and of course, outside the Jewish community too. How can we buck this trend and natural instinct? How can we use data to make decisions rather than make decisions and then work to find data to justify what we did? This is challenging and will take a partnership between both organizations and funders. Rather than gathering evaluation data on specific programs or organizations, perhaps learning more about a target demographic or population would steer us away from using data as justification for our existence or direction and minimize TBU in our organizations.

David Cygielman is Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Moishe House.