And yet we do make sense of human enterprises. And those of us who are charged with exercising leadership within groups and organizations work hard to do it well, making possible effective and productive group outcomes.
These positive outcomes emerge from leaders paying close attention to the human situation in question—being deeply curious about what is going on, noting patterns, responding with wise actions and then observing outcomes and adapting accordingly.
As humans, we have evolved to be very good at noting and responding to patterns. But it becomes increasingly difficult as the scale of the human enterprise expands in size and/or over time. It is one thing to have insights into a small team—appreciating the unique contributions and concerns of each member. But it is quite another thing to discern what is really shaping a community of dozens—or hundreds or thousands—of individually unique and complex individuals.
Historically, leaders facing these challenges have used surveys and focus groups to try and gain the insights they need for wise decisions as leaders. Surveys provide quantitative data about a population while focus groups can provide rich qualitative data. But the utility of both these methodologies is quite limited. Survey data is necessarily abstracted from the experiences of participants. The unique human context of individual respondents is left behind, leaving leaders to wonder why, e.g., a Likert average is 3.8 out of 10 on a question this year when it was 4.9 on the same question last year.
Focus groups can provide rich qualitative data as participants share their opinions and stories. But they also have significant shortcomings, including small sample size which may or may not be reflective of the larger community, the influence of group dynamics on how people respond, the possibility of participants shaping their contributions to please the facilitator, the influence of the facilitator (through unintentional body language queues, how questions are phrased, etc.), and the challenge of analyzing and interpreting opinions, emotions and nuances that may not be straightforward.