The Problem With 'Shaping' Decisions

Shaping occurs when those responsible for curating the data begin to slant, edit and embellish to reach a predetermined decision.

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An artist shapes the painting to present the image from the mind to the canvas.

A sculptor spends most of the day shaping the clay to conform to the project's vision.

A musician shapes the sounds to make it pleasing to hear.

Creative people spend time shaping, as shaping is part of their process, allowing a free flow of thoughts and ideas to manifest. Shaping regarding data collection cannot be part of the decision-making process.

In 2020, for example the San Francisco 49ers made a bold choice, trading highly-valuable assets to springboard from the 12th pick in the NFL Draft to the third.

With this aggressive move, the team intended to secure its future quarterback and find the perfect player capable of making the team a Super Bowl contender each season.

The Niners claim they didn’t have a predisposed idea of whom they would pick— they only knew being high in the draft would give them the flexibility to make the right decision.

Some organization members began to “shape” the information as they collected data to meet their conclusions. Shaping occurs when those responsible for curating the data begin to slant, edit and embellish to reach a predetermined decision.

This isn’t a form of bias but rather an honest attempt to do what they (the staff) believe is correct. Many staffers feel since they have done the data collection, they are more informed and intune to make the correct decision over the main decision maker. When this occurs, the leader is no longer leading, and the staff is now in charge.

Shaping occurs in all organizations and can be the main cause of failure. As the chief decision-maker, the leader must understand shaping, guard against filtered data, and have a system to prevent staffers from mingling the data.

When those trusted to bring unfiltered data to the decision-makers begin to reframe the data, then shaping occurs, and bad decisions soon follow. You might argue that those collecting merely give their opinions based on their logically well-intended assessment.

Perhaps, but when you are in a “data collection phase,” any conclusions cannot be reached—or else intentional shaping begins to occur. The purity of data must remain until all the evidence is declared.

A judge in the middle of hearing a case, without one side presenting, could never be allowed to make a final ruling. A judge is trained to never begin with the end in mind and understand how each attorney is “shaping” their information. Judges are trained to look past shaping, and so should all decision-makers.

We must educate those responsible to guard against shaping data. A leader ultimately making decisions must always look for shaped data. It comes in the form of a rehearsed presentation or the inability of the presenter to reverse engineer the decision.

Had the 49ers gathered information, they would’ve asked themselves: Why would this decision fail, as opposed to why is this decision the best?

They would have avoided a mistake — and understood shaping was in place.

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