I talk a lot about the power of the null hypothesis. That’s because I think it’s one of the most powerful tools you can use to make someone recognize a need for change.
Using the null hypothesis forces people to see that doing nothing is still a choice. It shows, very powerfully, the consequences of failing to make a change to the status quo.
So, how do you actually use the null hypothesis?
In its simplest form, the null hypothesis is a vision of the future without change.
For example, I was once doing a results presentation with a company that had recently acquired a new division. The CEO, who had been instrumental in the acquisition, was in the room. But he was utterly uninterested in the discussion until I pointed to the results from his new division.
“Do you realize,” I said, “that not one of the people in this newly-acquired division see themselves here in two years’ time?”
That got him interested. Every person who was vital to the success of the acquisition was going to walk out the door, leaving the CEO with some very expensive holes to fill. All he had to do for that to happen, was do nothing.
For this CEO, being shown the consequences of doing nothing was a mental breakthrough.
We accomplished as much in the next 25 minutes on people and culture as we had in the past 6 months. All that change came from realizing that doing nothing was as much of a choice as doing something.
This is the power of the null hypothesis.
The best model for applying the null hypothesis: “What?, So what?, Now what?”
The foundations of the null hypothesis come from a 1970 book by Terry Borton. In the book Reach, Touch, and Teach, Borton proposed What?, So what?, and Now what? as a model for learning and change.
The “what?” part means knowing what you are using data to investigate. What is happening?
In the above scenario, the “what?” was that the company had acquired a new division, and survey data had said that none of the people who had come across with that new division saw themselves at the company in two years time.
The next thing is to ask, “so what?” What does it tell us? Given what the data says, what does that tell us is going to happen if we do nothing?
This is the point where you need engage in the process of understanding what the future will look like if you choose to do nothing. In the example above, the “so what?” was that good people were going to leave. This was not a future the CEO wanted for his organization.
The null hypothesis meant I could engage the CEO and make him an active participant in change, because he realized that by ignoring the issue, he was actually saying yes to something else. In fact, he was saying yes to a world that would create headaches for him.
The process of getting people to think about “so what” is the stepping point to “now what?” What are we going to do? It’s the process of saying okay, we want to change the future; we want to change the script. What can we do?
In the above case, we were able to look at other data that told us why those people didn’t see themselves staying, and what sort of things needed to happen to turn that around.
In general, the people felt dispossessed and wanted to be shown that there were training and development opportunities and the paths that their careers could take under the new structure. But that would take action — leaving things the way they were would lead to the undesired outcome.
The null hypothesis is a simple yet powerful framing technique
The null hypothesis is a simple yet powerful framing technique. In people and culture we are often trying to get people to do something that’s hard. Too often we leap straight from telling them “the data’s told us x, y, z,” to demanding that we take actions a, b, c.
The null hypothesis is a small but significant change to this script. We say “the data’s told us x, y, z and if we choose to do nothing, this is what will happen… If you don’t like that script, then we need to do a, b, c.”
Using the null hypothesis is one of the most powerful ways to use data to galvanize decision-makers to make a positive change.
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