Wolf Hall: Balancing Advocacy with Evidence.

‘Wolf Hall’ started on the BBC back in January. For those of you that don’t know about it (especially those not from the UK), it’s a book written by Hillary Mantel about a man called Thomas Cromwell. Often seen as a shadowy character in history, Mantell’s book brings life to a complex man during his period as an adviser to Henry VIII. This was a dangerous, uncertain period between 1530-1540 that saw England change significantly, breaking away from the Catholic Church and resulted in many Lords and Ladies being sent to the Tower of London. During such times, people around Henry VIII could literally end up with their heads on ‘the block’.

To survive as long as he did, Cromwell demonstrated two key characteristics; firstly he was a keen analyst of constitutional law, the functioning of the church and the state. He would do his research and he valued reason and evidence. But, at the same time, his other skill, which was perhaps more important for keeping him alive, was his quality as an advocate. (Please note – when I write about advocacy here, its in Cromwell’s context, which was when the role of an advocate, wasn’t really about achieving positive change, which it is often associated with today)

Wolf hall

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Advocacy, tearing at the teeth of evidence

Both analysis and advocacy are valued into today’s modern working environment (which, thankfully, isn’t quite as ruthless as it was in Cromwell’s time). Whatever your role, or workplace, you may often find yourself having to balance these two skills, which can be a challenge as they can sometimes feel like forces in direct competition with each other.

For example, think the following scenario. Your company CEO is a white, 65 year old man. He has some ideas about the current marketing campaign to target 15-20 year olds. He wants to put an advert in ‘Smash hits’ magazine, because that’s what he remembers his grown up daughter reading when she was a teenager. Now you are pretty certain, that both A) smash hits isn’t around anymore and B) print magazines might not be the best way of reaching the core demographic.

So what do you do next? Do you:

A) Collect the evidence to present to the CEO that his initial ideas might be a little out of whack with market demographics, whilst highlighting an alternative strategy to ‘Smash Hits’ as print-based advertising source.

or

B) Research print publications similar to smash hits and present the CEO with a list of options based on his initial direction.

The answer to this depends both on what you value as an individual and the characteristics of the CEO. If the CEO is a reasoned, measured person, you’d probably be happy to go with A. However, if the CEO is more of a Henry VIII character i.e. a tyrant, you may find yourself wanting to go with B. In such a circumstance, it’s probably less risky to play the role of the committed 15th century advocate, delivering calmly and efficiently on what the CEO wanted (despite your possible reservations on the task).

smash hits

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The value of ‘playing the advocate’

At its simplest sense, advocacy is the process through which an individual or group influences how decisions are made within an institution. As institutions can be highly complex, contained systems in their own right, an individual who can chart and understand all the people, processes and rules required to push a particular policy, or action, through to completion can be extremely valuable.

Think about your performance reviews – how much has your ability to deliver what senior management wanted been one of the key things you’ve been assessed on? A lot of the time, in our lives we will play the role of advocate and we can often make some ‘high stakes’ gains because of it. This was the case with Cromwell, despite being ‘common-born’ his advocacy meant he was able to deliver the particular things, his ‘master’ Henry VIII wanted, in doing so he rose to be one of the wealthiest and influential of kings advisers (SPOILER ALERT – This worked until he introduced Henry to Anne of Cleaves!)

But….here’s the rub. The conditions that enabled skilled advocates to thrive in the Middle Ages weren’t exactly brilliant. Today, thankfully, transparency is valued more than tyranny and as a result; the scrutiny for how an advocate delivers a particular outcome is getting greater and greater. How accountable are the processes an advocate follows? This is where, we are increasingly looking to ‘evidence-based’ decision making to help, and this is exhibited by the rational, analytical side of Cromwell’s personality.

The importance of evidence

Evidence is information that supports or challenges an argument. As a lawyer, this is something Cromwell was skilled at. By collecting and using evidence around issues he highlighted the value of analysis. Today, evidence based analysis is becoming more and more important as both the range of data at our disposal increases and the tools for using it to inform decisions improve. Once gathered, evidence can be used to illustrate our knowledge of a particular issue and to highlight the logic for making our decisions. By providing our evidence, by showing our working, we increase out accountability. If someone is asked on what basis they have made a decision or formed an idea, they can point to their evidence and the person scrutinising it can use this a basis to form their own view.

To go back to the ‘Smash hits’ scenario, if asked why the CEO had picked that particular magazine, and he had given the answer, ‘My Daughter read it in the 90′s’ might have provoked him to gather a bit more data, or at least give a bit more thought about his initial idea.

Yet this is generally the challenge for the advocate. How do they deliver the change a senior leader wants, when it flies in the face of the evidence at their disposal?

In Cromwell’s time, being an advocate involved a high level of personal loyalty and tenacity to deliver exactly what his master wanted. A lot his time and energy went into trying to read and predict what Henry VIII actually did want! He trod this tightrope every day, using his extensive knowledge and personal contacts to make sure his promises to the King were delivered successfully. But, today, both the values of wider society and the greater availability and public expectation for data makes it harder to simply deliver what ‘the master’ wants, especially if it isn’t based on some form of evidence or reasoned decision making.

To that end, what, or who, will we value in the future – the loyalty of the advocate who gets things done at all cost, or the analyst who values the use of evidence to make an informed decision?

I can’t answer this, but as we understand and value openness more and more – it’s an interesting tension to experience. Plus, it’s nice to know that it isn’t treasonous to discuss such things anymore; the tower’s just for tourists these days, isn’t it?

Tower

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