We have over years of developing analytical intelligence in business accidentally created a focus on destructive intelligence.
What is destructive intelligence?
The problem lies in this quote from Yes, Prime Minister:
“Many people have the power to stop things happening but almost nobody has the power to make things happen. The system has the engine of a lawn mower and the brakes of a Rolls Royce.”
Now the quote is from a fictional member of the British Civil Service, a noted home of bureaucracy.
But how can it be that this problem is still with us in modern, agile corporations, where everyone understands the imperative to innovate?
Some would of course point to the people who don’t buy into the imperative to innovate, the internal politics and red tape.
However, this is not enough to explain it.
Going deeper, if we look at the history of the corporation (and consulting!), it is a history of ever improving analysis. We’ve corralled many domains with this approach and had great success.
Along the way we’ve refined our ability to dissect, to break things into the component parts. The result is that we’re all masters at taking apart someone else’s idea or business case.
“So what?” you say, “if I can dissect it so easily, they need to build a better one.”
The problem is, if it’s a new idea, a genuinely new, breakthrough idea, well there is no way to make a foolproof concept or business case. When something hasn’t been done before, we’re immediately in the land of analogies. “It’s like that thing our competitors make, but with that functionality you only find in high-end limousines. We think people are going to love it.”
Now – we can do research with potential customers to find out if they’ll love it. Interviews, focus groups and surveys. But I could give you a million dollar budget and I promise you that whatever the customer researchers come up with, I could undermine it in a board meeting in 15 minutes – and you could too.
Business plans are even worse. All those assumptions and projections just waiting for someone to pick a bone with them.
So what can we do?
Now does that mean you shouldn’t do research? Or write that business plan? No, we always need to do our best to see if this thing we’ve created will work. But if we want innovation in our business, we need to go further and step away from destructive uses of intelligence.
Here are five things you can make a start on today:
1) Accept the role of analogies – build future-tense stories before you think about business plans.
Data is inherently backward looking. Analogies let us explore possibilities that don’t exist yet. Taking this further KILN developed the Future-Tense Storytelling method. Take the point of view of a future user and write about how the new product/service has made a difference. In exploring the details of why and how you’ll learn a lot about what elements are crucial for future success. And if you can’t write that story, you’re not ready to take this idea forward.
2) Start experimenting.
The key here is actually taking some risks. You won’t learn anything from experiments that you know are going to succeed. If at least 20% of your experiments aren’t failing, you’re not pushing the envelope. To do this every experiment should be set up to be “safe to fail.” Complexity guru Dave Snowden has written in depth about this, but the short version is quite simple: Every experiment should be set up in the expectation that it could fail – don’t bet the farm on an early experiment. Point (3) is also important here:
3) Learn from failure and success.
Too often teams are biased one way or the other. They look on the bright side, or the dark side. It’s really important, especially if you undertake a portfolio of experiments that you draw the lessons from both success and failure. In the mould of the scientific method, we can learn as much from having our assumptions proved incorrect as when they turn out to be brilliantly on target.
4) Don’t rush to judgement.
Filtering ideas is important – but too often ideas are shot down the first time they come up. Either someone just doesn’t like it and they focus all their intelligence on listing weak spots – or worse there’s an arbitrary criterion at work – “we need 100 million dollar ideas, this looks too small.” Ideas need to be developed a little – write a story, conduct an experiment – given room to breathe – before you can work out which ones to move forward with. Otherwise all too often you end up doing nothing.
5) Start discussing in a different way.
Brainstorming has had a lot of negative publicity recently, but one key insight – don’t mix up presenting ideas to the group with assessing them – holds a lot of power. We hold training sessions for the CPS method which incorporates this technique. Some argue that critical discussion is more productive, but in our experience few groups have the discipline to avoid the slippery slope to competitive displays of forensic intelligence. Then all you get is some people pleased with how smart they look and some shreds of ideas left dismembered on the boardroom table. So if you want to make a simple start on new ways of discussing ideas – separate out generation and analysis.