Learning to See, Pay Attention & Act

A common assumption in organisations is that if you put the right information in front of the right people at the right time they will make the right decision. But even the smartest people can fail to see what’s right in front of them, or pay attention to what’s really important — while action is a whole different ball game. The wise Executive therefore recognises s/he needs ways to See-Attend-Act better — s/he needs effective Insights Management.

While intuition is applying past patterns — experience — to new situations, insights are the creation of new patterns to deal better with current situations. Insights are sudden shifts to better stories that trigger breakthrough action

Gary Klein in his book, ‘Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights’ recounts a classic tale of insight — two policeman pull up at a traffic light behind an expensive German car and they notice (see) the driver flick ash from his cigarette onto the passenger seat. While one cop ignores this the other asks himself ‘who would do that to their own car?’ (paying attention). But he finds no intuitive answer. So his starts testing plausible scenarios — why would someone flick ash insider their expensive car he wonders. Suddenly an answer emerges — a sudden and unexpected insight — ‘it’s not his car!’ So they pull him over (action) and discover the car is indeed stolen.

The business world deals in insights — expert insights are for sale all the time. But it’s only an insight if it’s experienced by someone as a way to act radically differently. Insights must move people to act — otherwise it’s just another drop in an ocean of information.

Insights Management is cultivating and acting on multiple disruptions in how people see the world around them. It’s a sudden realisation that a client doesn’t really want what you’ve been selling but they just haven’t found an alternative (until now), or that your ‘best practice’ processes have actually pushed deviant behaviour underground where it avoids your interference, or it’s a sudden shock when a previously insignificant rival has a product that disrupts your business model.

“It ain’t what we don’t know that gets us into trouble — it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so”

Philips ⁠Lighting [1] successfully managed insights to ‘innovate beyond the obvious’. They recognised that “in the age of ‘power to the consumer’” organisations can no longer create insights “about the consumer without the consumer” if they want to create something of value. Real insights require collaboration as they need to move people to act — not just bombard them with more information in a world drawing in it. Effective Insights Management compels organisations to design for adaptability — to be able to respond to unexpected stories and act effectively.

Using insights effectively requires the lessons of the OODA Loop [⁠2] to be learned — how organisations must link fresh information in a free flowing feedback loop of action and learning. Insights Management requires the organisation to be outward looking — not just recycling the same information — seeing what’s really happening, paying attention to why it’s happening and designing for rapid action.

Yet, “organisations inadvertently suppress the insights of their workers, and they do so in ways that are ingrained and invisible. They value predictability, they recoil from surprises, and they crave perfection: the absence of errors. Unfortunately, actions that are taken to reduce errors and uncertainty can get in the way of insights. Therefore, organisations are faced with a balancing act” (G.Klein)

This ‘balancing act’ is the critical challenge of Executives — how can they balance efficiently doing the ‘business of today’ whilst effectively cultivating the conditions for the ‘business of tomorrow’ to grow. It demands balancing of trade-offs between an homogenous collective responding to today’s known issues in scripted ways against diverse, often maverick individuals with varied skills, knowledge and outlooks that pick up weak signals of emerging opportunities and threats and tap fresh sources of knowledge to respond.

Insights management is not about the quantity of data you have but:

  1. Connecting new information with old to make sudden breakthroughs (the scientific method)
  2. Exploring (not ignoring) contradictions between what the data is telling you and what you thought you knew
  3. Examining curiosities that have revealed themselves and encourage you to understand the significance of — like Alexander Fleming working back from a mould accidentally grown in a petri dish to the discovery of penicillin.

On the Importance of Vectors

Goal setting and performance rewards are significant barriers to the successful management of insights. When people are incentivised to hit targets — devised largely in ignorance up to a year or more before — IRRESPECTIVE of whether they advance the organisation. Serendipitous discovery of better paths are often closed when people are rewarded for achieving pre-set targets. It’s arguable whether Viagra — Pfizer’s multi-billion dollar blockbuster drug — would have even made it to market had more stringent goal setting and rewards been in place, as it was actually a failed prototype for easing blood pressure.

Executive generally set targets because they want to ‘command the troops’ to head in a certain direction, but they also want to ‘control’ their activities — making sure they aren’t slacking on the job. But traditional command and control destroys adaptability forcing organisations to invigorate themselves through an Agile transformation or other popular approach featured in the Harvard Business Review.

Yet there is an alternative to expensive change management programs. A 21st century command and control model that supports the responsiveness and adaptability that the Agile movement strives for — setting Vector Targets

Vectors set direction (e.g. we want to get to the other side of this river) and monitors for speed. At the outset you probably won’t know how deep the river is, how strong the current is, whether conditions up river makes it more or less favourable for crossing now, or if there are some submerged stepping stones you can use to get across on. So, at the outset, you have three choices:

  1. Push on regardless — as goals demand all possible haste so you reward those who get to the other side first (even if they do so by climbing across the bodies of drowned colleagues to get there)
  2. Search for ordinance maps, experts to judge depths and currents and explorers to search up and down the river for possible routes, or
  3. Urge people to make a first, safe step, but at multiple points along the river — discovering where they can advance and using their new vantage points further across the river to decide plausible next steps.

Vector targets provide a clear direction and a control based on improved situational awareness of the landscape and climate in which you’re operating, rather than wishful thinking. This is a process of action — observation (seeing) — orientation (paying attention) straight from Boyd’s OODA Loop — a 21st century ‘command & control loop’. But here ‘control’ is implicit — a constant process of learning what’s really working and what isn’t — allowing the organisation to advance in an unknowable and shifting landscape rather than hitting pre-set targets that are little more than guesses.

“The explorer knows he or she must generally head west, but may have to veer either northwest or southwest, or even due south or due north for short distances … [he must] decide what short-term concrete ends are achievable, reflect progress and allow the expedition to learn how to make even more progress … It is inconceivable that any strategy of ways and means he could formulate at the outset would not require extensive revision as he progressed and learned more about the country.”⁠ [3]

Boyd described this ‘leadership with monitoring … as a better way to cope with the multi-faceted aspects of uncertainty, change, and stress’ as it focuses on developing a ‘clear perception’ of what’s really happening and why — enabling you to start shaping and adapting to circumstances⁠4.

Setting Vector Targets requires:

  1. Pointing the direction to go in a clear, unambiguous way
  2. Clearly defining where boundaries are that people should not cross — but letting them explore freely within those
  3. Appreciate what is being done in real-time — but invisibly, to prevent political actors gaming the system
  4. Shaping outcomes by releasing just-sufficient resources to amplify successes (while starving failures).

Most Executive intuition is spot on — it’s what got them to the top in the first place. But what they need to do is augment this with intelligent Insights Management — creating new, contextually-relevant patterns to navigate the ship further in more volatile waters. They don’t need to let go of ‘command and control’ — leaving their ship in hands of fortune — but they do need to harness luck better by controlling what they can (direction) but allowing the crew to make sudden and unexpected discoveries that exploits conditions better — all under you invisible monitoring.

1 Enlightened Gardens: Innovation Beyond the Obvious (2011) van Ophoven, Pauwels & Stienstra. p4

2 https://medium.com/@marcusguest/19-the-best-model-of-adaptive-change-youve-never-heard-of-75524fca3f0e

3 Huba Wass de Czege, “Thinking and Acting Like an Early Explorer: Operational Art Is Not a Level of War,” Small Wars Journal, March 14, 2011, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/operational-art-is-not-a-level-of-war

4 In ‘Science, Strategy, War’. Frans Osinga (2005) p.241

Govern the state by being straight-forward; wage war by being crafty. — Laozi