Distant or deep?

At a Green & Tonic event this week, in discussion with Pater Madden of Forum for the Future, which is a non-profit organisation working globally with business and government to create a sustainable future. We got onto the topic of working with business leaders to help them make strategic decisions about what they want for their business. One technique we both use is to ask them to think about a time comfortably in the future  and what they would like to see then.  The benefit of this is that it allows them to step away from the constraints and pressures of today, to become clearer about who they are and the values they have, and to see what they need to do differently to be true to themselves. As you might imagine, this gets into areas that go well beyond "increasing shareholder value".

The thought that struck me is that the real point of the exercise isn't to look at a time that's distant, but to look at today in a different and deep way.  And, I think most strategy work - particularly in today's unpredictable, fast-paced world - needs to be more about taking a deep look at where (and who) we are and what that means for what we should do now, rather than spending too much time peering into a future that most likely won't ever happen.

Sort of right

I keep my watch about 5 minutes fast. I do it mostly to remind me that I'm committed to being on time. And, I mentally adjust for the 5 minutes, so I have a rough sense of what time it really is. Here's what struck me this morning: my watch is never right. But, it's sort of right, and good enough for my purposes. By way of contrast, I could have a watch that was - at times - exactly right: if the hands never moved. Of course, that would be useless for anything.

I think a lot of strategy processes are aiming for "really right", but end up with a false sense of confidence. The sort of analysis that underpins much strategic work is sometimes right, but it's hard to know from the analysis when it's not. Too often, the result is decisions that don't reflect the degree to which is the underlying analysis might be wrong. I'd rather have a watch I know is roughly right, than one I think is exactly right, but only now and then.

Technology unleashes the revolution

I find New Scientist articles, though seemingly distant from the pragmatic world of commerce, often shed an interesting light on current developments.  A recent article  presented analysis by Kathleen Carley of Carnegie Mellon University that seems to show that the impact of social media in the Arab Spring was much less than has been reported. However, in the same article, another analysis was reported, this one from Philip Howard of the University of Washington, that reached an almost opposite conclusion.  Now, two academics reaching opposite conclusions about the same topic isn't anything particularly new or different.  But, it's an example of how, particularly with the enormous datasets available today, it's generally possible to find plausible analytical support for multiple points of view.

When my clients face these sorts of situations (dueling analysts, PowerPoint decks at 10 paces) I  suggest they  find a different way of looking at the issue.  In this case, happily, Dr Howard does that for us, looking more broadly at the history of previous revolutions: "In each of those other revolutions, there is some sort of media that is new and not controlled by the state. Even newspapers at one point caught dictators off guard."  Viewed from that perspective, it does seem likely that the availability of a new form of communication did lead to a different form of political behaviour.  And, one might comfortably predict that when even newer form of communication arrive (as it seems they will), they too will lead to a further revolutions.

In somewhat the same spirit, it seems likely that the business world is now facing it's own revolution, similar to (though perhaps faster than) the one caused by the internet.  And, it's not just Facebook and Twitter - they are almost extensions of the "old" internet.  The real revolution is likely to come from a combination of things: social of course, but also mobile, local, automated self-monitoring, self monitoring, "free", collaborative innovation, and - as I've heard it described - "the dictatorship of the consumer". Do you see your organisation getting ready?

Storm warning - "Big Data" on the way

We all know there's a lot more data around today than there ever was, that it's coming at us faster, and it's taking on many more shapes and sizes than ever before.  That's a trend that's been going on for some time.  And, like with many trends, once it has a name, then it gets more attention. So, welcome to "big data". This has all the smell of a new management fad, as leading consulting firms, solution providers, and technology firms all tout their particular take on why it's essential and what to do about it.  Like most management fads, at the heart of it is something important that business leaders should pay attention to.  But, two things to bear in mind, as and when you start to hear the question, "What's our strategy for big data?".

First, knowing where you want to take your business is probably more important than finding a faster way to get there.  Here's a checklist to work through before spending too much time on big data:

  1. Are we clear and aligned about where we're trying to get to?
  2. Can we see where having more, faster, and richer insights about our customers, our suppliers, or other key players in our world would help us get there more quickly?
  3. Do we have even a few clues about where in our processes "big data" might sit?

Second, success will depend mostly on the people element, not on the technology.  Shvetank Shah, Andrew Horne, and Jamie Capellá, in "Good Data Won't Guarantee Good Decisions" point out that many managers don't have the data literacy needed to make good use of this new source of insight.  Training and coaching on data usage can help, but there's a deeper issue. Relying too much on the data can make you blind to things that models can't capture.  Equally, going entirely with your intuition can trap you in an outmoded view of the world.  They argue that what's needed are "Informed Skeptics" who can balance analysis with intuition.  And right they are. Building the skill (or habit) of bridging gut-level intuition with head-level analysis is going to be key not only for making "big data" work - but for the bigger task of setting direction in this fast-paced, unpredictable world.

Finally, a great "big data" tip from Dan Woods at Forbes: "I recommend enabling the largest amount of people with the cheapest and easiest tools....".  Not a bad idea to adopt for "big data", and probably most other things.

The trend of comment

It's been interesting to see how commentators about the economic situation in Greece have been largely lagging the situation. First, most of them started on "Greece must (and will) sort itself out, default is not an option", with exit from the euro an unmentionable and almost unimaginable event. Then, the tone moved on to "default could theoretically happen, but it won't - and it shouldn't - because the other governments will put such pressure on the Greek government that they will be forced to do what they should", through "it might happen, but that would be a disaster (which of course we will avoid)", and now starting to come to "it might happen if we're not careful", and a few brave souls at "actually, default and exit from the euro is the best hope Greece has". Of course, as and when Greece does default and leave the euro, there will be detailed discussion of 1) why that was always inevitable and 2) why it was a still bad idea. When you see this sort of drift in comment from established "opinion leaders", it's a good reminder of how unpredictable the world can be.

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