Unlocking a Business Lesson for Alan Turing

(written pre-Oscasrs)

If you haven’t yet seen The Imitation Game, I’ll be ruining it for you. But if you have seen the Oscar nominee, or you know your stuff when it comes to WWII history, or you’re curious about the business lecture I would have given one of the world’s greatest war heroes of all time, read on.

Alan Turing’s British voice breaks the silence to start the film. “Are you paying attention?” He continues, “Good. This is going to go very quickly now. If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things. Very important things. You’re writing some of this down? Good.” Turing — English mathematician, code-breaker, sheer genius — goes on to tell the story of how he decrypted the German’s secret Enigma code during World War II so the Allies could understand enemy radio messages.

Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, absorbed with his machine, Christopher.

For those of you who don’t know this story, Turing’s journey of cracking Enigma was more than arduous. Stationed at the UK’s Government Code and Cypher school, he worked sleepless years to build a machine that promised to translate the Enigma code out of the 159,000,000,000 unique possibilities it took each day. And even if you cracked pieces of the code, the Germans reset a new code at midnight each night, so your success was short-lived. Turing faced a problem that many modern companies share today. His “spotlight” shone only on the construction of a mammoth machine, rather than illuminating the path forward of how to best use it.

Back to the movie. The moment we’ve all been waiting for arrives, and Turing flips the switch on the machine for the first time. The army of metal gears awakens, churning loudly. Your stomach drops, your eyes widen, you suddenly find your hands cupped around your cheeks…does it work? Did the machine work? Hey, why isn’t it working?

Days of churning gears go by, and Turing’s few believers are losing faith. “It’s searching… It’s just… It doesn’t know what it’s searching for…” Turing broods. The problem was that the machine was doing exactly what it was supposed to do. However, because of the enormity of the task — running through so many millions of possibilities each day — it could never strike gold before midnight. It was too big to succeed. As one Harvard thought leader wrote about companies similarly tackling too much, “Toobigs are enormously complex, with massive, self defeating strategies at war within, producing a lower return.”

This is where I would have cameoed. Well, myself and Alexandra Horowitz. She’s the author of On Looking, a book about attention, observation, and exploration. There’s a section of her book that Turing needed to hear. She investigates the word attention: “The longtime model used by psychologists is that of a ‘spotlight’ that picks out particular items of interest to examine, bringing some things into focus and awareness while leaving other things in the dim, dusty sidelines…. And despite that spotlight, we seem to miss huge elements of the thing we are ostensibly attending to.”

Turing’s spotlight was focused too much on getting the bits and pieces of his massive metal machine to work. He did not consider the periphery — the outside factors, perspectives, and strategies that ended up being imperative for him to understand in order to win. Just like that 24-hour constraint, which made his machine’s efforts futile.

Much like Turing’s situation, what should be important to companies is not building a machine with infinite capabilities. It’s building that machine for a clear purpose, knowing how to use it in the right way, and excelling by playing to its strengths.

Up until Turing’s epiphany — which I’ll leave for the theaters — he tastes a bit of his own words of wisdom: “If you are not listening carefully, you will miss things.” If you, like Turing, aren’t able to zoom your perspective to include the periphery, you will miss things that can be critical to your strategy. This is true whether you’re a WWII code-breaker or a Fortune 500 CEO. It’s essential to zoom out of winning everything, and zoom into winning what truly matters.

Ask yourself: Are you focused on simply getting a big machine working, or using it the right way? What do you need to do to make sure you’re running your business in a way that best answers your core purpose? It takes attention to see through the wealth of decisions and information that can take you off path. If you don’t have your eyes on the periphery, chances are, you’re probably going to miss the mark.

photo credit: TheGuardian.co.uk