15. Your Organisation’s Greatest Untapped Capacity
Zero-tolerance suppression was the only policy the experts at the US National Parks Service had to deal with its number one enemy — fire. But after five decades a disturbing pattern had emerged — the forests were dying. Fire, it transpired, was not an enemy but a collaborator — nature’s own eco-system manager — burning dead undergrowth to provide space for the new to emerge. So the US Parks Service adapted their policy — while man-made fires would continue to be suppressed natural fires would be allowed to do their job.
And then disaster struck.
The ‘natural-fire-friendly’ policy seemed to be working for a time — until it suddenly didn’t. This moment occurred in 1988 when the largest fire in recorded history hit the Yellowstone National Park. In unusually dry and windy conditions dozens of small, natural fires suddenly linked up and burned for months — destroying a third of the park’s flora and fauna (an area the size of Cyprus) and taking 25,000 firefighters to get under control.
Leaders may find something very familiar here — the feeling of being damned if you do (something) and damned if you don’t. So, what can leaders do when faced by such impossible choices at these?
Here’s a story to explain: Imagine yourself as a customer a decade ago out to buy a high-end TV. You’re visiting stores and finding yourself faced by a choice between a Samsung and Sony TV. You size up the different models by reading the stickers explaining the TVs features stretched across the top of the screen (and if it’s a really high-end TV the stickers down the side as well). But the reality (which you don’t reveal to the hovering salesperson) is that this all seems like jargon to you and it doesn’t make much sense.
However, you buy a high-end TV and the chances are it was the Samsung. Check what TV you have now — there’s almost no chance it’s a Sony. That’s because Samsung won the high-end TV battle. But why?
In the heat of battle Samsung executives took a step back from the technological race to the bottom against Sony. Faced with a rival with a brand reputation as a smart, sharp operator — the pioneers of the Walkman, enjoying huge success of the Vaio laptop — and coming from the land of great technology Samsung realised they needed something else to differentiate their offering. But why do people buy TVs except on quality and cost considerations? What could Samsung do?
Samsung changed the question and won.
Instead of asking an ‘outside-in question’ (‘how can we sell more TVs’) Samsung executives started to ask an ‘inside-out question’ — ‘how do our customers’ experience TVs in their home’? . This simple question re-framed their business problem as a customer phenomenon to explore which, after months of research, led them to a major insight that changed everything — a TV is not just a piece of technology, or a device for entertainment or information — a TV is also a piece of furniture.
When buying TVs customers were considering how well it would fit their homes and it wasn’t something they were discussing with any salespeople — as there was little they could say or do. But armed with this insight — an outcome of a process called Sense-Making — Samsung changed everything.
They invested large parts of their R&D budget in learning about home design and how things flow together. The result was Samsung’s affordable flatscreen TVs that appealed aesthetically — not just technologically or on price — to more customers everywhere — helping them wrap up the market for a decade.
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.” — L.N. Tolstoy
Seeing how people experience things in context moves the focus from the features organisations try to sell their products on (e.g. a high-spec TV at a price not more than Sony’s) to the benefits people hire products and services to provide (e.g. we want a TV that fits in that corner and doesn’t look out of place). Only by seeing how things interconnect (e.g. how does the TV look in the room) can we understand how a customer makes his/her decision. It’s less on the basis of how good something is and more on how well it fits with everything else. (This also explains why innovation takes so long to gain traction — it doesn’t fit with anything in the current status quo, meaning people can’t immediately see how they can benefit from it).
Making sense of how people experience things requires ‘deep listening’.
Consider for a moment how the fire mentioned above looks to the fireman, then to the insurance investigator and finally to the person whose home has burned down with all their possessions in it. The same ‘thing’ appears very different depending on whose experience you choose to frame it with. This is at the heart of the process called Sense-Making  — or how we make sense of our complex world so we can act in it.
Sense-Making is a mental faculty we all possess that helps us test the plausibility of the options we face daily and how we explain anomalies. It’s how we analyse past events and anticipate the future — even one fraught with uncertainty — by helping us ‘muster resources, anticipate difficulties, notice problems, and realise concerns’. Sense-Making is about how we interact with other agents (people, tropes, processes) in the world around us in order to survive or thrive.
Human beings as Sense-Makers not Info-Processors
To succeed in a complex, dynamic and volatile world we need to adopt — like the Samsung executives — the right framework to deal with the situations we face and adapt our thinking — our strategies — to the prevailing context. In the case of the US National Parks their approach evolved from a mechanistic (rule-based) one to a Sense-Making one today:
- Early 20th century policy based on expert consensus that fires is bad and therefore all fires should be suppressed
- Mid 20th century sees the policy refined and becoming ‘best practice’ — natural fires good (don’t suppress); man-made fires bad (suppress)
- In 1988 a chaotic event exposes the limitations of rigid ‘best practice’ policies in a natural world that doesn’t abide by human rules
- Today, decision-making about which fires to extinguish are devolved to those closest to the action, who use guiding principles, experience, and feedback from others to make judgements locally.
Unfortunately, it took a disaster for the US National Parks Service to tap the greatest under-used capacity of any human system — the Sense-Making abilities of its frontline people interacting with the environment to see how things are working in practice and not just theory. Organisations that can tap into their Sense-Making capacities — without waiting for disaster to strike first — stand the greatest chance for success in a fast-paced and volatile world.
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