Your processes and systems are caging insights and you’re missing the opportunity to innovate (part three)

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For most businesses, innovation has become a byword for progress and success, with insights a much vaunted ingredient to their ‘ground breaking’ and ‘market winning’ endeavours. Organisations spend a great deal of time and effort building this perception of insight driven innovation, however the reality often doesn’t quite match up. In this series I’ve been exploring why insights are so often trapped within organisations, from looking at how people can unwittingly prevent themselves spotting and acting on insights, to how organisational culture suppresses them. In this article I will be examining four systemic and structural barriers that stop insights forming and prevent them from being recognised and, ultimately, realised as opportunities for innovation.

Prescriptive project structures prevent open exploration

As I discussed in my previous article, organisations prize predictable and consistent delivery of their products and services. In order to minimise any operational uncertainty and promote predictability many organisations use project management techniques: project plans, predetermined deliverables, resource planning and deadlines. These things certainly help to maintain smooth operations day-to-day, but when you’re trying to imagine what the future might hold they can become incredibly restrictive.

Developing an insight and exploring the creative potential it opens up is, by its very nature, unpredictable. It’s open-ended and open-minded to what might emerge. Unfortunately, this approach is incompatible with how most organisations function. Project managers and product owners want to know what you’re going to create before you’ve even begun to form an insight. This creates a ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma; to get the resource approval necessary to embark on an innovation project you need to know what the likely destination will be. The destination also needs to be measurable — how else will you know if you got there? To ensure you’re not wasting company resources you’d also better have a clear idea about the kind of skills your team will need to turn currently non-existent insights into a new product or service, and how much time they’ll need for this act of alchemy. Once these questions have been satisfied, a project manager will usually hold you to account, through project plans and deadlines.

This overwhelming desire for predictability has created control mechanisms that make it challenging to even get the space and time, never mind the mandate, to operate in the way that’s most conducive to forming and acting upon insights.

Negative links in the decision making chain block insights

Photo by Brian Smithson on Flickr

In the event that an individual or team is able to develop an insight and generate ideas about how to act on it — before it falls prey to project management techniques — they usually hit a point from which they can’t progress without approval and funding. They have to take it to someone more senior. This upward trajectory of an insight is always at the mercy of the most negative link in the command chain, and its success at traversing the hierarchy is entirely contingent upon the motivations and personalities of those involved. The more disruptive (and therefore potentially innovative) the insight is, the higher it has to go for approval for action.

The motivations of those within a command chain are shaped by the way organisations reward the behaviour they consider to be of most value; typically, employees are promoted based on their ability to deliver against agreed goals. This reward structure works effectively when you’re dealing with simple tactical problems and goals at a junior level, however it also sets a precedent that people take with them as they rise through the ranks of an organisation. People become trapped in a rigid way of thinking — that goals are there to be delivered against, not challenged, flexed and changed. The likelihood, therefore, that an insight will hit a negative link in the command chain is high.

I had first hand experience of this when working with a client who operates in a highly competitive marketplace. They are a large, market leading plc firm, but were acutely aware of the commoditised nature of their business. The client team I was working with were at a middle management level and saw insight and innovation as critical to differentiating their organisation.

Using insights generated from ethnographic research, we worked collaboratively to develop a new, compelling and distinctly different proposition, underpinned by digital technology. The client team was highly energised by the project and confident about the innovative direction we were heading in based on the challenging and inspiring insights we had gleaned. To move the project forward we needed to take it to their executive committee. The executives we met were a cautious bunch, who were very nervous about doing anything radically different that would spook investors. They were unable to recognise the enormous potential of the insights, even when we illustrated how they might act upon them. The meeting was incredibly deflating and disappointing both for me and the client team I’d worked with so closely. Imagine what this kind of negativity towards insights might be doing to people in your organisation.

Digital systems create rigid culture & practices

Digital systems have taken a great deal of effort out of our daily work, but they have one fatal flaw when it comes to discovering insights: they’re designed to support a way of thinking about problems and challenges that is both rational and deductive. The design of digital systems has institutionalised a focus on predictability and error-free product and service production, and filters out any ‘irrelevant’ data. They also have a tendency to lock people into a rigid sense of what their job is, by enabling employees to complete predictable pre-defined activities but not being flexible enough to support them doing something outside the scope of these pre-defined activities. This role rigidity is especially problematic, as it reduces the likelihood that employees will explore and speculate with data and information.

The most extreme example I have witnessed of this is in call-centres, where some systems go so far as to script the conversations employees have with customers in the name of consistency. For the call operatives anything that can’t fit in a field on a digital system is seen as out of the scope of their job, meaning that useful observations about customers aren’t gathered and shared with the commercial teams and product owners responsible for developing new products and services.

The design of digital systems is also predicated on ideas of stability and predictability in the way the company functions and the way customers behave. Digital systems may give organisations a sense of safety, but as they can’t deal with radical shifts, such as changes in customer behaviour (caused perhaps by a disruptor entering the market) they actually make organisations brittle and closed to insights and new ideas.

Assumptions can cause us to design flawed insight tests

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Once an insight has been formed a common response is the desire to validate it — to provide hard evidence that supports our assertion that our insight is real and should be acted upon. The desire to validate an insight is especially evident in instances when someone higher in the command chain is required to approve the action we’re recommending.

The difficulty arises in designing a test that is truly objective. As humans, we all have innate biases that are difficult to overcome. These biases can often influence the tests we design to validate our insights, because we are predisposed to build in assumptions about the variables that we think matter. It is often the case that we unwittingly focus on the wrong variables, because we’re not able to accurately determine the conditions that can affect and contaminate the evidence we gather — even if the data we collect as part of a test is done meticulously. We can end up dismissing insights simply because our test was flawed, not because our thinking was.

In his book, ‘Seeing What Others Don’t’ Gary Klein gives a great example of this: Nobel Prize winner Barry Marshall, an Australian physician discovered in 1982 that, contrary to the received wisdom at the time, it was bacteria that caused stomach ulcers — not stress. This discovery was almost thwarted by the pathology lab where he was conducting a study.

In 1981, when he was studying for a specialism, Marshall took part in a research project in which he paired up with Robin Warren. Warren, a pathologist, had noticed a correlation between patients being biopsied for suspected cancer and the presence of a particularly hardy bacteria in their stomachs. In almost all of the cases in which this bacteria was discovered, the patient was found not to have cancer — but was instead diagnosed with a stomach ulcer.

Marshall set about investigating the 20 cases Warren had found this ‘coincident’ in. One of the patients Marshall investigated had been too frail to be given surgery for his ulcer, which had become infected. He was given antibiotics for the infection and sent on his way. Two weeks later the patient had no stomach pain at all. Marshall and Warren were now pretty confident about their insight into what caused ulcers, but needed reliable evidence to persuade the medical community. They secured funding to conduct a clinical trial, however the success of the trial hinged on them finding patients with the bacteria to include in their antibiotic treatment trial. For the first six months they didn’t find a single ulcer patient with the bacteria, despite having 30 potential candidates for their trial, and it appeared that their insight into the cause of ulcers didn’t hold up. Then, one day, a pathology lab technician called Marshall to let him know they’d identified a patient with the bacteria.

Unbeknown to Marshall, the lab technicians had been throwing out the cultures from the patients after two days, as was standard practice in the lab for the strep bacteria they were used to screening for. The bacteria Marshall was interested in took a little longer to grow in the lab, so the lab techs were unwittingly throwing away samples before the bacteria could be identified. The reason they eventually discovered a patient with the bacteria was because there was an outbreak of a superbug at the hospital and the pathology lab ended up overloaded with cultures to test. This meant the culture from the ulcer patient wasn’t tested within the usual two days, and so the bacteria was identified.

Overcoming systemic blockers

The key to overcoming systemic blockers is in building and maintaining relationships within your organisation — whether that be with senior stakeholders or frontline staff. If you have a diverse network of friends within your organisation then your insights and ideas can overcome just about any systemic blocker. They can help you find alternative routes for getting your insights and ideas noticed by the people that matter, challenge the assumptions you’ve made when designing insight tests, and share observations with you that aren’t captured in systems.

Organisations can do a lot to encourage the creation of strong and diverse networks of friends by creating spaces (both digital and physical) that improve the flow of insights and ideas. Google are a great example of this. Their internal messaging forum is widely used by employees to share insights and ideas. Senior leaders use this forum as a source for making changes to the what the company does and how it does it, without the need for insights and ideas to exclusively pass through a chain of command. Google’s dining spaces are also famously designed to foster what they call ‘casual collisions’, whereby people with different expertise are actively encouraged to socialise together and create unusual connections. Gmail is reportedly the result of one such casual collision.

Although companies need to create the spaces for insights and ideas to be shared, you also need to be persuasive in order to break down systemic blockers. For example, at the start of a recent project I worked on we explained to the senior project sponsor that having a project plan was going to hamper us, rather than help us. We used a series of examples to demonstrate to him why it was important to us not to have a project plan in place. He agreed to scrap the project plan, on the condition that we stuck to a project end-date. Persuading him that we we didn’t need any project management meant that he was able to help us keep the programme management team at bay, which in turn gave us the time and space to develop insights and explore their creative potential, and had the added benefit of the senior stakeholder becoming much more engaged in the progress of our project than he might have been otherwise. Having no project manager reporting on progress meant that he came into our project room frequently to ‘see what we were up to”. Rather than showing him project status reports, we immersed him in the content of what we were doing. He saw first-hand how we were developing insights and using them to inspire and inform our creative work. He became our biggest evangelist as a result, and was able to negotiate systemic blockers that we would struggle to overcome on our own.

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Read the next article in the series on how to set insights free.

Read the previous article in the series on how workplace culture suppresses insights.