Planning for surprise

Posted: October 13, 2009 at 8:30 pm in generalist, management

I had lunch today with the always inspirational Grant McCracken, who leaves my mind fizzing with new ideas and thoughts, so I’m riding that energy wave and updating my blog.

As an aside, Grant is in the Bay Area talking about his soon-to-be-released book, Chief Culture Officer, about how companies need to incorporate an understanding of cultural forces into their executive planning, much as they do for finance and sales expertise. Read Grant’s blog for some neat thought experiments of how the corporate world would be different if such a position existed.

One of the questions we discussed today was how to find out what’s happening in culture. It’s too big a space for any one person to wrap their mind around, and the relevant forces only become apparent in retrospect. Grant’s suggestion was that the Chief Culture Officer (CCO) must be an expert at pattern recognition to find needles of insight among the haystacks of culture. I suggested that perhaps the CCO could serve as a lens, magnifying trends and bringing them to the attention of the relevant stakeholders. Both of these are decidedly human, and depend on the noticing skills of the person in question.

One idea we talked about is whether cultural trend watching can be automated in some way. Grant has a nice post about one potential tracker of fashion culture. Google Trends is another interesting way of tracking the cultural zeitgeist, as people’s searches reveal their concerns.

The risk with any sort of automation culture tracking is the same as with people, which is that biases may be inherent. The same things we are blind to as people may get coded into the routines we write to track the culture. We may not be sufficiently leaving ourselves and our algorithms open to the surprises of serendipity, the break in the patterns that is the only hint we get of the new patterns to come. We may ignore such breaks as “outliers” or reject them as mistakes in our algorithms. Thus arises the question: how can we plan to be surprised?

Note that this is anathema to many organizations, as surprise has a negative connotation. Some managers control their organizations with process and bureaucracy, and the last thing they want is to have any unexpected surprises. However, in suppressing the risk of negative surprises, those managers also prevent themselves from the potential of positive surprises.

What’s ironic about this tendency towards process and control is that it blinds such managers to the very trends that could blind side them in the future. Once a process is in place, people assume that the process is complete in and of itself, and so they stop paying attention to things outside the process, inconsistencies in the process results, and other hints that the process may no longer be applicable. They restrict their perception to what’s relevant to the process rather than using their peripheral vision to see what’s all around them.

Can we plan to be surprised while also institutionalizing what we know? I think we’re still learning how to do that. I’ve touched upon the idea in previous posts about social technologies and the balance between learning more about the world and latching our knowledge into place.

I think it also depends on maximizing people within the organization – as Grant pointed out today, companies have a huge wealth of cultural knowledge embedded within their employees but have no way of extracting or using that knowledge. Training people to notice when things don’t fit with tools like recognition-primed decision making may be more valuable than training them in a process which may become outdated within months.

And, unsurprisingly, I think it really helps to have generalists around as they are predisposed to see and understand patterns in disparate worlds. They are more likely to notice when new trends are coming, as they have different noticing filters from their varied backgrounds that let them see beyond the filters of the single-minded expert.

Lots of scattershot ideas here, which I don’t really have the time or energy to refine into a focused post. But I wanted to record my initial reactions, and hopefully I can build on them at some point.

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