Thursday, April 2, 2009

Strategic Planning Analogy #250: Be Prepared

A great number of significant inventions over the years have come about due to lucky happenstance. For example:

1) The artificial sweeteners saccharine, cyclamate and aspartame we not discovered as part of a dedicated effort to find an artificial sweetener. Instead, chemists were working on something entirely different and just happened to notice a sweet taste when licking their fingers or smoking a cigarette after handling the compounds.

2) Phenolphthalein was discovered to be a potent laxative quite by mistake. It had been tested as possible marker inside cheap Hungarian wines, in order to help identify them. How would you have liked to have been the one testing those wines?

3) Velcro was discovered by a man who was frustrated with having to pull thistles off his clothing whenever he went into the woods. Once he discovered what made the thistles “sticky,” had the concept behind Velcro.

4) The principle behind microwave ovens also came by accident. A scientist working in a lab liked to carry a candy bar in his pocket for an afternoon snack. He noticed that after working around the microwave generator in the lab his candy bar always melted in his pocket. I suppose he should have also wondered what those waves were doing to the rest of his body, if it could melt a candy bar.

Louis Pasteur was well aware of this process of accidental discovery. He had determined that careful observation of randomness lead to more discoveries than deep dives into theory. As a result, in 1854, Pasteur said the famous quote “In the field of observation, chance only favors the prepared mind.”

Great business strategies are a lot like great scientific discoveries—they often come about because of luck. The folks at Deloitte recently did some extensive research into this phenomenon. You can learn more about this study by going to these sites: here, here and here.

What Deloitte found was that a company’s success appears to have more to do with luck than with any particular management skills or techniques. The research implies that you can pretty much throw away all those books about doing what the “successful” companies do. Just get lucky.

“Get Lucky” is not vey useful advice. People like McKinsey and Company would go bankrupt with that type of advice (I’m not sure Deloitte is going to make much money on this advice, either). We need to go back to the advice of Louis Pasteur. He advised that you can increase your luck if prepare your mind for it.

Over the course of time, I suppose that millions of people have been bothered by getting thistles stuck to them. Heck, my cat seems to get covered with thistles all summer long (and guess who has to get them out of the fur?). But only one person was observant enough to see the potential for Velcro in those thistles. What about the rest of us millions? Why didn’t we see the potential?

It is not enough just to be in a place where a lucky happenstance is possible. One needs, as Pasteur put it, a “prepared mind” to discover the possibilities. And that, my friends, is not luck. We have some control. In this blog, we will look at what we can do to increase our “luck” through preparation.

1) Prepare Your Visual Agenda
If you want to be in the right place at the right time, then you need to be in a lot of places, all the time. This is not to imply that your business should be unfocused and all over the place. Focus is clearly an important part of strategic execution. But if you want to create “luck,” your eyes need variety.

The point here is that if you want to see something new and exciting, then you need to be looking at new and exciting things. If you spend all your time looking at boring spreadsheets and attending boring meetings, you will not have your eyes in places where they can discover exciting things.

Put another way, if you spend all your time locked up indoors, you will never experience the thistles of life that lead to great discoveries. Get out into the real world and look around. Experience life. Go to where things are happening. Watch life in its fullness. Talk to your customers. Talk to strangers. Experience life personally…get your hands dirty.

When Ross Perot was on the board of GM, he used to complain that the top executives would never come up with any great automotive insights, because they had stopped having normal automotive experiences. They never bought cars, they rarely ever drove cars (they had chauffeurs), and one had even let his driver’s license lapse without renewal.

Make a point of blocking off time on your calendar to see what’s going on in the real world.

2) Prepare Your Mental Approach
So you get out into the world and get covered with interesting “thistles.” That’s only half the battle. Now, you need the insight to convert that into a marketable idea.

To do this, your mind needs to be prepared for the task of discovery. Discovery is more than just seeing the obvious. Discovery is being able to apply what you see to a new business model, a context not yet in existence. Seeing a thistle and envisioning a new way to temporarily fasten items are two different approaches. It is the second which leads to “luck.”

So how do we prepare our mind for this type of discovery? Here are some ideas.

a) Be prepared for unintended consequences.
In the examples in the story, great scientific discoveries were found in the process of looking for something entirely different. The chemists weren’t looking for an artificial sweetener, the wine people weren’t looking for a laxative, and the scientist was not looking for a new type of fast oven. If they had only been focused on the original task at hand, they would have ignored these little nuisances or oddities and the discovery would never have occurred.

Therefore, if we assume that many great discoveries are going to be accidental (not a part of our original objective), then we need to be open for these chance encounters. In fact, we need to actively seek them out. These unintended consequences (sweet taste, melted chocolate bar) are often the most important consequence.

Don’t become so focused on the original task that you miss the other items going on. These interesting tidbits of information can be so much more valuable than the original goal. Make note of them. Ponder them. See if they have a business application. Just because they are not immediately applicable to the original objective is not sufficient enough justification to ignore them.

b) Look for Solutions/Problems

People, in general, are not really buying products or services. What they are really buying are solutions to problems. How you solve the problem is not as important as how well you solve the problem. To fix the problem of too much weight, one can look to many distinctively different areas for a solution—exercise, diet, surgery, enemas, drugs, and so on. Often times, great success does not come from improving a current approach to a problem but in finding an entirely different approach for that solution (like laser surgery instead of eyeglasses to solve the problem of poor eyesight).

Therefore, when you see an unexpected consequence, look at it in the context of solutions. What problems will that action solve? Will this approach solve a problem better than current alternatives? When looking at the thistle, do you see a potentially superior solution for adhesion? When you see a melted candy bar, do you see a potentially superior way to heat food?

Conversely, you can look at a situation and see what problem is not currently solved well. By seeing the situation as an unresolved problem, it can focus your thinking on ways to solve it. For example, if you observe your customers in action, you may see struggles you were not fully aware of before. Now you have a focused area for inspiration (solve problem “X”), but unbounded by any particular type of solution.

C) Look For Ways To Exploit What You See
Finally, once you discover the solution (the Eureka moment), the last step is to exploit it. A lot of what appears as luck is really just perseverance and sweat. Experiment with the idea. Build prototypes. Get it out into field testing. Not everything you try will be successful, but we know that you will never be successful if you try nothing.

Success often is a result of luck. However, there are ways to improve your chances of being lucky. Prepare your eyes to look for the lucky happenstance. Prepare your mind to see the potential of the lucky happenstance. Transform the lucky idea into a workable business solution.

The old Girl Scout motto was “Be Prepared.” This is not a bad motto for strategists as well.

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