Curtis and I were in the office discussing our approach to strategy planning for 2012. Like everyone else, we often feel overwhelmed by the “Whirlwind” and a regular exercise for us is evaluating what we’re doing, what we think we should be doing, and what we probably should stop doing. I’d like to think it’s a continuous improvement process; certainly it’s continuous!
When Curtis touched, once again, upon the question of future activities, he made the observation that it’s so often difficult to tell what’s working; i.e., which activities are yielding acceptable – let alone optimum – ROI. I expressed my agreement, citing findings from HBR’s September 2011 article, Learning to Live with Complexity. To quote authors Gökçe Sargut and Rita Gunther McGrath, “In a complex system, the same starting conditions can produce different outcomes, depending on the interactions of the elements in the system”, which interactions, by the way, “are acting continuously and unpredictably”.
Sound familiar? Business, technology, the interrelationships between people and systems today are nothing if not complex.
I made my final point to Curtis, by asking the (I thought, rhetorical) question, “What do we know? How, within the complexity of variables and parameters we are (all) operating under, can we gain any comfort from thinking, let alone acting as if, we know what we’re doing?”
Curtis’s response caught me by surprise.
“That’s a great question! What do we know?”
He immediately hopped up, went to the whiteboard, and wrote the heading, What Do We Know at the top center. For “ideas” people like Curtis and me, the next two hours of brainstorming were gratifying in and of themselves. But beyond that, we ultimately were able to distill a list of “facts”; i.e., knowledge that Curtis and the business had gained from their experiences over time, many of which could be and had been repeated to yield specific outcomes. We started out looking for “buttons we could push” to achieve desired results and ended up with a set of clear guidelines to determine, and filters to evaluate, our future activities. It gave our strategy planning a shot in the arm.
Turns out, we “know” a lot. At least, we know enough to move forward with the confidence that even if some of our activities don’t produce the results we’re after, we’re undertaking the “most likely to succeed” of the seemingly limitless options we face every day. A bonus is the satisfaction of believing we’re capitalizing on the value of our time by applying it as productively as we know how.
You and your organization probably know more than you think you do. When was the last time you examined what you know, as a means of clarifying your future direction and focusing your future activity? None of us lacks for experiences, especially in today’s business environment where we’re all doing so much more with so much less. But unless we set aside the time to distill and organize from those experiences “what we know” – for ourselves and our organizations – we could be, at best, blindly applying the knowledge of others that we hope will prove beneficial but without a sense of confidence that our direction is grounded in experience, and at worst, wasting our valuable time.