Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mind the Gap

by Dan Woychick

Politely but firmly, as any traveler boarding trains in London’s Underground can attest, an insistent female voice reminds passengers to pay attention to their surroundings. Unfortunately, there is no similarly effective system for urging those who work in non-profit organizations to “mind the gap” between the current and desired state of things.

Every night we ask our two boys to set the table as my wife or I prepare dinner. After the older boy asks “What are we having?” and the younger one distracts himself with the dog, almost invariably the conversation goes something like this: Is the table set? Yes. Everyone has forks? Yep. Did you set out cups? Uh-huh. Looking from the kitchen into the dining room, it appears both boys have cups but neither parent is so fortunate. Were you planning on giving your mom or me a cup? Oh! I didn’t know you wanted one.

Whether it’s due to existing organizational systems and culture, our education, or our job description, too often we find ourselves overmatched by the problems we’re asked to address. Hampered by a fixed-view, linear mindset, there is a gap between the problems we face and the skills we bring to bear in solving them – almost a planned obliviousness.

A dynamic environment
Few things exist in isolation. Sick people need doctors. Cars need fuel. And a flower needs sun, soil, water, bees, and an environment free of feet to stomp on it or tires to run it over. In all endeavors multiple factors affect one another, yet our response in the face of complexity has been to evolve into a collection of specialists where one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing. As the Epicurean Dealmaker observed:

As the body of scientific and technical knowledge swells exponentially, scientists and engineers by definition simply must become narrowly focused specialists. You cannot be effective as a scientist or engineer nowadays if your knowledge spans too broad a field.

He continues:

But who will aggregate and balance the competing viewpoints, suggestions, and research programs of all these specialists in highly complex microdomains? Who else but someone who has been rigorously educated in the general discipline of how to think, of how to evaluate competing claims and conflicting evidence under conditions of extreme uncertainty?

Who else but a designer?

Inconceivable
Before accusing me of being delusional, let me explain. Most people think of design as an act of creation. Among other things, designers make products, buildings, posters, and websites. But design is as much – if not more – about how we think than what we make.

If you had customers facing physical danger in the course of receiving your product or service, it’s safe to say that fixing this problem would be a priority. Less alarming, but similarly, if your website was difficult to navigate or your process for thanking volunteers was too slow, these might also be identified as problems worth solving.

These are all design problems. And, since design is part of everything we do, all of us have a stake in thinking like designers.

Recognizing patterns
Psychologists have long identified pattern recognition as essential to human intelligence. It’s the only way our powerful, but limited, brains can process massive amounts of stimuli. Imagine reading, playing chess, solving equations, or understanding human behavior – all rely on keen recognition of patterns.

The problem with relying only on specialists, is that the patterns they’ve learned can make it harder for them to consider and integrate new thinking. They know too much.

Design thinking is a structured approach to generating and developing ideas to meet a specific challenge. Fostering the conditions in which insider knowledge meets outsider perspective encourages the kinds of questions and breakthroughs that remain largely absent with a more insular approach.

Solving problems
What’s needed now, more than ever, is for recognition that “business as usual” is a pattern that doesn’t exist – the status quo is forever changing. We need specialists with their deep, but narrow, expertise to collaborate with less linear, more iterative thinkers – the designers in our midst. In other words, in an age of increasing specialization, we need to be paying attention to both the forest and the trees.

When that happens, we’ll make a regular habit of improving our organizations, not just our logos and websites, and eliminating the gaps between what exists and what is possible. As the web application developer and founder of 37Signals, Jason Fried, has said: The design is done when the problem goes away.

Related Content:
The Cognitive Cost of Expertise
Design Nations

Measure Twice

by Dan Woychick

As more marketing happens on laptops, tablets, and smartphones, the demand for and trust in metrics continues to grow. If something can be measured, it will be, as return on investment (ROI) weighs on the minds of executives everywhere.

Analyze the following proposition. This product deprives you of sleep, makes unpleasant noises at inappropriate moments, is temperamental, requires constant attention, and costs a fortune. Babies. Who in their right mind would sign up for this? What’s the return on that investment?

We like to think we’re rational creatures, and that any situation can be measured, analyzed, and then systematically improved. And while many business metrics can be useful – even vital – they take the place of instinct, experience, and other available means of perception at our peril.

Blind spots
The truth is a lot harder to identify than it would appear at first glance. Individuals, each with their own beliefs and biases, can be relied on only to reveal one version of “reality.” One man’s trash is another’s treasure.

I have fond memories of watching Hogan’s Heroes as a boy and planning “escapes” from the basement with my brothers. I think the show is funny and still apply favorite lines to everyday situations. My wife thinks it’s one of the dumbest TV shows of all time.

In a million different ways we are all “reality challenged” and that’s a good thing – vive la différence! But we can also become blinded by our biases, form premature conclusions, and miss alternative points of view, as in this Awareness Test:

 

Cooking the books
People tend to seek out and believe numbers that support an existing assumption or preferred course of action. In other words, we see what we want to see. Marketers can shape or choose “facts” that feed this tendency.

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. – Mark Twain

Television commercials are rife with examples. Four out of five dentists recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum. The Ford F-150 offers best-in-class fuel economy. More people find love on Match.com than any other dating site.

The existing bias toward plausibly objective data is widespread and tempting for many organizations. Earlier this year, Claremont McKenna, an exclusive California college, admitted to inflating freshman SAT scores for six years to improve its place in the U.S. News & World Report’s widely-read college rankings.

Blind spots can be dangerous as well. During the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, an independent weapons inspector found no stockpiles of WMD in the country. Since these findings didn’t support its strategic goals, the U.S. government simply used other measures to justify military action.

Buyer beware
The collected wisdom of the general public is subjective and often flawed. This creates opportunities for data wonks to dazzle us with metrics that may or may not illuminate effective decisions.

Many social media consultants will happily rattle off statistics that have the imprimatur of legitimate insight: “We measure influence and engagement and have the pie charts to prove it. ROI? Have we got numbers for you!

We know social media is important. That’s what everybody says, and everyone we know belongs to several social networks. Statistics may simply back up our existing beliefs. But, honestly, are you seeking out opportunities to engage in dialogue or conversation with a company, an institution or a brand? I’m not. Do these numbers reflect actual behavior that supports business objectives, or is it wishful thinking?

In preparation for the National Football League draft, teams put college players through a battery of tests. How many times can you bench press 225 pounds? How far can you jump from a standing start? How fast can you run 40 yards? While all those things can be quantified, in isolation – or even cumulatively – they do not reveal whether the athlete can actually play the game.

A measured response
Some things can and should be measured, but the quest for ROI is often more about minimizing risk than maximizing revenue. We must remain aware of our own biases and blind spots if we hope to transcend the data.

Gaining meaningful insights through research most often requires a balance of art and science – subjective and objective measures – because even though bean counters can tell you how many beans are in a jar, they can’t tell you how good they taste.

Related content:
Are Metrics Blinding Our Perception?
Do You Know Your Blind Spots?