Monday, February 27, 2006

Where Do Employees Come From?

Every child is an artist. The Problem is how to remain an artist once (s)he grows up. --Pablo Picasso

Continuing from the last few posts:

What about the relationship between a observation and analysis -- the space between sight and insight -- demands attention for successful business practice?

Executives are not the only ones who are challenged by sustainable innovation in this way. After all, executives -- and their business habits -- come from their work as employees.

So where do employees come from? And how do they end up in that Box so many bosses complain about?

In addition to need for and challenges of sustaining curiosity and understanding the value of need for and conflict, it's also essential to build sustainable disciplines for practices of observation and analysis.

Like the complete group of practices with which it combines for sustainable creativity in business, insight is only possible by understanding from the beginning that you don't know the answer. It also requires balance, focus, practice, and persistence.

Here's a case study to further illustrate the point.

Background: Learning a Credible Pitch

Fifteen participants gathered for a course in self-presentation. Each brought to the class more streets smarts than formal training.

The Set Up

One by one each participant made a pitch for a new perspective on an idea or product. Each story was prepared beforehand, and each lasted about five minutes.

The Challenge

It quickly became apparent that the participants were struggling to discover a physical gesture to support the meaning of their words. Each participant looked for body language that would put across a genuine investment, connection, and belief in what they were saying. None succeed in finding a way of moving, standing, or emphasizing points that seemed naturally connected to the story.

Even the Smoothest Talkers Go Blank

Remember, all of the participants had given very effective pitches before. But in this classroom, they seemed to search for gestures out of the air, as though they had never done this before.

The problem was that none of the participants had consciously observed and noted their own past presentations. Put in new circumstances, they felt lost.

None had focused on process in past pitches. Because they had all concentrated only on results, they couldn't transfer the skills that were strong in familiar environments and with familiar subject matter.

Without the usual cues in familiar contexts, they all went blank.

More on this in the next post.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Executive Challenges: Between Sight and Insight

To help illustrate the importance for business practice of mastering a relationship between observation and anaylsis, it might be helpful to see how it plays out for executives.

Business Ethnography as a Case in Point

The following article was the result of a discussion with an advertising executive who had strong objections to the way in which professionals conduct research and present results in her field. We worked together to articulate the commons issues among her specific field and effective thinking across contexts.

Sight Before Insight

For good and ill, business ethnography has come to represent the broadest category of research on film. Technological improvements in cameras have made data collection easy and inexpensive, and clients can find out first-hand almost an unlimited number of details of consumer behavior.

How much more reliable is observation than the results of a questionnaire? Rather than speculating about what a subject would do from the distance of a focus group, a person can show you, up close and personal, in the more applicable setting of her own home. You’ve seen this sort of research at presentations – agencies can collect an unlimited and disparate variety of data and create a link with the client’s product.

The question is: even though data has been captured on film, how do you know what it means?

The ease of contemporary filming may have made us excellent reporters but has not inherently improved our ability to analyse. The question here is the same as with all technology – how can we use what we know to improve our understanding?

Case Study: Casual Eating

The challenges to the advertising industry are apparent in a film recently shown at a conference for an international foods client.

The film consisted of a series of clips, each presenting a subject discussing with an interviewer reactions to food being eaten as the conversation took place. The format was question and answer and focused both on expectations and the actual eating experience at hand. Subjects were presented in mid-shot with suggestions of their environment behind them – the edge of a kitchen cabinet, a bedroom window curtain, the corner of a rug. However, the frame was otherwise entirely filled with the subject’s face.

Because the reporting was done on film, the result was more far more entertaining and engaging than it would have been on paper. Subjects’ opinions were clearly presented, and the tape offered a variety of responses to the food that seemed to represent a wide range both of opinion and impression – in other words, some liked the flavor, some were more interested in texture, some were more interested in the way it made them feel, and so on.

The presenter concluded with a summary of the results already seen, a mention of the target audience, and an announcement of her key insight.

There were two problems here. The first is that the summary and the key insight were the same. The second is that nobody seemed to notice.

This is not unusual. The immediacy of an film audience’s experience and the presumed transparency between the medium and the detail it captures can make us forgetful of the necessity to reflect. However, we need to remember that the act of seeing (observation) is not the same as the tool of insight (meaning).

And because we all agree that even the most meticulous observation can not replace analysis, here are some questions to consider when determining whether your video presents enough information on which to inform strategy:

How many people from different contexts can be made a part of the editing process?

Can you include someone with entirely fresh eyes? A planner? A client? Can you put them in the same room? An industry expert?

Can you generate analysis in stages – during the pre-production, filming, and post-production?
What is the difference between action and motivation?

How will you determine why a subject does what they do other than by what she says?

How much time is spent observing and how much interacting in the film? What does a subject tell you, what does the environment tell you, and do they agree?

What evidence can you find of motivation in a subject’s home environment?

What clues either corroborate or contradict what the subject says? Will the subject acknowledge inconsistencies? Why or why not? How do you know?

This is not to say that ethnography is the only effective use of video research. After all, observation and interrogation are necessary for any research --you can’t get the insight you’re after without accurate data. Ethnography comes in when we need to draw conclusions form that data.

The most important thing is not to mistake one for the other.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Toward Sustainable Innovation: Observation vs. Analysis 2

Learning How to See. Again.

Unfortunately, the pressure to perform has allowed us at best, to confuse the processes of observation and analysis, and at worst, to skip the process of observation entirely.

In order to develop new ideas, the first step is to really see what's in front of you. In order to do that, you need to remember how to look.

What Have Adults Forgotten?

Curiosity is hard-wired from birth. This drives a process of experiment and discovery that explains the reason you see your toddler throwing cutlery from a high-chair -- just to see what happens. Maybe a cup will make a different sound? Maybe a cup with water would be fun to watch fly? If children like the results -- and often they do -- they'll repeat the performance just for the pleasure of observing the results.

Then Comes Education

The shift comes when a child is asked to replace his or her own investment in what's important with that of an adult. What we have come to call education focuses almost entirely on results.

Observation: The First Step Toward Insight

The process of observation is essential to analysis, and ultimately insight. However, it is a process that, if taught at all, is not valued nearly as much as the results it produces.

Parents prepare children for school from infancy by asking for particular behavior. A consistent demand for a particular results trains small people to offer up what pleases someone else rather than themselves.

The way of thinking creates a habit of believing the answer exists outside oneself and trying to find it in the expectations of someone else.

However, before finding an answer independently, you have to examine the data. This requires an engagement in the material that is entirely one's own.

What Gets in the Way?

If you're taught from infancy to find the answer someone else wants, you'll look for answers in their expectations rather engaging in the data with which you are presented. The pressure for results probably won't help either. Observation requires the time it takes to really look and absorb what you see.

If this all sounds obvious, it's not. Most people I've worked with -- from young students to executives -- confuse the process of observation and analysis. In fact, people tend to skip the former in part or entirely.

Children in School Become Adults at Work

In adulthood, this problem can serve as the foundation for The (dreaded)Box. Both believing an answer exists outside of one and the urgent demand for results probably won't produce anything new. As a process, it certainly isn't sustainable.

An advertising executive came to me asking questions about the reasons her staff and highly regarded professionals in her field couldn't seem to distinguish data from the conclusions they draw from them. We dubbed this the space between sight and insight -- see the article in the next post.

One caveat

Please do not mistake this call for change in perspective on educational perspective as an invective against school per se. Walden is not my model. I wouldn't have bothered getting a PhD if it were.

Whether or not they go on to higher education, children need adults to model, teach, and broaden their perspectives, and school can be great. As long as it cultivates, rather than dismisses, children's engagement and interests.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Observation and Analysis, Part 1: Summing Up Where We've Been to Get to Where We're Going

Creativity: Too Woo Woo for Work?

In the most mundane sense, creativity allows us to live our lives with more satisfaction by finding new ways of seeing. It makes problems easier to solve and life more fun.

Nothing like it for making money, either, as many CEOs have told me over the past three years. But its not the result of a mysterious intangible process. It's the ability to learn continously across contexts.

Curiosity: Something to be Cultivated

Curiosity, particularly when sustained, can certainly drive innovation because it's a short cut to genuine engagement. Genuine engagement can drive anyone to persistent investigation. Investigation, when supported by appropriate skills, will eventually lead to new thinking.

Observation and Analysis: A Big Challenge But Not Mysterious

Even without initial personal investment in a problem, good results can be got in an ongoing dialogue between observation and analysis. In short, this constitutes a discipline of looking, sorting through, and identifying meaning even in unfamiliar circumstances. A lot of it is simply grunt work.

The only mystical thing about this process is its results. It's always quite amazing to find possibilities where there once seemed to be none.

An Advantage of the Human Brain

Because thinking is associative, it seems we as human beings are hard-wired to make connections.

The trick is to continually be open to discovery and to release or add new ideas as they arise. It's a balance of retaining ideas and yet being supple and flexible enough to experiment not just with new information but with new processes of exploring what we already know.

The First Step: Pretend You Don't Know the Answer (Because You Don't)

One key to developing innovative technique is exploring the relationship between innovation and analysis. Let's start with observation.

Show up to a problem assuming that you don't know the answer -- because if you want to come up with a new possibility, you don't.

Don't Even Look for Answers -- Yet

The pressure to produce, the knowledge that your results will be measured, and other forms of performance anxiety need to be left aside for this process.

As much as possible, come to a project with fresh eyes. See the information new. Observation requires the discipline of consistent exploration. When you stay in a rut using one set of practices, find others. There are many techniques for doing this -- one is to cross disciplines. Others are available as well (just ask a good consultant or your favorite teacher).

The Scary Part

Before setting out on the journey for new ideas, accept that learning is disorganizing. Don't just give it lip service -- know it in your bones.

Feeling lost is part of the process. Once you've done it a few times and got good results, you'll understand why the discomfort is worth it. You might even get used to it.

A Different Way of Thinking

Because we as human beings become split to fulfill the seemingly persistent short-term needs of the workplace, we reserve a piece of ourselves for the tasks at hand and save the rest for our families, hobbies. It's the way most people survive every day catering to someone else's needs.

Because thinking is associative, the more of our own resources we've got to work with, the better for innovation. Also, the disciplines, interests, ideas in which we feel genuine ownership are more likely to engage us. The more engaged, the less we worry about the answer, the more we explore.

Some Strategies

One way to do this is to identify and hold onto what engages you. Explore, investigate, immerse yourself, even if it has nothing to do with work.

Once you've come to the end of your interests, find more.

Remember once a day what it feels like to be yourself in that state while in the office. Maintain as much of a connection internally between the pieces of your identity outside and inside the office. Then when it comes to solving problems in the office, you'll have a point of reference that's broader than the narrow parameters in which you usually operate.

Or -- find something you know nothing about -- or a topic that seems to have nothing to do with the problem at hand. Put the ideas side-by-side with the data set from the work day, and explore the connections.

The point is -- in order to see things new, you need to explore connections for their own sake.

At least, at first.

More on honing the process of Observation and Analysis in the next series of posts.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Shamelessly Off Topic: For Those With Children (or Who Just Like a Good Story)

I am very happy to announce that Ron Barrett (Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, Old MacDonald Had An Apartment House, Animals Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing) kindly contributed a picture to It's a Drag to Be a Dragon.

Frankly, it's an honor.

The new picture is certainly worth checking out, as is the drawing for the King Arthur tail.

These stories -- even without the images -- are parent tested, child approved. You can try this at home.

Last, if you don't have all of Ron's books yet, it's worth a trip to Barnes and Noble. But first see if you like what you get here for free.