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Insights Vs. Organizations

How Organizations Reduce Insights.

Most organizations claim—and sincerely believe—that they want to increase insights and put them to use. We shouldn’t let that sincerity fool us.

Organizations inadvertently suppress the insights of their workers and they do it in ways that are ingrained and invisible. Organizations stifle insights because of forces locked deep inside their DNA: they value predictability, they recoil from surprises, and they crave perfection, the absence of errors. In their zeal to reduce uncertainty and minimize errors, organizations fall into the predictability trap and the perfection trap.

The predictability trap is to arrange projects to run as smoothly as possible. Managers carefully map out the steps that will carry them successfully from start to finish. They set up a timeline showing when each step starts and finishes. They calculate the resources to allocate to each step —the dollars they will spend and/or the hours they will need. When the plan gets disturbed, managers can quickly detect the perturbation and reprogram resources so that progress isn’t slowed. The job of managers is much easier if they can accurately predict the workflow, resources, and schedules. Their job is easier if they can accurately gauge progress in moving towards the official project goal.

Insight is the opposite of predictable. Insights are disruptive. They come without warning, take forms that are unexpected, and open up unimagined opportunities. They are dis-organizing. Insights disrupt progress reviews because they reshape tasks and even revise goals. They carry risks —unseen pitfalls that can get managers in trouble.

In 2012, Mueller et al. published a study of why people have an aversion to creativity even though they claim to want creative ideas. The researchers found that if an idea is novel, people automatically assume it isn’t practical, reliable, or error-free. Novel ideas are associated with failures. Creativity was connected in the participants’ minds with uncertainty. When people were motivated to reduce uncertainty they gave lower evaluations to creative ideas. Managers dislike uncertainty and unpredictability, and therefore distrust creativity.

Organizations treat disruptive insights and innovations with suspicion. Witness the initial hostile reactions to the telephone, to Google’s search engine, to VisiCalc, to the Xerox 914 copier.

The perfection trap is to try to reduce or eliminate errors. Organizations naturally gravitate towards reducing errors. Errors are easy to define, easy to measure, and relatively easy to manage.

The quest for perfection, error-free performance, is right up there with the quest for predictability. These are both inherent in running an organization that depends on managing people and projects. In well-ordered situations, with clear goals and standards, and stable conditions, the pursuit of perfection makes sense. But not when we face complex and chaotic conditions.

Organizations have lots of reasons to dislike errors —they can pose severe safety risks, they disrupt coordination, they lead to waste, they reduce the chance for project success, they erode the culture, and they can result in bad publicity. Managers are continually checking to see if workers meet their performance standards. When managers find deviations, they quickly respond to get everything back on track. It’s much easier and less frustrating to manage by reducing errors than to try to boost insights. Managers know how to spot errors. They don’t know how to encourage insights other than hanging inspirational posters on the walls.

Unfortunately, the actions that organizations take to reduce errors can actually impede insights. They drain the attention and energy of the employees into error-reduction rituals that crowd out the mindset needed for insights.

The performance equation in the diagram shows that to improve performance we need to do two things. The down arrow shows that we want to reduce errors and uncertainty. The up arrow is what we want to increase —insights. To improve performance we need to reduce errors and uncertainty and we also need to increase insights.

Most organizations lean too far towards the down arrow. They care more about reducing errors and uncertainty than making discoveries. These forces―the desire for predictability and perfection ―aren’t values that organizations choose. They seem to be inherent in the very nature of organizations.

(This entry is a condensed version of Chapter Twelve of Seeing What Others Don’t.)

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