Wednesday, November 02, 2005

More about the value of forgetting...and the dangers of knowing.

Because That's The Way It's Always Been Done
A new book looks at ways to trigger creative thinking

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October 2005, Issue 48

The story goes that before World War II, an American officer is sent to England to observe the maneuvers of a British artillery battalion. He notices that each gun crew comprises seven men but that only six of them have responsibilities relating to the artillery; one seems to just stand at attention. The American officer points this out to his British counterpart, who admits it's odd but says it's always been done that way. The American asks if the Brit can find out why, and the following morning, the British officer cheerily announces that he has the answer: "The seventh man holds the horses."

The moral of the story: Sometimes things become institutionalized when they shouldn't be. Sometimes companies do things because that's the way they've always been done. That's why consultant and author Arnold Brown thinks a lot about well … thinking. How do executives think about and approach problems? What's the process before the process?

In his new book, FutureThink, coauthored with consulting colleague Edie Weiner, he connects the idea of how our thought processes affect the way we deal with change in our organizations—a topic deeply resonant with the CIOs who are frequently asked to be being change agents.

In this Q&A, Brown talks about how CIOs should approach the idea of change—and thinking about change.

Q: Who's the target reader for FutureThink?

A: Any executive who has the responsibility to help a company function more effectively in today's very confusing environment.

Q: Confusing how?

A: There's a business, political, global, social maelstrom going on. We're in political and economic upheaval, dealing constantly with disruptive technologies. And what we do at Weiner Edrich Brown is help organizations look at change. When it comes to dealing with change, the problem isn't that people don't have the proper information—it's that they didn't properly use the information they did have. You can see it in the failures of our intelligence agencies before 9/11, or in the Iraq war, where the administration dealt only with information that conformed to the desired outcome and everything else was discarded. There are individual and organizational impediments to seeing, understanding, and using information as it relates to change.

Q: And the solution is?

A: To be effective, we have to deal with these impediments. We try to help people clear their minds of what they believed they already knew, to see and accept information that scared or threatened them. We help them find ways to convince others that the information they have is valid.

Q: But frequently the person who stands up and challenges the accepted way of thinking isn't rewarded or even welcomed.

A: We lost a client once when I suggested that the environmental movement was going to have increasing clout. The CEO didn't want to believe it and said I couldn't be more wrong—and nobody in the room spoke up.

Q: But you're advocating that people speak up with what may be unpopular opinions. What's your advice for doing that?

A: I say that it may be dangerous to do it but that it's more dangerous not to. If you don't encourage people to become more daring in their thinking, you're going to get further behind as a business, because the world's moving so fast. Before you know it, you can lose both market share and good employees and entropy takes over. The big problem with all large companies is that they ossify. Everything becomes institutionalized, like the need for the seventh man in the British artillery battalion. Something has to shake them up.

Q: What are the ramifications within IT?

A: The investments in IT are so large that they have to work. Whether they work or not, they have to work, because so much money is involved. Why do we see so many software deployments failing? Because the companies have put $150 million into them and can't walk away from the sunk costs. Management looks at the numbers, at the sunk cost, and it doesn't consider the opportunity cost of abandoning it.

The other thing is that sometimes IT suffers from the law of the hammer. That is, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For IT, the hammer is the computer. There's something I call the Vincennes syndrome, named after the U.S. warship that shot down the civilian Iranian airliner. It had a computer that looked at the plane, calculated its angle of ascent, and determined on the basis of the information it had that it was hostile. Before that computer system, a sailor would have gone out on the bridge and used binoculars to look at the plane. The simple, obvious solution sometimes eludes us, because we have this big hammer we feel we have to use.

So one of the things IT people can do when they think about a problem is not just to consider how they can use a certain tool to solve the problem. They can also ask, "How would I solve the problem if I didn't have the tool?" What's the best answer?

Q: How else can you challenge conventional thinking?

A: Ask a simple question: What if? What if everybody's wrong? What if we didn't do it this way? Why are we doing it? Why do we still do these things? Do we have a good reason for doing them? George Bernard Shaw once said, "I may be doing the wrong thing, but I'm doing it in the proper and customary manner." When people face a lot of uncertainly and fear, they want to do what's safe, what's been approved. Even if it doesn't work, you're safe doing it. If you follow a procedure and it results in a colossal failure, it's not your fault, because you were following procedure.

Q: What's the hardest thing about managing change?

A: People always talk about the learning curve. The hardest thing is the forgetting curve. You have to discard what you think you know. And the higher you go in management, the more difficult it is. When things are changing rapidly, you have to abandon information that is no longer useful. That takes a certain amount of courage. It's jumping into the pool when you're not sure you can swim.

Q: You talk in the book about individuals' not being able to understand change. What do you mean by that?

A: There's a psychological term called inattentional blindness. It comes from an experiment where people were asked to watch a video of a basketball game and count the number of passes. Halfway through the video, a gorilla walked in one door of the arena and out the other, but half of the people didn't see it. When you tell people to focus on one thing, they frequently don't see something that wasn't in the original plan.

When people have acquired a certain amount of knowledge, the same thing happens. Everything is filtered through their expertise. They don't see what's happening. They don't see the signs of change. It's called educated incapacity—the more you know, the harder it is to see anything new. You have to get people to become more objective. It's hard to do—I've been doing this for 35 years, and I still have to force myself to be objective. It takes constant practice, but if you require and reward it, you'll get people doing it.

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