Plausible/Impossible:Weights and Measures
“I don’t have a girlfriend. But I do know a woman who’d be mad at me for saying that.”
- Mitch Hedberg
You must obey the forces you want to command. Consider if you were tasked to make Theodore Levitt’s proverbial 1/4 inch hole.(1) But what if you had to create the tools to do so? First, you would have to obey the laws of physics and metallurgy to heat the wrought iron to the right temperature. Obey the laws of Newtonian mechanics to forge the metal into the shape of an awl and hammer. And then you will need to quench the molten metal in cold water to obey the laws of thermodynamics. Management, like blacksmithing, is one of the few professions where one must make one’s own tools. Yet in business we so often do not recognize, nonetheless obey, the fundamental laws of nature when leaping into value proposition design.
Consider this parable. Two men are on opposite sides of a river. The first man shouts to the second, “Hey, how do I get to the other side of the river?” The second guy shouts back, “You ARE on the other side of the river!” This groaner reflects a more serious point. There is an unspoken and unexamined pretense in business, which reasons that “our” perspective as a supplier of goods and services is the same as “their” perspective, the consumer of our goods and services. Understanding another person’s perspective is a basic tenet of human interaction. Theory of mind. But in business we often get this so wrong that we become the punchline of a bad joke.
Recognizing that we have competing perspectives of the world is the first step in understanding why we fail to understand our customers. For in life there are always at least three perspectives — the first-person subjective account (“I see blue”), the second-person subjective account (“You say you see turquoise”) and the third person objective account (“He sees blue when certain pathways in his brain encounter a wavelength of 470 nanometers”).(2) How can these three accounts be so different yet describe the same thing? Why is it that a few years ago a dress broke the internet in to two camps: those who saw a blue and black dress and those who saw a white and gold one?(3) Why is that you can see a duck or a rabbit in the image above but not both possibilities at the same time?
It is alarming to realize that our emotions, thoughts and feelings are not an objective account of reality but rather an interpretation. Part of this quandary is what philosophers call qualia: the ineffable, intrinsic, private bits of consciousness that cannot be objectively explained. Bull ring red. Posole on a cold morning. The smell of the first spring day. These are all examples of qualia. And it is this inability to reconcile the first-, second- and third-person perspectives is why we so often get our customers so wrong. Our perspectives will always be different — our side of the river and their side of the river — but we continue to foolishly act as if they are the same.
Over our evolutionary development we’ve created a means to overcome these gaps in qualia by creating categories. Categories are the foundation of perception. If you want to be a human being and make it through the day you need to categorize objects around you. Imagine if every time you came across a spoon you would have to relearn what it was and how to use it? Consider the interface on your computer screen. Do you really need to know the tens of millions of lines of code making it work? Computer screen icons are categories that hide reality so that we are not distracted by it. Our brain is hardwired to quickly find certainty. As a result we generate categories that are fast and useful yet not necessarily accurate. Categories hold our world together, creating the middle ground between the first, second and third person. They are the lexicon of commerce uniting producer and consumer.
Categories make business possible. But they also kill innovative thought. For once we develop shared categories, our ability to surprise and delight our customers narrows dramatically. Business processes have an over sensitivity to immediate attestation. As a result we revert to past assumptions, we jump to conclusions, we ignore contradictions and we become extremely certain in an uncertain world.
When managers assume their categories are the same as their customers, they will forever be pushing a round peg into a square hole. It’s because consumers do not simply compare like-for-like within an industry defined category. They are constantly comparing experiences and utilities across categories. Yet, while adept at jumping across categories, consumers are just as woeful as businesses at creating new ones. And creating new categories that add fresh value is the very heart of innovation.
So how do we break our category driven co-dependent relationship with customers? Let’s begin our journey at the highest level of analysis.
First we must change our perspective. Our minds are built for speed. We need to know and act faster than our competitors. So we attempt to fit impressions and stimuli into a frame of expectations out of the need for efficiency. As a result, our minds vigorously resist any attempt to ask questions that will “change our minds.” Now what if we flipped this bias from efficiency/confirmation to contemplation/exploration? What if we slowed down the observation process by reframing our questions to open up a wider set of potential answers.
Complete this sentence:
An example of a bird is….
Now complete this one:
A bird is an example of….
As Luc de Brabandere’s thought experiment illustrates, in the first deductive question we can quickly find answers through categories: starling, pigeon, owl.(4) When we reframe the question inductively in the second example, there are limitless options. “A caged bird is an example of totalitarianism” or “Birds are an example of an animal that flies, but not all birds fly.” Or reconsider the duck and the rabbit image above. Recall how difficult it was to see a duck and rabbit at the same time? Instead of asking, “do you see a duck or rabbit?” ask, “what if the duck ate the rabbit?” Take a look at the image again. In this context can you see them both at the same time? By reframing the question, opening up our mind’s aperture and providing context, we are able to move from our limited top-down visual interpretation to a higher level of cognitive processing. Samsung dominates the television market today because they reframed their offering from an electronic device to a piece of furniture. Rolls Royce revolutionized the airplane engine industry by reframing their offering from a piece of engineering into a serevice “power-by-the-hour” business model.(5)
Brainstorming is bullshit. When trying to come up with a new idea we are told from childhood to just imagin. To think outside of the box. To let our minds wander. There is even a word for it: qarrtsiluni. The Iñupiat word for sitting in the darkness, waiting for inspiration to strike.(6) Innovation strategies are seemingly impossible precisely because they don’t have constraints. We are so afraid of creating type 1 errors (false positives — rejecting null hypotheses that are true) or creating type 2 errors (false negatives — accepting a null hypothesis that is false) that the the uncertainty between the two cancel potential “right” answers out. The result is inaction. What if we slow down and flip the narrative? Creativity is defined by inhibition, not exhibition. Research shows that when we impose constraints our minds are open to more creative ideas and can better connect unrelated thoughts.(7) When we try to forge a future without constraints we rush to the safety of solutions that worked in the past. When our minds encounter constraints, we’re better able to tap into our creative potential. This is the plausible in “plausible/impossible,” the name of this series
So how do we simultaneously create the “impossible”? It’s been calculated that the number of potential brain states — the number of permutations and combinations of activity that are theoretically possible — exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe. The human brain consists of 100 billion neurons, making on the order of 100 trillion connections at any time. It can store information for more than a century, automatically cataloguing, re-filing and editing as needed. It coordinates at least 640 muscles and looks after the essentials of keeping us alive with little thought, freeing our minds to reflect, create and learn. Yet this majestic machine is powered by only 25 watts of power (a dim lightbulb). The longer the brain spends performing a calculation, the more energy it consumes. As with any resource limited operation, we close off options and organize within categories to maximize efficiency.
As a result, our minds (not our brains) have atrophied in the search of greater efficiency. Our neural pathways — particularly in our information overloaded world — have become well worn deep cuts. So when we look at market potential, we drastically limit our scope based on brain function efficiency. We have infinite combinations of activity in commerce, but we forcefully narrow
our world into categories to maximize resources.
To see the world anew it is imperative to hijack our assumptions. In our practice, we use what is called the Six Paths Framework to simultaneously remain rooted in the plausible, yet shift our perceptions to discover the impossible.(8) This frees us from the expectations of preconceived categories, thereby removing any cognitive predictability. We are no longer limited to one side of the river or another. As we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. Our aperture is opened to consider the universe of potential connections across innumerable combinations. When confronted with new inputs from new perspectives never seen before, the mind is forced to create new categories. And within constraints, it does so without the high energy meandering of qarrtsiluni.
Any company that is serious about growth must create new categories, and as I will discuss in the next post, noncustomers are the next step to creating new plausible/impossible categories.
© 2020 Jason Hunter. F&W Strategy | Innovation
Coming up: Power of Noncustomers | Canned Creativity | Six Paths Revisited | Oceans in Practice | The Desk is Dangerous
(1) Amy Gallo, “A Refresher on Marketing Myopia” Harvard Business Review. August 22, 2016. https://hbr.org/2016/08/a-refresher-on-marketing-myopia
(2) V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind. (New York: William Morrow Paperbacks. 1999)
(3) Slate. “Two Years Later, We Finally Know Why People Saw “The Dress” Differently” https://slate.com/technology/2017/04/heres-why-people-saw-the-dress-differently.html.
(4) Luc de Brabandere and Alan Iny. Thinking in New Boxes. (New York: Penguin Random House, 2013.)
(5) Christian Madsbjerg, Mikkel B. Rasmussen, The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems. (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2014). Knowledge@Wharton “‘Power by the Hour’: Can Paying Only for Performance Redefine How Products Are Sold and Serviced?” Feb 21, 2007. https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/power-by-the-hour-can-paying-only-for-performance-redefine-how-products-are-sold-and-serviced/
(6) Eunoia. “Words That Don’t Translate” https://eunoia.world/?words%5Bword%5D=&words%5Blanguagetag%5D=I%C3%B1upiaq&words%5Btag%5D=
(7) David Barkus, The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
(8) The Six Paths Framework is the powerful, yet often misunderstood, Blue Ocean Strategy tool that I will cover in a future post.