Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Problem-Solving Training

When I was running a computer games development company, every games publisher wanted something that was both radically new and that had been a proven success in the past. Hollywood is no exception. And these are among our most creative industries. They say that cloning puts evolution on hold, weakening the gene pool and making viruses (constantly evolving) inherently more dangerous -- in business, it's continuously innovative competitors you have to beware of.

The desire to repeat past success is one of the fundamental constraining factors in business. The assumption that you minimize risk by replicating what has worked in the past underlies much of management theory. We focus on minimizing investment risk rather than maximizing return. "Return" has uncertainty written all over it; "investment" is a little easier to control. So much of our strategic thinking is asset-based: we are good at X and we have Y resources, what return can we generate with them? It's not considered sound corporate practice to ask: we want to make $X million, what opportunities can we create? Startup entrepreneurs do it, because they have not yet become experts. And, because they have very little to lose, they focus on the returns rather than the investment risk.

I suspect that what passes for expert intuition is sub(un?)conscious pattern-recognition of the kind that allows "lesser" creatures to recognize lunch, avoid becoming lunch, and find their way when they migrate. The less experience you have, the more you feel a need to be analytical. The more experience you have in a particular field, the less you have to consciously make yourself think analytically, if you don't want to. You instinctively recognize patterns and react accordingly. But therein can lie the danger. If the world has changed, if there are factors at play today that were not there five years ago, a lazy reliance on instincts can cause you to miss opportunities for innovation, or, worse, just make mistakes.

That is why corporations that take problem-solving and decision-making seriously insist on having everybody trained in the use of analytical methodologies, and why they work at getting those methodologies into the culture of the business. If you have to work with the system, it's not that easy to get lazy and fall back on instinct.

No comments: