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Why Innovation Is Rare: The Problem of Knowledge & The Curse Of Expertise

Do We Know It All?

I’d like to start this conversation by getting us mindful to a definition:

ignorance

ˈɪgn(ə)r(ə)ns/

noun

lack of knowledge or information.

“he acted in ignorance of basic procedures”

I say that our ignorance is vast.  And we are not present to our ignorance because we are convinced that we have an accurate grasp of the world: we know it all!  Our hubris blinds us that which history makes vividly clear: each age is deluded in its conviction that it has accessed the truth of what is so.  Does this remind you of Socrates? The Oracle claimed that Socrates was the wisest man because he knew that he knew nothing.  On that basis we are not wise – nowhere near close to wise.

Do You Remember This Starbucks/’Milk’ Story?

Why have I launched into this conversation?  If you read this blog then you may remember this post and this narrative:

Last week, while on an average holiday shopping trip, my mother and I decided to stop by Starbucks to get a quick snack…..

When we got up to the counter, my mother placed our simple order, at which point she asked for a “tall” cup of two percent white milk. This is how the conversation played out:

“Mocha,” said the barista.

“No. Milk,” my mother repeated.

“Mocha?”

“No. Two percent white milk.”

“Oh… Milk!”

….. I attempted to withhold my personal thoughts. Milk. You know, that white stuff you pour in the coffee? Yes, well, we want an entire cup full of that. Minus the coffee, of course.

Our barista proceeded to ask if we’d like the milk steamed, but we opted for cold. (They steamed it anyway.) Eventually, we managed to get our order straightened out, but not without a few stifled giggles.

Making Sense Of This Story Through The Insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein

You may also remember the follow up post where I made use of the insights of Heidegger & Wittgenstein. And in so doing attempted to point out that:

  • every human being is always a being-in-the-world  - which is to say that the human being and the world are so interwoven that they are one not two;
  • every human being finds himself, at every moment, situated-embedded in a particular world e.g. the business world, the academic world, the public world, the world of home etc and that world ‘takes over’ the human beings working-living in that world;
  • a word such as ‘milk’ does not point at a specific object rather it, and every word-utterance, is a social tool for coordinating social action in a specific world – think for a moment what ‘milk’ means to a woman that has just given birth and compare that to what ‘milk’ means to a supermarket;
  • that the confusion that occurred at Starbucks and with the barista was due to the narrator’s mother turning up in the Starbucks world of coffee and using the word ‘milk’ inappropriately – akin to you turning up at your friend’s home for a meal, enjoying the meal and then asking for the bill; and
  • to really understand a world (e.g. the advertising world) one needs to live in that world by taking up a role in that world and doing that which goes with the role taken up.

After reading this follow up post, Adrian Swinscoe commented (bolding is my work):

I really like your exploration of this issue from a philosophical angle and learnt a lot from it…. 

However, at the end of the post I found myself wondering if the heart of the problem was something quite humdrum and that the barista just didn’t listen. She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

As you point out, if we don’t get out of our way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.

Now I want to address the points that Adrian is making. And that means grappling with the problem of knowledge and the curse of expertise.  Let’s start with Adrian’s statement “if we don’t get out of our own way and our own ‘heads’ then we’ll struggle to understand and really help and serve others.”

Is It Possible To Get Out Of Our ‘Heads’?

If I was to get out of my own ‘head’ then whose ‘head’ would I use to be able to make sense of the world in which I find myself? Besides we are almost never in our heads, we are mostly on automatic pilot immersed in cultural practices and taken over by our habits.  If this was not the case then thinking, genuine thinking, would not be so effortful for us.  Let’s listen to Charles Guignon:

If all our practices take place within a horizon of vague and inexplicit everyday understanding , then even the possibility of something obtruding as intelligible is determined in advance by this understanding …….. the questions that I can ask and the kind of answers that would make sense are always guided by my attuned understanding of “ordinary” interpretations …. Without this understanding, nothing could strike me as familiar or strange.

For this reason Heidegger says that all explanation presupposes understanding…… The legitimate task of seeking explanations is always conducting within a horizon of understanding that guides our questioning and establishes procedures for attaining clarity and elucidation. Through our mastery of the shared language of the Anyone, we have developed specific habits and expectations that enable us to see things as obvious or puzzling...

A detective trying to make sense of how a crime was committed …. might take even the most mundane item in the room and ask how it came to be there ….. great advances have come about in the sciences through the ability of individuals to step back and question what had been taken as obvious and self-evident. But such cases of departing from established habits and expectations make sense only against a background of shared understanding which remains constant through such shifts. In other words, we can make sense of unintelligibility and a demand for explanation only within a horizon of intelligibility which is not itself thrown into question …..

- Charles B. Guignon, Heidegger and the Problem of Knowledge

To sum up we are always in our ‘head’ and that head arises and is kept in existence through our shared cultural practices. A particular potent cultural practices is language.  Notice that to operate in society we must speak the language of that society – everyday language.  And to operate in particular world (e.g. world of business, world of finance, world of advertising, world of healthcare ….) we must be fluent in the language of that world.

Adjustments can be made to our ‘head’ and it is not easy to make these adjustments. Why?  Adjustments are not made through thinking – not made through cognitive means.  As ‘head’ is given by roles, habits and cultural practices it is necessary to make a shift in these. How? By moving into and inhabiting-living new worlds. This is what occurs when the CEO leaves the world of the CEO and takes on-lives the role of the frontline employee for five days; Undercover Boss is all about this shift.  If you find yourself interested in that which I am speaking about here then I recommend watching the movie The Doctor (starring William Hurt) – it is instructive in a way that my words cannot instruct.

The Curse Of Expertise

How does Adrian interpret the Starbucks/’Milk’ story?  The same way that many of us interpret it:

She obviously heard something but didn’t properly listen for whatever reason….fatigue, lack of care, language, bias, agenda etc etc.

Why this conviction that ‘that which occurred’ is the fault of the barista? Why this insistence on the incompetence of the barista?  I say that this explanation is so easily forthcoming and attracting (rather like a magnet) because it is the cultural practice to see fault in front line staff, especially as these jobs are low paid, and thus lay blame on them.

What if the barista was not fatigued, not tired, speaks the language well, has no agenda?  What if, on the contrary, the barista is highly skilled in her role of serving coffee to Starbucks customers?  Is it possible expertise, not ignorance, is the cause of the snafus?  Let’s listen to a zen master and see what we can learn:

In Japan we have the phrase “shoshin” which means “beginner’s mind”. The goal of practice is to always keep our beginner’s mind. Suppose your recite the Prajna Paramitra Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it….

If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”

- Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The curse of expertise is that the expert only sees that which s/he has been conditioned to see; hears that which s/he has been conditioned to listen to; makes sense of that which shows up through her already given horizon of understanding (see Guignon above). Put differently, the expert is stuck in a rut: all that shows up, including the anomaly, is interpreted in times of the taken for granted.  Which is why altruistic acts are made sense of in terms of selfishness given the Darwinian frame. Or the necessity to postulate ‘dark matter’ given the need to keep the existing model of the universe intact. Or the collapsing of Customer Experience with Customer Service in the business world.  Or the insistence of seeing CRM as technology and business process change rather than a fundamental change in the ‘way we do things around here’.

As a consultant/coach/facilitator what do I bring to the table?  At my best I bring to the table a beginner’s mind where everyone on the ‘inside’ is an expert. Which is why I am often able to see that which my clients cannot see.  The challenge always is to convey that which I have seen to my clients such that they do not reinterpret it into their existing way of seeing-doing things.  Often I fail: despite my best efforts to ‘ask for milk’ I find that my clients interpret as ‘mocha’.  And when I say “No, milk!”, they respond “Surely, you are asking for Mocha!”.  And even if I strike up the courage to insist that ‘milk’ is not the same as ‘Mocha’ I find that they often confuse ‘Two percent white milk” with ‘steamed milk’.  They are not at fault, it is the curse of expertise. And it inflicts us all!

And Finally A Quote

I leave you with a quote that sums up the situation and the challenge beautifully:

Create your future from your future not your past.

- Werner Erhard

What Is The Access To Customer-Centricity and Innovation?

I have been reflecting over 20+ years of experience centred on enabling, effecting, facilitating business change and improving business performance. During this time I have been involved with a whole range of management panaceas:

  • business process re-engineering;
  • management information systems;
  • ERP systems;
  • shared services
  • knowledge management systems;
  • kaizen, lean and six sigma;
  • quality;
  • the internet;
  • database marketing;
  • permission marketing;
  • relationship marketing;
  • 1:1 marketing;
  • customer relationship management;
  • data mining and predictive analytics;
  • organisational development;
  • change management;
  • leadership development;
  • strategy and strategic planning;
  • scenario planning;
  • balanced scorecard;
  • zero based budgeting;
  • matrix organisations;
  • customer experience;
  • customer loyalty schemes;
  • employee engagement;
  • teamwork;
  • corporate social responsibility;
  • social business;
  • digital transformation …

What shoes up for me when I reflect on this experience?  

I am present to the gulf between the promise of each of these ‘tools’ and the reality of that which showed up when these tools were introduced-applied in business settings.  Rarely did the reality match up to the promise of these ‘tools’.  Why?  Were these ‘tools’ defective?

It occurs to me that few of these ‘tools’ are fundamentally flawed in themselves. The one that comes to mind is the area of knowledge management. There a huge gulf between information and knowledge.  Knowledge management systems are great at holding information. They cannot ever hold-distribute knowledge. Knowledge is contextual, largely tacit and embodied.  If you get this then you get that the premise of knowledge management systems is fundamentally flawed.

If most of these tools are sound then why has there been such a gap between the promise and the reality?

Take just one example: CRM. Why is it that whilst CRM systems have become essential part of the corporate infrastructure, they have not fulfilled on their promise: to drive marketing, sales and service effectiveness; and generate sound relationships thus contributing to higher revenues and profit margins?

Before I provide my answer to this question, I pose another question. Why is it that whilst so much is known about Steve Jobs (the way he went about doing what he did at Apple) there will never be another Steve Jobs?  Why is it that you can copy Steve Jobs’ techniques and not generate the results that Steve Jobs generated?  Why is it that pretty much all one needs to know about Zappos is widely available yet there is only one Zappos? For that matter, why is it that USAA is still in a league of its own?

Here’s my pointer to solving this riddle:

All we have is who we ‘are’, and this in turn shapes what we do. Being is sometimes though of as something intangible, abstract, or even ineffable, but it is actually quite real ….. Being is the context from which all of our thinking and actions spring, as opposed to doing, which is just a content that flows from the context.

Robert Hargrove, Masterful Coaching

The access to empowerment, customer-centricity, and innovation lies in being

Let me put this bluntly, the access to customer-centric organisations lies in being. Not in the ‘tools and techniques’ (the doing, the content). The same applies to cultivating a loyal, motivated, engaged, high performing workforce.  And it is no different when it comes to innovation.

If empowerment, customer-centricity and innovation is not your being then all the ‘tools and techniques’ will make little difference. On the other hand if empowerment, customer-centricity, and innovation are your being then you will find or create all the ‘tools and techniques’ that you need as you need them.

There are people in leadership positions whose being is in tune with talk of enlightened leadership, customer focus, and empowerment.  I dedicate this post to my friend Lonnie Mayne. I am clear that Lonnie’s being is a clearing for the best of our humanity and our greatness to show up. And as such I find Lonnie to be a source of inspiration.

Is This The Answer to Collaboration, Creativity, and Innovation?

I met up with a ex-colleague today who is passionate about customers, about service, and about the customer experience. He showed me the NPS charts and figures and lamented that so little real change is occurring in the organisation and so the NPS scores are static. He even went to a call-centre, sat with call-centre agents, and observed them responding to customer calls.

What did he notice? He noticed that these agents were not picking up on the customer’s emotional state and responding creatively to generate a meaningful connection. They were too busy on the task of working many screens-systems, finding information, and relaying this information to customers.  He noticed that the call-centre agents were going about their customer conversations (and work) in a robotic way. I detected a hint of complaint towards the call-centre agents.

This got me thinking about organisations and work places. In my 20+ years of experiences I have worked with-for many organisations and I have noticed that most organisations are dead. Only a handful of organisational environments are alive. I have also noticed that robotic behaviour and dead organisations go together. Have you noticed that when people finish work and leave the building they sigh with relief – relief that they are out of prison. Have you experienced the same?

I ask you how likely is it that collaboration will show up in dead organisational environments? How likely is it that creativity and innovation will show up? How likely is it that the people working in dead organisational environments will show up in a way that leaves customers feeling happy?

Which begs the question, how do we turn dead organisations into alive organisations where empathy, collaboration, connection, creativity and innovation flourish?  I have noticed the there are plenty of people providing answers to collaboration, creativity, innovation and employee engagement. There are all kinds of tip, tricks, techniques and frameworks – some simple, most complex. If they worked then collaboration, creativity, innovation and employee engagement would be flourishing; the tips, tricks, techniques, and frameworks have been around for a long time.

So what is the answer to this riddle? How do we turn dead organisations to organisations that are alive with empathy, with collaboration, with creativity and innovation? I share with you a profound insight, from a radical thinker, that gets to the heart of the matter:

People who are without creativity build dead organisations.

- Krishnamurti

 

Shareholder value or customer delight? Choose

It doesn’t work if you fill up the tank with petrol when your car runs on diesel.  It doesn’t work to turn up at a nightclub and expect to get peace-quiet.  It doesn’t work to drive down the wrong side of the road at a busy time when there are lots of cars on the road and expect no problems.  It doesn’t work to turn up in your bikini for work or to turn up with your business suit to sunbathe on the beach.  And almost all of us get that.

So why is it that in the world of business we forget this.  Why is it that we still cling to stupid ideas, and practices, like what gets measured gets done. Rubbish. In the world of business what gets measured gets gamed. And if it isn’t being gamed now, then you can rest assured that someone is working on finding a way to game it especially if his/her bonus cheque depends on that measure.

Take the idea of best practice. When all the players in the industry go for best practice, the best practice is to do something totally different. Isn’t that what Jobs did?  And in the process he reinvented and created industries. So worshipping at the altar of best practice and benchmarking is a stupid practice especially if you are on of the followers, the laggards.

Then there is the stupid idea that you can generate genuine collaboration and teamwork within the organisation – social business – when the context the players operate from is one of competition: for resources, for recognition, for rewards.  In a context of competition what shows up is competition.  If you are stupid enough not to accept this and demand collaboration then you will get competition disguised as collaboration.

Which is the most stupid idea of all within the realm of business?  It is the one that was invented some 30 – 40 years ago.  It is the idea of shareholder value as being the sole purpose of a business and its management team. Why is it stupid?  Allow me to quote Roger Martin, Dean, Rotman School of Management:

Customer delight is a more powerful objective than shareholder value ….. if you take care of customers, shareholders will be drawn along for a very nice ride. The opposite is simply not true: if you try to take care of shareholders, customer’s don’t benefit, and ironically, shareholders don’t get very far either.

A lot of the issues that I see in the customer thing is that many of us are attempting to force it into the shareholder value game.  And it doesn’t fit.  The shareholder value game is the ‘one night stand’ game – get me laid this year!  Whereas the customer delight game is a longer-term game, an affair that keeps both parties interested in each other over the longer term.

Customer-Centricity: why engineers are not enough and poets are essential

Where is the enthusiasm born of imagination and passion?

In my 25+ years of walking the corridors of business organisations I have come across the mind/intellect in many guises: as strategy; as planning; as process; as metrics; as technology; as standardisation; as the pursuit of ‘best practice’ and ‘benchmarking’……  What I have rarely experienced is enthusiasm born of imagination and passion.  Yes, I have come face to face with fear, with greed, with pressure, with determination.  And that is not the same as imagination, passion, enthusiasm.  In this post I want to deal with imagination.

Does imagination matter?

Is business simple a game of mind?   Is it simply a case of putting in place the right mix of ‘resources’ – people, processes, technology, metrics – based on analysis and then configuring and deploying these resources in the correct configuration?  I say that this is the traditional assumption and narrative. And that it is not a surprise given the backgrounds of the people who read and write these narratives.

It occurs to me that imagination and passion do matter.  It occurs to me that they play a pivotal role in the game of business, to customer service, to customer experience, to customer-centricity. And it occurs to me that these two dimension are neglected – pushed out to the background or paid lip service.  I see tactics (VoC, data mining, CRM systems, process redesign….) devoid of strategy and where I do encounter strategy it shows up as being devoid of imagination.  It is as if just about everyone is playing the same game (make the P&L numbers) to the same rules and each players is expecting to differentiate himself from his competitors!

Why is imagination so critical?

I say imagination does not just matter, it is critical for any industry that is not immune from change in customer preferences, in competitors and competition, and in technological disruptions.  Why?  Let me share with you the insight of a particularly insightful philosopher:

” An animal has not enough imagination to draw up a project of life other than the mere monotonous repetitions of previous actions ….  

If life is not realisation of a program, intelligence becomes a purely mechanical function without discipline and orientation.  One forgets too easily that intelligence, however keen, cannot furnish its own direction and therefore is unable to attain to actual technical discoveries.  It does not know by itself what to prefer among countless “inventable” things and is lost in their unlimited possibilities.  Technical capacity can arise only in an entity whose intelligence functions in the service of an imagination pregnant not with technical, but vital projects.”  Jose Ortega Y Gasset

Put differently, there are limitations to reason.  Reason is limited by reason. Reason keeps one restricted to the comfort zone.  And it is great for as long as the environment does not change.  Imagination is needed to create/shape new environments and to deal with environments that are in the process of change.

Take Amazon.  Was it not borne out of the imagination of Jeff Bezos?  Take Starbucks.  Was it not borne out of the imagination of Howard Schultz?  Take Zappos?  Was it not borne out of Nick Swinmurn?  And was it not imagination (of being the company known for great service across the world) that enabled the Zappos leadership team to put Zappos’ existence at stake to reach for that which was imagined?  Think Vodafone. Was it not borne out of the imagination of mobile telecommunications?  The list is endless.

What has this got to excelling at the game of becoming customer-centric, at being a customer experience master?  

Everything.  In my travels what shows up for me?  Obsession with the technology of customer service, of customer experience, of customer-centricity.  When I speak ‘technology’ I am not just pointing at IT systems.  I am pointing at obsession with the means/methods/tools – the rational domain of the engineer.  What does not show up for me, what do I not encounter?  An imagination pregnant with possibilities and vital projects to which customer service, the customer experience, and customer-centricity can contribute.

Imagination is critical to making the shift.  Why?  Because that is what is needed to move out of the prison of the ‘making the numbers’ and sticking to the comfort of the ‘known and best practice’.  What made Steve Jobs great?  At the technical level Steve Wozniak was supreme. Why is he simply a footnote?  Because he lacked the imagination of Steve Jobs.  Put differently, Jobs was the poet, philosopher and the founder of a new religion around the user experience.  Allow me to illustrate this through the insight of Jose Ortega Y Gasset:

The vital program is pretechnical. Mans’ technical capacity – that is, the technician – is in charge of inventing the simplest and safest way to meet man’s necessities.  But these …. are in their turn inventions. They are what man in each epoch, nation, or individual aspires to be. Hence there exists a first, pre technical invention par excellence, the original desire…  which part of man is it, or rather what sort of men are they, that are in special charge of the vital program?  Poets, philosophers, politicians, founders of religions, discoverers of new values…. the engineer is dependent on them all. Which explains why they all rank higher than he…”

Summing up

Put simply, without poets and philosophers like Jobs your engineers like Wozniak are not going to get you far in the game of customer service, customer experience, customer-centricity.

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