Potential: Revealed

Strategic Thinking, Innovative Ideas, Growth Marketing, and Revealing of Potential

Archive for small steps

Imagination

Albert Einstein once wrote that in science “imagination is more important than knowledge”. That’s a powerful thought. I suppose you might expect nothing less from an intellectual giant such as Einstein.

What resonated with me, as someone who often not only wants to understand but who finds fully understanding something (i.e., “knowledge”) to be particularly satisfying, is the caution it offered about seeing knowledge as the only worthy end (to some research you’ve conducted, a project you’ve managed, a business problem or opportunity you’ve worked hard on).

Further, in reading more about the context of Einstein’s writing this line, he is saying bluntly that science like many pursuits in life is really just a journey, full of unknowns and unfolding unendingly. At any given point in time there are many truths or facts that are well-accepted and proven but an infinite number more truths and facts that are quite unknown and sometimes seemingly unknowable. Particularly in science there are many areas of study that deal with phenomena that are not readily or directly observable.

Einstein,and other great scientists, made many of their most astounding breakthroughs using their imagination rather than getting stuck trying to understand the seemingly unknowable. They would imagine some alternative reality to what was known at the time, think through how this alternative world might look and how it might operate if it were discovered to be true, then go about experimenting, searching and testing as if the alternate view were indeed true. This gave them great freedom to work creatively rather than be confined by the “known”. As a non-scientist, for me at least, this was very revealing and refreshing – creativity and science go together! I think I thought before this that they were mutually exclusive.

I began to relate this to my work with business clients where we might be talking about a new product or concept, or a new approach to promotional marketing and other challenges where some facts are well known and many others are for practical purposes unknowable. In such a situation how do you proceed? Einstein would say, if I may be so bold as to speak for him, to first beware of investing all your time into trying to know everything. This is similar to the common advice to avoid “analysis paralysis”. He adds to this common wisdom a more unique point of advice: use your imagination and then be bold enough to just try it out! Experiment. Try. Fail. Try again with another approach.

This is of course no guarantee of success. Your imagination might fail you. But when faced with a big challenge, using your imagination can be a powerful tool to spur action and overcome inaction. At the very least, doing so will give you a taste of how Albert Einstein thought and that alone will be fun!

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Experimenting leads to Expanding

Recently I read an interesting research article on “The Contradictions That Drive Toyota’s Success” that I may blog a couple times on since it was full of, well, contradictions to conventional wisdom of what makes businesses successful.

In summary the authors describe three “forces of expansion” (defined as those that lead the company to instigate change and improvement) and three “forces of integration” (defined as those that stabilize the company’s expansion and transformation. The countervailing nature of these forces allow Toyota to be widely and sometimes wildly innovative, creative, and constantly renewing itself, without undo chaos or losing its very clear and constant cultural identity. First I’ll focus on the Expansion forces.

The Expansion forces are noted as Set Impossible Goals, Local Customization, and Experimentation. Each are interesting but the Experimentation force was of particular interest. First, it is an important tool to facilitate the achievement of Impossible Goals. The culture of Toyota is one of pushing the employees to move freely outside their comfort zone and into uncharted territories through regular experiementation — and learning from both successes and failures. There is an interesting illustration from the development lifecycle of the Prius hybrid vehicle. In 1993 (yes, 1993!) they began development and first came out with a car that had 50% improvement in fuel efficiency. This was summarily rejected by Toyota executives in favor of a goal of 100% improvement. This made them look beyond conventional technologies and experiment their way through a string of failures: engines that would not start reliably, ones that could only travel a few hundred yards, battery packs that would not operate in the heat — or the cold.

Two simple concepts that Toyota employs when in experimental mode leapt out at me:

– think deeply but take small steps
never give up

These sound trite on the surface — too simple to be truly useful. But in thinking about them further, they go together beautifully (and powerfully).

On the first concept, my experience is that many companies get caught up in what I call “mistaking action for progress”. The steps they take may be indeed small but they are not small on purpose. And regularly they admonish their employees to take steps, any steps, so that they can report on “progress” (typically upwards to those above putting the pressure on). Rather than thinking deeply (which takes time but can look like lack of progress) and purposefully breaking a goal down into small, purposeful steps, the action appears to be guided by ready-aim-fire in reverse.

The second concept also sounds too pat but again my experience is that contemporary short term business thinking precludes applying a “never give up” attitude. It is not that companies want their employees to give up at the first sign of duress but without the advantage of using a small-step approach, which carries with it the corresponding advantage of low costs for any failures, costs can mount and patience for success wanes.

Experimentation is one of the most useful and powerful tools an organization can employ. The growing availability of data on markets and customers, the open foundation of the Internet, the near instantaneous pace of all communications, and many other aspects of the current business environment make experimentation both possible — and vital.

Do you agree? Are there other ingredients to successful experimentation?