Approaching problems in the right (or left) way.
Starting, or growing, a business raises all kinds of difficult looking problems. The challenge is that we are always working with incomplete information. As leaders, we tend to either overthink or over-analyse problems, standing in the way of our progress. The popular quote “vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare”, reminds us of the importance of actionable insights. But should we use logic or observation to craft a path forward in our organisations?
There are two significant schools of thought as to how we solve problems with incomplete information. One is the image of the philosopher, standing in a public forum with flowing white robes while their students sit in awe. They start at the top with clear rules until they reach a conclusion. The opposite is one of a detective like Sherlock Holmes, tucked away indoors in front of a roaring fire. They start from a specific observation, like a clue left at a crime scene, and work towards a conclusion.
Bottom-up thinking: starting with the data
Sometimes it makes sense to start with the hard bits first, channelling Sherlock Holmes to “seek out those features in a case that were seemingly incomprehensible”. In this approach, we start with single data points, looking for patterns and asking ‘why’ to identify what will happen next. These clues add up over time to tell us which direction to take. This type of approach helps us find patterns that others may not see; however, we need to make sure that we are inferring the right things from the data.
Top-down thinking: starting with the big picture
Things can be missed when looking at data points in isolation. A famous story is that of the ‘black swan’. Europeans travelling in the 16th century could not conceive of such a thing as a black swan as in their experience they had only seen white swans. Black swans have now become synonymous with events that are only visible in the data when looking backward, but not looking forward. This highlights the importance of imagining the future.
Starting with the big picture, data is then used to check that we’re making the right insights. Like the modern scientific method, you formulate a hypothesis, and then you test it. One starts with from the known and moves to the unknown. This is often described as the Cartesian method, where you start with whole, drawing out the easy bits first.
Balancing Logic and Observation to create actionable insights in the real world
Which one is right to use for your business? Logic or observation? Data or imagination? Over-thinking and over-analysing problems are both significant risks to your business. “Analysis-paralysis” means your business is slow to respond to opportunities, ultimately missing out on revenue. Using logic and observation concurrently avoids this; unravelling links, chains and threads to create a straight line between your strategy, your data and your operations.
1. Separate the ‘essential’ and ‘inessential’
Wading through all of the evidence to detect the solution. As Sherlock Holmes says “before we start to investigate that, let us try to realise what we do know so as to make the most of it, and to separate the essential from the accidental” (The Solitary Cyclist). At Hoist, we ask our clients to give us a ‘brain dump’ so that we can sort through the essential and inessential to make meaning.
2. Remove the impossible (but not the improbable!).
Detective shows and novels that abound with locked rooms are a reminder that we should never exclude the improbable. COVID-19 being another example of the need to consider the improbable. Such events highlight the importance of creativity – looking for the ‘black swans’ that might not be evident in the available data. ‘Imagining the future’ during the Global Financial Crisis created powerhouses like Netflix.
3. Explore multiple scenarios, make hypotheses and test them.
The power is in using data to get the right fit like Sherlock Holmes, who said “which of these [scenarios] is correct can only be determined by the fresh information which we shall no doubt find waiting for us” (The Adventure of the Copper Beeches).
4. Use the common-sense method, balance the art and the science.
For Leaders and Founders, we appreciate that it can be easy to become lost in the method of minute detail, missing the tiny departures from ‘normal’. As a fresh set of eyes, we see the obvious.
Country or Western? Why not both?
You need a balanced approach to your organisation’s roadmap for the future. Navigating our scary and strange world requires diverse thinking, connecting the dots between strategy, data and delivery. Our team of ‘philosopher detectives’ are here to help you get the insights you need so that you can start doing.
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