Thinking about Pyramid Search

Part of strategic thinking is about identifying capacities – your own and others. That sounds easy, but there is a trick here. What is a capacity? Well, it is nothing until you have an agenda. Throwing a ball accurately is not a capacity until you put in the agenda of a sport like basketball or baseball or football. So to be able to identify capacities, we have to be sensitive to the agendas that are just under the surface.

And now things get interesting. We know from psychologists that humans tend to create narrow agendas. We are not very good as a species on taking in multiple options. Instead, we like to zero in on …  the thing in front of us. For that reason, our capacities also tend to be narrowly defined. We move from generalists to specialists.  From country doctor to neurosurgeon.

So far so good. Neurosurgeons are great when you need brain surgery. But neurosurgeons are not so great at talking about stuff that is outside of their knowledge and skill sets. So you might think of the capacity of the human race to solve problems as incredibly fragmented. We have incredible expertise all around us, but in relatively narrow areas. That is our weak link.

How to get around this? Well we will need to learn how to connect folks between specialties. One way to do that is via pyramid search. It is an interesting concept that HBR describes. You might think of it as a tactic to identify relevant expertise. Or you might think of it as a strategic tool to build more efficient platforms. Or you might think of it as a key component of a business model.

Intuition and Intellect

It is a big day for cognition in the media. Brain Pickings has a nice post about one of my favorite books, Csikszentmihalyi’s “Creativity”.  It is a seminal work, laying out a structure for understanding the social and cognitive dimensions of adding value via mental work.

Here is a thought provoking takeaway. The creative process does not start from feeling good and happy and well fed and in love. To the contrary, it starts with a crisis. A problem that intrudes on the happiness of the subject. How creative we become depends on how we react to those crises.

More on Neurons

I am quite fascinated by the questions surrounding how the brain internalizes stimuli from the outside. We have learned much about the process. Enough to understand that it is not strictly rational. In other words, a punishment, especially a violent punishment, for a wrong does not create a neural link to doing right — just avoiding punishment next time.

We create neural connections all the time, and they often stick with us way beyond the time that we are conscious of them. Knowing that, it is a strategic imperative to manage how we forge new connections and cope with ones already created.  I highly recommend the linked article to get into this topic. It is most immediately about the value — or lack of value — of spanking children. But the broader picture that it offers is highly valuable.

DRI in Conversation

There is a difference between your normal conversation and a productive exchange. The results tell the story. After a glass of wine and a chat, the group disperses without any obligations or next steps. After a productive exchange, at least one person in the group learns something that he or she can use.

This is why some lucky folks get paid to teach us how to run meetings. Meetings are supposed to offer the opportunity for productive exchanges – not just conversation. One tip — stolen from Steve jobs (see link above) — is to make sure that every agenda item for the meeting identifies who is directly responsible for moving the discussion forward. That person is the “DRI”. Nice.

This works when you can impose that obligation in an institutional setting. But what if you can’t?`What if you are the only one trying to get somewhere and everyone else has their own agenda? Welcome to the real world. In this setting, you need to be your own DRI for your own strategic needs.

Kaizen for Beginners

If you buy into the idea that you can create a great life, you are implicitly buying into the idea that you know how to build improvements in your life as you go. That you are capable of “leveling up”.

Where does this capability come from? I do not believe that we are born with it. It is, instead learned. If so, then we have good reason to “learn how to learn”. Not just to know more, but to know how to use knowledge for making life better.

You might think of this on a grand scale. For example, making life better by finding a cure for cancer or solving global warming or ending war. But these grand ambitions do not take you to the next step in your day to day activities. And to have a hope of getting anywhere, that next step must be a step up.

That is kaizen, in a nutshell. Kaizen is a philosophy that demands focusing on doing each thing a bit better. No matter how small. No matter how seemingly inconsequential. You can practice kaizen, and I think it is worth practicing. And you can adopt kaizen as an organizing principle. The small things that we do give us the creativity to approach the larger things that we want to achieve.


Looking Behind the News

One of the biggest news stories of this autumn has been the dramatic fall in the price of crude oil.  Few predicted it, and as far as  I know, none predicted that prices would fall to this level. Let’s categorize this, therefore, as a surprise.

Surprises happen and when they do they carry strategic consequences. Most important, we need to re-think what is behind the news. Why were we surprised?

The funny thing in this case is that we really do not know for sure. Sure there was over-supply. But why?

One line of thought is that conventional wisdom about the path of global economic growth was wrong.

The “well known fact” with regards to oil over the last decade read like this: because of huge GDP growth in emerging markets like China, there were going to be 400 million new middle class citizens born of uninterrupted prosperity; they were going to want all the autos, consumer goods, $10,000 watches and food that Americans have.

The demand for commodities was going to be endless because capitalism practiced under authoritarian control was going to be better than the “invisible hand” of the free market. No recessions or depressions required.

Hmmm … keep in mind several things about China as you think about this. First, we know that the accuracy of data coming out of China about its economy is lacking. In other words, we hear what the Chinese government wants us to hear. Second, even based on that data — the stuff we can get — , there are signs that the Chinese economy is in some distress.

I do not propose here that this explains everything. I do propose that we should be keeping our eyes open in the next months for more information about global economic trends. We might be in for a wild ride in 2015.

Playing the Blame Game

I have been teaching strategy for a while now and since starting up this work, I have noticed something. It has to do with the way people talk when they experience frustration or failure.

There are more and less effective ways to speak in these situations. The most effect ways evoke what will be done about the problem in the future. The least effective — and far more common — way to speak is to indulge in blaming. That blaming can be blaming the self or someone else. It feels good, but it doesn’t get you anywhere.

So “positive re-framing” is good advice if you find yourself playing the blame game.

Time Manager Alert!

There is a fundamental strategic flaw in most writing about time management. That flaw is to suggest that better time management allows one to do more things.

It sounds logical. If we are more efficient in how we do things, we open up more slots in our daily planner, right? Sadly, the real world does not work this way. In the real world, becoming more efficient usually has two effects (1) you get sloppy about the effects and quality of what you do, and (2) you get opened up to more people making claims on your time.

In other words, you cannot win. That does not mean that time management is useless. To the contrary, we need to manage our time. We start by giving up the idea that we can have it all. We can only do a small percentage of the things that are possible. Time management will not change this. But it will help us prioritize which of these things we choose to focus on.

Resilience and Strategy

The other day, I read Mark Zuckerberg saying that as CEO of Facebook, he has made a huge number of mistakes. Jeff Bezoes said something similar about the decisions he has made as CEO of Amazon. What’s going on here? These are two of the most successful companies around?

Their comments go to a basic point about strategic thinking. When you make a strategic decision, you don’t know if it will work out. This means that you will not get things right 100% of the time. No one does. It is what comes next that matters — what you do when the wheels come off.

A couple of quick comments on this. The first is that if you know that the wheels might come off, it is a good idea to be checking on those wheels. That means having an alarm that goes off when the data starts looking screwy. The second is be ready to take your losses and move on. Don’t get stuck – react!

This quote gives the flavor —  from Peter Caddick-Adams about the fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in the later part of the Second World War.

What I (learned from my research is) that soldiering is not about planning. It’s all about how you react when something goes wrong, when the wheel comes off—how quickly you can turn things around, how resilient and deep your resolve is. That was demonstrated in spades by the U.S. Army at the Bulge. And that is deeply humbling and very instructive.

And remember! The things worth having are worth fighting for! Easy triumphs are kids stuff.