We’ve all heard the cliché “hindsight is 20/20” a thousand times. And it’s pretty much true. It’s a lot easier to figure out the path to a particular event when you know the final outcome. But if “what happened” is something bad, determining the reason after the fact doesn’t change the negative event.
How can we do a better job finding those problems in advance of our next new strategy implementation, site redesign, store remodel or other big effort?
It’s worth digging a little deeper to better understand why our hindsight is so perceptive. One of the most famous cases of 20/20 hindsight comes from the investigation into the attacks on Pearl Harbor (although, we could also argue the investigation into 9/11 and the more recent Fort Hood shootings have many similarities). In her book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, noted military intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter wrote “it is much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”
Of course, Pearl Harbor was an unexpected disaster that seemingly came out of nowhere. While we have those occasionally in business, more often than not our “disasters” come from strategies, redesigns or promotions that did not perform as expected. And those expectations can also lead to our blindness.
Whenever we’re implementing some new and exciting strategy, we tend to be very optimistic about the results. We’re convinced these new strategies are going to provide positive returns or we wouldn’t be implementing them. That optimism can lead to the same sort of crystal clear signal Wohlstetter referenced, but in the opposite direction; i.e. we tend to only see how everything we’re doing will lead to greatness and can easily overlook variables that have potential to lead to negative outcomes.
So, what do we do about it?
It seems some of the most common solutions today involve pulling together a committee to review what went wrong and putting together processes to prevent those specific problems in the future. These new processes don’t prevent all potential problems in the future, but with any luck they’ll prevent us from repeating the same mistakes.
But all of that happens after the fact.
There’s got to be a better way. My problem with the “committee and new process” approach is there’s a tendency to introduce lots of new and –all too often — needless bureaucracy. Inefficiencies ensue without greatly decreasing the probability of problem-free future efforts.
A technique I’ve found effective invokes much of the clarity of hindsight by drawing on the power of imagination.
During the ROI process for the strategy or project, we’ve already imagined the positive outcome. So before we wrap up planning, let’s also imagine a couple horrific scenarios. For example, imagine that four or five months after a site redesign, sales are down 50% and customer satisfaction has tanked. What happened? Now let’s assemble the same type of committee we would in that scenario and pour over the plan to find the causes of our imagined disaster.
Some might say this technique is really just standard contingency planning, but I find some pretty big differences. Contingency planning tends to look at the current plan to identify execution risks. It doesn’t often uncover key strategic or design problems.
The Scenario Imagination technique provides us with a different sort of lens that taps into our hindsight abilities to separate the signal from the noise.
We certainly won’t find every potential problem, but every problem we mitigate increases our probability of success and reduces our risk. And if we can reduce a lot of risk without strangling ourselves in bureaucracy, we’ll likely lower costs, increase efficiencies, and increase profits. I like the sound of that.
What do you think? Have you run into these types of issues? Do you think this technique would work for you? Do you have any techniques you would like to share?
Photo credit: me’nthedogs