Unarticulated needs:directions

December 18, 2016

In my last two posts I have emphasised the need to get behind surface statements of requirement(s) to unarticulated needs. I’m arguing that in the context of innovation rather than the hygiene needs of say an accounting system. In that case we have compliance issues, long standing practice and an innovation will of necessity be incremental in nature. But these days the core capability of technology, our scientific understanding of the world and our ability to rapidly engineer novel solutions change the game. My earlier post on apex predators is relevant here: during stability we focus on incremental innovation, during periods of rapid and discontinuous change we need multiple eureka moments. My first post pointed out that users don’t know what they want until they get it, then they want something different. The reason for this is that they do not yet understand the capability, but neither (and this is critical) does the expert fully understand what unarticulated need his or her expertise, capability to tool can achieve. The understanding, or rather the lack of understanding is mutual. My second post referenced inattentive blindness and pointed out that these problems are simply a part of what we are; they have to worked with and through rather than overcome.

Now there are a range of techniques that can be useful here.

  1. I developed (or for all I know reinvented as someone else may have done it first) ritual dissent and silent listening as workshop techniques. Both these methods involve a presenter explaining their idea to silence, then being placed in a position where they cannot respond as their audience discuss (silent listening) or attack (ritual dissent) the idea. By not being able to respond you listen more deeply, you pay attention to things you might otherwise gloss over. Four or five rounds of that and you are scanning significantly more information that on the first round.
  2. Anyone familiar with the Toyota way will know of Genchi Genbutsu (現地現物?) which involves going to the genba (現場) or, place where work is done.  In cases managers stood in a chalk circle unable to move or interact, only to observe until they saw something different, something novel that gave an opportunity for improvement.  Management by walking about was for me always a slightly cheapened version of this but I practiced it.  In a strategy role in Data Sciences I spent half my time in the office walking around, talking to people, allowing for chance discoveries.  I never turned down an invitation, I listened.  When something new came up the change was that I would hear about it and be able to connect it with a problem I had picked up elsewhere.  The Genus programme which was a large part of the Data Sciences turn around came from that satiable curtiosity to quote Kipling.
  3. With SenseMaker® we can capture day to day experiences through journaling over large populations and look for patterns in those experiences, in paricular looking at outliers, for evidence of an unstated need.  The supporting narrative allows the right contextual stimulus for the capability providers to see novel uses for existing capability.  In more advanced applications we can also capture the capabilities without any knowledge of the application and then fuse the databases to show patterns of emergent possibility worthy of investigation.   We work with the distributed nature and partial perception of human sense-making to our advantage.  Attempts to create ideal process or behavioural characteristics in contrast are less successful.

So it is possible to find new ways, but to do that we have to remove old filters. To do that we need to change the nature of interactions over time rather than mandate an idea. Disintermediation, optimal granularity and distributed cognition are the essence of complex systems management and the options above, in particular the third conform.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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