I have a confession to make. Although I have been teaching business strategy and innovation management for over ten years there is always a doubt in my mind over the value of what I bring into the classroom. If you looked at my collection of PowerPoint slides and readings, you would see a bag of tools for analysis but I have never really believed that these tools, such as industry analysis, scenario planning and value chain analysis, were really very important.
My late grandfather was a self-taught businessman who created a large construction company. He was always amused by the idea that people could study business and often asked me when I was going to get a real job. Everything that the managers of the company knew was based on ‘rules of thumb’, learned from experience rather than studying ‘tools’ in a business school. What he was actually saying is that there is no shortcut to learning ‘rules of thumb’.
These rules of thumb are otherwise known as heuristics. In a complicated world, heuristics help us to process information and simplify decision making. We use heuristics every day in all sorts of ways. For example, I never go into an empty restaurant, or a full platform means that I need to run because the next train is coming soon. Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink, is an excellent read if you are skeptical about the importance of intuition and heuristics in rapid decision making.
Experienced innovation managers also use heuristics. Tim and I were talking to managers the other day who had worked out that they needed to quarantine innovation projects from other business activities. Now, there are a whole bunch of research results and theories which tell us why this is a good idea, but the company had arrived at this conclusion without any of these.
Experience can allow us to develop heuristics but this can be slow and sometimes very expensive (my grandfather’s business didn’t survive to learn from the effect of borrowing to fund big projects at the top of the business cycle). Is there an alternative and can we teach heuristics?
I think the answer is yes and I was provoked into thinking about this after Tim wrote his post about analysis and interpretation. Here he was questioning the emphasis that we place on tools for analysis at the expense of more expansive exploration of possibilities for innovation.
I agree that focusing on analysis will probably make us less innovative but what if we tried to emphasize the heuristic value of analytical tools? If we actually blended the tools with people’s experience and existing heuristics then possibly we can get past the tool as a thinking constraint to a point where the tool is a catalyst for thinking about new possibilities.
We can teach heuristics, but it means that the teaching style must be different from the old models based on simple content delivery (sadly, still very prevalent is most business schools). Rather than the educator being the conveyor for information, they become a facilitator of an interaction between the ‘tools’ and the experiential knowledge of the learner.
I run an executive education course in strategy and I think that one way to get the interaction going between tools and heuristics is to use a ‘live case’ teaching method where some of the managers bring strategy problems to the course that are worked through during the week with other participants in the course. The result is that preconceptions are challenged and tools are applied and adapted for purpose, with the result being a new set of heuristics and a new way of seeing business problems and opportunities.
We have a vast mountain of tools and frameworks from authors, academics and consultants. How many of these are genuinely valuable as heuristics that change the way we see the world?
Flickr photo from Mara under creative commons license