“Theory thus become instruments, not answers to enigmas, in which we can rest. We don’t lie back upon them, we move forward, and, on occasion, make nature over again by their aid.” (William James, 1907)
“A good theory doesn’t change its mind: it doesn’t apply only to some companies or people, and not to others. It is a general statement of what causes what, and why.” ― Clayton M. Christensen
When information passes through the mind’s filter, it becomes an interpretation. All living beings have unique ways of interpreting the same information. A dragonfly “sees” a mosquito entirely differently from a human. Powerful globular eyes give dragonflies fantastic colour vision through which they perceive the world. As a result, dragonflies can see ultraviolet on top of blue, green and red. Not only does the dragonfly physically see the mosquito quite differently from a human, but to a dragonfly, a mosquito represents a meal, but to a human, it is a nuisance or a carrier of a disease.
We see, perceive and understand the same phenomenon in astonishingly different ways. To some of us, change is an opportunity; to others, a threat.
Cognitive biases, previous experience and even epigenetics consciously and unconsciously shape all interpretations. While our interpretations are coloured for various reasons, we can change what we see by changing the lens through which we see. The late Clayton Christensen insisted that the best way to develop new managers was not to teach them what to think but rather to teach them how to think. The best way to do this is to teach theory because whether we know it or not, we use theories to make our decisions. Christensen suggests we “try on” new theories just like we would a set of lenses. While the late Wayne Dyer said, “Change What You See and What You See Changes“, Christensen suggests we change how we see and what we see will change. The new lens of theory changes how we interpret information and creates a common language. For the purpose of this week’s Thursday Thought, I want to highlight how using theory can inoculate the persistent problem of value attribution.
You know the feeling. A partner, a friend, or a family member shares their nugget of knowledge. You look on in disbelief, half smirking because, I mean, surely they are kidding. Almost verbatim, they have just repeated the suggestion you made a few months ago, the very suggestion they ignored.
You know the feeling. You sit in a meeting as the CEO shares the company strategy. The company has spent a fortune on this strategy document with a well-established consulting firm. You listen in disbelief, fuming with anger because the presentation not only contains the information you gave to the consultants, they even used your slides! Almost verbatim, they have just repeated the suggestions you made months ago, the very suggestions your organisation ignored.
Nobody is a prophet in their own land!
There are several reasons colleagues do not listen to you, from corporate culture to timing to how you frame the idea. When none of these is the problem, you are most likely the victim of one of the many cognitive biases that cloud our judgement and cause us to make poor decisions. In this case, you may have fallen prey to “Value Attribution Bias”.
Value attribution bias refers to our tendency to quickly assign value to people, objects, ideas and situations and cause us to act in a certain way. Take our example above of “corporate suggestions”. In this case, your colleagues are not attributing the same value to your ideas as they do to an outsider, frequently because that outsider has a higher perceived value (or because they do not want you to get any credit as they feel that they might look bad because you look good scarcity mindset). I work as a consultant and know how frustrating it is for those I work with, especially after I give a workshop or keynote and people tell me afterwards, “I have been telling them that for years.”
In a recent episode of our Clayton Christensen series, Bower tells us how managers evaluate proposals based on the source of the proposal rather than the idea’s validity. Bower rightly recognises that strategic decision-making is about group decision-making and is liable to value attribution bias. In “Managing the Resource Allocation Process” (1970), Bower shares how he observed this first-hand at a major chemical company. Bower and later Christensen noted how managers believe that If they champion a project that fails, it will constitute a blotch on their track record, blocking their rise through the organisation. As a result, they tend to support less risky ideas from sources with a proven track record. As Bower told us on The Innovation Show, often, the project champion would gloss over the idea and look at the source of the idea. This is where educating managers and project champions on how to think through theory plays a crucial role.
Value Attribution and Theories
Throughout his career, Clayton Christensen lauded the value of theory to help us make good choices appropriate to life and business circumstances. In one famous story, the former CEO of Intel, the late Andy Grove, asked Christensen to explain his research to the executive leadership team and what it implied for Intel. All consultants, L&D, and HR leaders know that getting an audience with a leadership team is a difficult task. Intel was no different, and Grove pressed Clay to get to the point, saying, “We have only ten minutes for you. Tell us what your research means for Intel so that we can get on with things.” Resisting the urge to tell Grove “What to think”, he explained his theory of disruption so that Grove would know “How to think.” In doing so, Grove grasped the theory and not only changed what he saw but changed the trajectory of Intel away from semiconductors and into Celeron chips.
“The best way to make accurate sense of the present, and the best way to look into the future, is through the lens of theory. Good theory provides a robust way to understand important developments, even when data is limited. And theory is even more helpful when there is an abundance of data. This is the critical challenge of the Information Age. With more information available, it is harder to discern what information really matters. Theory helps to block out the noise and to amplify the signal.” – Scott D. Anthony, Clayton Christsensen, Seeing What’s Next (Coming Soon to our series on The Innovation Show).
When you dealing with the future, no data exists. The best way to make accurate sense of the present, and the best way to look into the future, is through the lens of theory. However, it should not be the only arrow in your mental quiver. We can pursue multiple experiments as encouraged by Rita McGrath’s Discovery-Driven Planning. If you add to the mix tools like Alexander Osterwalder‘s Business Model Canvas, now you are in the “Moneyball for Innovation Space”. If you are going to take the field, you should give yourself the best possible chance of winning.
The challenge is that these approaches require time, discipline and resources. In an attention-challenged, time-poor business world, it is difficult to get the senior suite together for a meeting, let alone to strategize the future.
Even when you manage to get together, the job is not done. Over time, we will grow used to these lenses and need to update them repeatedly. Innovation is a mindset, never an event.
Thanks for Reading