Lately, I have been reading a lot of material about innovation management. We’re stuck in a 1920s paradigm, when it comes to the commercial management of development projects. That’s clearly wrong and there are newer, better ways of managing a product development portfolio than what most large companies seem wedded to, but those new ways forget something important too.
It occurred to me that in product development, software development and in art, in fact, there is a lot to be gained from having insight. Insight is that uncanny ability for somebody in a guiding position in the project to instinctively, intuitively know which move to take next. You’ve seen this person. They are invariably far sighted, sure footed and able to see the way forward with clarity, while others are seemingly lost. Those people turn out to be ahead of their time and right – often. Most of us will have known somebody that mysteriously always seems to know the best way forward, with confidence and self assurance. Sometimes, they’re blocked and frustrated because they are in a situation where they are required to defer to somebody in authority that has no insight, but when they’re given the right backing and support, they can move mountains.
Yes, there are processes of discovery that reliably allow you to make hypotheses about which product to make, what features it must have, how to market it, how to position it in the competitive landscape and what the customer will buy, perform some short experiments and validate your learning. Great. You don’t need to guess and blindly stumble forward with your product portfolio. There’s a reliable experimental method to follow which allows you to validate your learning, but here’s the problem: if your competitor has better insight, they get there faster, with fewer missteps and that translates into significant competitive advantage, while you stumble forth with myriad experiments that merely confirm you’re still on the wrong track.
Worse still, if you lack insight into what you are attempting, you won’t learn as effectively from your mistakes. You’ll be blind to what they are telling you. You’ll see the results, but not necessarily find the right course correction, this iteration. It might take you several more iterations before you get onto the right track (if ever). Meanwhile, your competitor, with insight, has eaten your lunch several times over.
Clearly, having good insight and vision is valuable. It can make the difference between taking advantage of being the first mover and being an also ran. The profits and market share that accrue from getting your experiments in development right, first time, are incalculable. So, how do you get this insight?
It starts from a mind-set. Firstly, you need to have good ideas about and understanding of what people are like. At the end of every customer transaction is a human being, with human desires, wants, needs, prejudices, fears, worries, constraints, goals, self-image, ego and all those other complex aspects of humanity. We live in a cultural context and the tide of ideas flows in certain directions. In the first instance, whatever you make for the world, whether it’s software, a hardware product, some art, or even an information product, it has to be consonant with the zeitgeist, to some degree, or ideally slightly leading it and in the direction it will naturally go, especially if your nudge takes it into the same natural direction. Sensing that intuitively is very valuable and it comes from connection with people, from reading and listening, from understanding their frustrations and problems and from a point of view of wanting to offer the most benign solution for all.
Yes, regrettably, your insight can allow you to take advantage of humanity and exploit their blindness or weakness for your own gain. There seems to be a lot of that about. I don’t subscribe to that approach, though, because I sense that the tide is turning away from treating people like expendable sheep, to be exploited mercilessly and cheated/robbed blind. The backlash against that kind of deceit is coming and it will hit hard.
Already, Facebook and Google are mortified that whereas they have assiduously positioned themselves as trustworthy institutions to hold your personal data, it has been confirmed that they have been leaking this data, for profit, like a sieve, by as informed an authority as the US President, no less. What do they think will happen, when a more trustworthy-by-design alternative is offered? They’re sunk. Their business models, reliant as they were on understanding that people wanted to connect to each other and to know things (in other words, their market insights), and then using that set of insights into people’s desires to effectively spy upon them for gain, as if they were all suspects, have been found grossly deficient. They will pay the price for their cynical exploitation of humanity, while simultaneously claiming to be everybody’s best friend and reliable citizens. Their propensity to avoid and evade community responsibilities we all share, like taxation, for example, should have been a marker that told us what was really going on. So should their seemingly gravity-defying claims of being wholly supported by advertising and click-through revenue. What a load of Hotel Sierra (I can still hear them neighing!).
Insight comes from love. First, you have to love your field of enquiry and activity. That means an immersive understanding of every aspect of it, at an expert level. Next, is to care about what others in the field are doing. There’s plenty of room for all, so networking with your competitors as friends is not so unusual. That’s how human communities have behaved for centuries. We are not defined solely by our battles. Our collaborations are equally as important. The final part of insight is having love for those that you seek to serve and this is the part where things can go very wrong. If you see your customers as fodder, merely to be farmed, you get a different set of insights to those you get when your mission is to lighten the daily burden of those you want to sell to, with sincerity. If you are genuine, have integrity, are authentic and prepared to expose your vulnerability, the gifts of insight flow to you. You find out much more about what you should be doing, than the guys that don’t see it. That translates directly into better products, services, art and offerings. What I am saying is that you get a better result if you serve instead of exploit.
So you can use your insights to blind the rest of humanity, or you can use them to enlighten, to produce enlightened products and to spread beauty and light, instead of selfishly profiting at the expense of others. If you choose the path of abundance, we’re all better off. If, as seems to be too often the case, you choose the path of exploitation and selfishness, there is less and less to go around and ultimately nothing left for even you to reap. You poison your own waters. You pee in your own pool. As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be a lot of that about.
It seems to me that we often fail to recognise the value creation potential of those with insight. We often side-line them, because those without insight require proof and there is none to be given, when we’re talking about prediction and prescience. Insight doesn’t work that way. It’s far more intuitive, yet more informed, than a position that can show all the facts and figures. Prediction and prescience doesn’t mean guesswork. It means that somebody has cared enough to get into the intricacies of this area of inquiry and can sense the direction of tide and flow, because of their attention to and faithful interpretation of what they are observing. This is why those with insight often struggle to fund their projects, that they know will succeed. They can’t provide the proof to the blind and frankly, can’t find the motivation to spend their time butting their heads against such brick walls forever.
Insight will take you far and earn you a lot of value. Developing insight, through living in the world and observing and listening, will provide a roadmap to a bright future. It has a lot to commend it, as a way of life, a way of producing things and of guiding your artistic practice.