By Professor Tom Hunsaker
Looking at something is different from seeing its value. Seers are people who can perceive things that others miss. They can see beneath surface events to discern their underlying implications. The managers who mirror these behaviors are more likely to scout valuable opportunities in their daily activities that can transform the firm or lead to the creation of new firms. While this is rare – it is something you can learn to do.
The most valuable ideas are not found in common surface events, but in seeing and translating their underlying conditions. Whether directly observed in interpersonal exchanges or packaged as social events across time, all human experiences emit functional, emotional and psychological cues that signal whether value is gained or lost in a given scenario. The ability to infer sources of friction or satisfaction, displeasure or joy is fundamental to finding great ideas. A uniquely human capability, this cannot be substituted by technology or statistical analysis so it is vital that you become skilled at seeking and translating these cues.
There are three levels to interpreting any event. Seers seek the cues that help them arrive at the third layer – where the most useful information is found. The surface level, or level1, entails taking the event on face value without interpreting it in any way. Like casually watching a television program in a desensitized state, you simply scan the environment without regard to understanding what may be causing events to unfold. This level is casual in nature and almost never produces great ideas.
At level 2, assumptions about what is causing the events are formed and provide your basis for interpreting them. You see something happen and quickly categorize and assign it value based on your existing concept of what is right and wrong. Instinctively, you filter out what you do not agree with and emphasize what you do. When in this mindset, you project preconceived ideas onto the environment rather than allowing the environment to unveil new ones to you – molding information to meet your existing ideals rather than openly learning new ones. The danger of this is often the most valuable ideas are initially packaged as paradoxes – or occurrences contrary to expectations and existing practices, something a strictly evaluative mindset won’t let you see.
Level 2 is the most common destination for managerial observations. The challenge is those who remain at level 2 may see valuable ideas but they will interpret them as uncharacteristic of and, therefore, inferior to what they already know. They will focus on why something is illegitimate or won’t work rather than envisioning the value of a new reality. This is natural behavior intended to promote physical and emotional security. But left to its own devices, this approach prompts managers to cling to things that sustain the status quo. This is particularly prevalent when there is a vested stake in the status quo – often driving managers to be willing to be wrong, in order to be right.
Level 3 entails authentically inferring the functional, emotional and psychological cues expressed in given scenarios without judging or initially categorizing them. This does not have to take a lot of time, but it does require conscious effort. While engaging your environment, it can be easy to assume what you observe is inferior to or incompatible with your prevailing conceptual frameworks. These thoughts often present as defensiveness, dismissiveness, or derisiveness. Pushing past these initial barriers, however, allows tremendous opportunities for innovation and improvement to be found because value gaps will be interpreted in their true form void of bias or self-interest – providing key insights into strategies and offerings that closely address prevailing unmet needs. As level 3 observations are not intuitive to many managers, those who can get there consistently will see important things that others miss.
Consider the example of Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks who originally scouted the idea that transformed the firm while visiting espresso cafes in Milan. He could have determined that what he saw was uniquely Italian and wasn’t applicable to other communities. He could have projected biases related to the amount of time that must be wasted as people interact in the cafes. He could have discounted his observations as inferior to prevailing business models. Any one of these conclusions would have prompted him to dismiss what he observed as incompatible with his existing sense of reality and derailed his ability to find a great idea – just as hundreds of other coffee executives had done before him.
But he didn’t. Instead, he paused and he watched. He listened. As verbal and non-verbal cues directed, he took note of the emotional satisfaction or value derived from embedding coffee into socially appealing activities – something completely counter to the commodity driven model that then dominated the industry. This prompted him to dig deeper. And to see value that others missed. The result is one of the great stories of modern business.
You can do the same.
Choose a common activity, such as going to the grocery store or filling your car with gas, and record your observations as you engage the activity.
Are your observations vague and surface or rich and behaviorally-driven? Most observations will be the former the first time you engage this activity. This is natural. To continue to improve this skill, practice approaching common activities with new eyes. Engage the same activities, but this time consciously identify points of friction or emotional satisfaction. Purposefully ask “why is this occurring?” Envision ‘what if’ by mentally considering how a point of friction could be solved or by outlining how observed emotional satisfaction could be generalized in economically viable ways.