500 words: Insight vs. Speculation

by kjbake01

500 Words:  Insight vs. Speculation

In my mind, insight is an analytical observation of some sort of phenomenon, resulting in a great strategic decision. Pastors have insights about people, coaches have insights about players and plays, and business leaders have insights about markets. Only one step removed from a hunch, great insights have been the catalysts for phenomenal growth or success of  many of our favorite brands and organizations.  Great insights have resulted in millions of dollars, whole careers, and entire industries.  They are incredibly valuable.  (Netflix Streaming?  Gmail?  Youtube? The Roth IRA? RFID tags?)

On the other side of today’s dichotomy is “speculation.”  Speculation is the academic term for guessing.  My dictionary says “form a theory without firm evidence.”  I’m often guilty of it in my own analyses of people and programming.   What’s the difference?

EVIDENCE.  Insights come from analyzing trends.  Speculation comes from analyzing anomalies.  I spend a lot of time in meetings where we move from analyzing to speculating without realizing we’ve done so.  The resulting decisions are ludicrously worthless.

Most of these meetings are in the context of church-work, where we have to read our people.  It’s surprisingly political (meaning the root term polis : the ideal city-state)  Why are people going to this event and not that event?  What could we do alter their motivations?  What should we tell them  about  x and when?  Business strategists  and teachers wrestle with similar questions regularly: why are they missing this question? Is it because I taught it on the day they had pizza? Or is it because they took the test 30mins before recess? Or is it that I taught it using a flannel graph?    Why does this product sell in Albuquerque but not in Nashville?

In our quest to be groundbreaking & innovative, our egos get in the way.  I really want to be known for my supernatural insights; so my organization can lead the trend of a new strategy/product/program.   Because of our own egotistical pressure to succeed quickly we fail to ask real questions about our data.

How do we know that we know that?   Do we really know that?  How can we verify that we know that?   How big is your sample pool?  Is it representative?

In a previous article (now online at moreatstake.com) I extolled the virtue of ‘soft launches’, where new strategies are field-tested secretly.  That’s one real option.  The reason we invented the scientific process was to prove our guesses!

The leaders I know are smart people; but we miss the fact that many of the world’s greatest innovations (The McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish anyone? Or Chunky Salsa?*) come from real observations, and real boots-on-the-ground trial and error.  Not a random brainstorm in the shower.

(* The Filet-o-fish was invented in Cincinnati by a franchisee who noticed that sales tanked on Fridays during Lent; he guessed it was due to the high number of practicing Catholic customers.  Against corporate policy, he developed a new sandwich.  It sold like hotcakes.  It eventually won an internal contest to be added to the National menu)

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