By Richard Erdmann & Christine Drew
In 2018 we had a contract with the Rochester Public Schools. On one of our visits to the district we stopped by the Kodak Museum and there in one of the exhibits was the world’s first digital camera. It was made by Kodak in the 1970s for a space mission. How is it that the company responsible for inventing the digital camera, Kodak, went bankrupt because someone else developed the digital camera?
Kodak absolutely considered the digital camera as a replacement for the film camera but they rejected it. Their prior knowledge platform told them that people wanted film and Kodak developed film for a living. What might have caused them to step back and reconsider before it was too late?
If we assume that the brain is always looking for the easy way out, then we have to find a way to make thinking about the problem easier. One way to do it is to create a habit. If you develop a personal habit of standing back from an important problem before you decide, you have eliminated the decision of “do I stand back?” That saves energy.
One of the justifications for learning phonics is to prevent readers from struggling with the words (spending energy on the words) and focusing on meaning or style. Word recognition becomes automatic. It is like a habit.
We call organizational habits processes. Instead of debating about whether to consider digital cameras as a potential industry, there is a process that forces the consideration but that is just the first step. What is the process?
The best book we have seen on processes of decision making is Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath. The process recommended by the Heaths is WRAP. Widen your choices, do a Reality check, Attain distance, and Prepare to be wrong. There is considerable overlap among these four steps, so let’s divide them into the first three and then the last one.
The first three all involve stepping back and creating alternative points of view. This might range from finding someone who has solved your problem to finding someone who has drawn the opposite conclusion. Stepping back absolutely looks for the middle ground and works to avoid framing answers as binary. It forces questions that incorporate the long term, like ‘what would my successor do.’ Stepping back might pursue multiple tracks at the same time. The goal is to create habits or processes that diversify the input. Somebody needed to say to Kodak, “Look, this thing you invented could destroy your film processing business. History will tell you that it is only a matter of time before someone else makes it and if they make pictures instant, easy, and good, you are out of business.”
The fourth, prepare to be wrong, confronts confidence. The executives of Kodak and the board, all very successful people, were confident that their decision was right. The trick is to be confident in your habits or the organizational processes, assuming that they encourage diverse input, rather than your own opinion. Trust the process. It means that you are capable of listening. As a safeguard, you might set a tripwire that brings the entire decision to a halt for failure to meet objectives. This, of course, means that you set measurement goals.
Examples of overconfidence abound. Movie studios thought that no one wanted sound, or color, or animation. Western Union thought that the phone was a toy that no one would buy. Computer manufacturers and software developers thought that networks were unnecessary. Automobile manufacturers dismissed the need for electric cars. In all of these cases, the solution to a perceived problem was eventually found outside of the mainstream companies in the business at the time because the companies were unable to step back and question their assumptions. A douse of doubt and humility helps. It enables the listener to hear.
There will be three more blogs on processes. One will look at Pixar and the processes that have made them so successful. Another will look at a discussion about testing that might take place if the processes for debate were in place. The final one is an offshoot from the Pixar blog. It is about trusting teachers.