Innovation Management Essentials: Situational Awareness


“Develop foresight, to sense and understand the context around the dilemmas that challenge you. The goal is not to predict what’s going to happen but to provoke your creativity and prepare you for your biggest challenges, many of which are going to come in the form of dilemmas (…) leaders are sense makers, and they help others make sense- often by asking penetrating questions.” Get There Early by Bob Johansen.


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Situational Awareness (SA) involves sensemaking. SA deals with critical information on what’s going on with a project as well as around it. Know-how, past experiences, lessons learned and best practices are of the essence. These work well when addressing incremental innovation. Though, our perception is also shaped by motivation, expectations, filters as well as organizational behaviors (culture, workstyle, decision making, roles and responsibilities, processes) and, possibly, conflicting priorities.

Taking things to new levels, disruptive innovation gets us immersed in what turn out to be game changing environments. In this specific context, creative destruction takes place and so do errors in judgment. Dealing with uncertainty, ambiguity and rapidly superseding cascading events can quickly render one’s viewpoint out of focus and even out of place.

Those just sticking to what they know because relying on one’s “assumptions and belief system” has consistently served they well, might now suffer from complacency, myopia and tunnel vision instead… experiencing blindsiding denial in the process. Clayton’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” and Taleb’s “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile” are worth understanding. 


Early awareness takes continuous listening and monitoring. Lets first think of project sensors gathering data and probes strategically placed to explore and discover clues which might not yet be visible. Leading indicators form a set of metrics that change in advance to a given event taking hold and can be used to raise alerts. Lagging indicators signal conditions in place for changes to take hold and become the new pattern.

Defining a narrow set of key performance indicators (KPI) improves visibility, saving us from clutter and information overload. KPIs can correlate and synthesize need-to-see data and can work with high level abstractions. These are usually delivered as “dashboards” that we can easily work with. Here is a “6 R” framework on KPI quality to mitigate distortions:


Relevancy: validity and utility level in context.   Resolution: meaningful detail and abstractions.
Range: scope (fields) and scale dimensions.   Recency: lifecycle – growth, decay and refresh velocity, ephemeral vs. durable.
Robustness: complete or sufficient to support the analysis, portrays what’s being measured.   Reliability: data integrity and error free, factors signal to noise rate, accounts for outliers.

The above is based on a “5 R” version I first learned on an MIT course about big data and social analytics.

I would also like to share that perfect data might be elusive and different quality levels can be applied. Hence, we talk in terms of things being “directionally correct” or “good enough” to keep things moving. In some other cases, over-engineering data by going beyond what’s really needed (data overload) can shortchange focus, efforts and budgets, which would be better allocated to other priority and/or pressing tasks. We can also face crunch time situations when we need to operate without benefiting from more data since delays would trigger higher risks.


Nonetheless, acknowledging that we need to make those kind of judgment calls does not excuse giving up on perfecting how to work with data. But, data alone will not deliver SA: this involves intertwining analysis and synthesis cycles as well as fine tuning sensemaking, which is an iterative and continuous improvement process.

Keeping cognitive biases at bay is a challenge. Subjective statements supporting adversarial stances such as “been there done that, it just doesn’t work” (even if that experience happened in a different context and a distant past) or the “not-invented here” (NIH) “not-one-of-us” syndromes can be easy to spot. But, there is a wide range of logical fallacies and “devil’s advocate” plays which can be perceived as reasonable even though the underlying logic is flawed.  


I designed the above chart drawing from the all familiar Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunities-Threats (SWAT) model. As far as Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) is concerned, the one I get the most is about the difference between “clash” and “shift”. Basically, the clash’s bucket is there to outline ongoing mismatches and adversarial confrontations. Those having reached critical mass can be plotted in the “clash x critical” quadrant.

The “shift” column captures game changing items that are still evolving, where a succession of disruptive believes and assumptions reshape the context and prompt new environments that can render a project obsolete… shouldn’t we gear up in advance or course correct as needed. Looking into impact levels, correlations, outliers and then sorting things accordingly is part of the thought process.

The next FAQ relates to how to best address “core” vs. “beyond comfort zone”. A core competence is an existing skill and capability. This refers to traits worth leveraging and further developing provided that they continue to make a difference. Though, asking any person, organization or system to just focus on what they already know and do well might not necessarily be the best approach in today’s rapidly changing and commonplace uncertain environments. Therefore, the need for assessing what and how to continuously grow beyond a given comfort zone, and at what point that new capability can be rolled up as a core competency.

One other thought, let’s keep in mind that being aware and alert are good things. Taking no action or seating tight while waiting for the dust to settle happen to be options available to us, though paralysis by analysis or paralyzing fear are not.

What about “organic” vs. “inorganic”? The former entails opportunities that can be approached with existing competencies and, possibly, scaling by growing resources. The latter talks to efforts that involve collaborating (collaborating with customers and partners, coopetition with competitors) and even acquiring other ecosystem players in the value chain, mergers being another example.


Last but not least, perspective is of the essence and the journey is comprised by experiences (where we come from) situational awareness (where we are) and foresight (where we are headed). Antonio Machado (Spanish poet, 1875-1939) stated that we make our path as we walk, which anyone working on innovation projects can relate to. Delineating and providing a sense involves the following “journey points”, which I will discuss on another post on agile project planning:

  • kick-off / start point
  • takeoff limits
  • checkpoints
  • milestones
  • crossing chasms
  • touch points
  • breakeven point
  • tipping point
  • chain reaction
  • inflection point
  • turbulences
  • crossroads
  • decision points
  • pivoting
  • point of no return
  • breaking point
  • moving targets
  • valley of death
  • dead ends
  • aftermath

Hope this remains of interest. As usual, I will welcome your comments and emails to continue our discussion.

Link to my latest post.

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