August 27th, 2019

Why We’re Bad at Business Decisions…and How to Fix It

Possibility-Oriented Thinking - How Marketers Can Lead

by Glen Drummond
Estimated read time: 5 minutes

Can we agree that making good business decisions is getting harder?

For each business, the reasons vary, but we see common themes:

  • Volatility: The pace of change of everything (markets, customers, technologies, products and competitors) is accelerating.
  • Uncertainty: The accelerating pace of change challenges assumptions about what’s invariable.
  • Complexity: The number of stakeholders, variables, and perspectives involved in a decision keeps growing.
  • Ambiguity: We’ve become very clever at accumulating data, but having more data does not solve the problem of knowing what the data means.

School didn’t properly prepare any of us for making decisions in this environment. Deductive problem-solving works best in predictable environments. That’s not the world we live in.

Of course, there is no apparent shortage of external help:

  • Analysts proclaim their best practices.
  • Consultants promote their proprietary models.
  • Technologists offer their SaaS tools that aim to automate some choices.

And in their own particular contexts, all of these are, of course, helpful. But for higher-level decisions, “best-practices,” “models,” and “algorithms” share a common liability: they are, by design, reductive.

And so for those early, fuzzy, high-level and massively consequential choices, the question you need to ask is whether the way to make a good decision is to keep eliminating considerations until the right answer appears.

That happens often enough, but is there a better way?

We think so. It’s called: “Possibility-Oriented Thinking.”

The phrase is most closely associated with innovation, but this capacity is one that marketing people should also hone. Put yourself in the shoes of a classic innovator: you’re not yet sure what the product is exactly, or who the customer is yet, or what they will pay, or what exactly your competitors are working on, or who they even are, and when they will make their next move.

The answers are all emergent properties of a system too complex to fully understand. Doesn’t that sound a little like many marketing challenges today?

So what do you do?

The “Possibility-oriented thinking” approach begins with this perspective.

Rather than:

  • assuming there is a “right” answer, we assume there are a variety of answers, some better than others.
  • assuming that we have the facts required to make the right choice, we assume we don’t, and so adopt an attitude of humility about assumptions and relentless curiosity about new data and possibilities.
  • thinking the answer can be arrived at by way of deduction from existing facts, we assume that something new has to be injected into the system, something we imagine; a possibility we conceive, a relationship we speculate about and then explore.
  • making ballistic decisions with resources, we think about “Safe-fail” experiments, pilots, & prototypes.
  • thinking that the best idea comes from the most expert or highest ranking person, we think the best idea comes from a diversity of perspectives integrated through thoughtfully designed interactions.

What are some of those thoughtfully designed interactions? This comes back to context.

Are you seeking a strategy of differentiation in an established market?

You might consider using the Challenger Marketing framework that has been articulated by Brent Adamson and his former colleagues at CEB, now Gartner, in The Challenger Customer.

Are you seeking a strategy of transformation around the customer experiences you create, or the business model that you create them with?

You might consider using the Basadur Simplexity model for discovering challenges, organizing a map of dependencies around them, and prioritizing the action plans that advance your goals.

Are you creating a new category, or something very close to it, and seeking a framework for decision-making that does not rely on asking an as-yet undefined customer group how they would respond to an as-yet undefined value proposition?

You might consider a program organized around the concept we call “Pathfinding” an iterative process that involves a rotation between stances – strategic sense-making, research, ideation, market ecosystem analysis, and marketing experiments.

Of course, organizations also look to Marketers to solve narrower more routine problems. If that’s all Marketing stands for and contributes, it does run the risk of being seen as the “arts and crafts” department of the business.

It need not be so.

A marketing organization equipped to provide leadership in decision-processes at those moments when the altitude is high, the problems are fuzzy, and the outcomes really matter – is a marketing organization that produces value far exceeding the narrow chores of “filling the funnel” and managing content.

Building your musculature in possibility-oriented thinking improves your chances of doing so.


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