Key management ideas for better corporate actions

Measure attitudes rather than compliance, and give agency to those who think differently. These are key management ideas, that lead to better corporate actions, of Welsh consultant Dave Snowden. Snowden is the founder and chief scientific officer of Cognitive Edge, a Singapore-based firm specializing in complexity and sensemaking.

Snowden and Cognitive Edge developed a technique to measure attitudes. “Early detection of overall attitudinal beliefs  which would lead to problems downstream.” The method can be applied to improve interventions or reduce their cost, in anything from cybersecurity, and customer engagement, to safety and organizational behavior.

“Attitudes are lead indicators. Compliance is a lag indicator,” he states. The cybersecurity threat serves as a good example of what he means. “We measure employee attitudes to security. When you intervene, if you intervene to change an attitude, it is not a trauma. Whereas if you get a compliance breach, everybody gets protective.”

People who think differently

Cognitive Edge spends a good amount of time identifying people who think differently in an organization. This is key to design better corporate actions, Snowden argues. Corporate leaders, like all human beings, in general, do not see what they do not expect to see, he claims. “The big problem facing companies is not the unknown-unknowns, it is the unknown-knowns. These are the things that your organization knows, that you are not aware of as an executive.”

To spot new, viable options from the whole team, Snowden suggests getting information about attitudes. This is not obtained by shooting a straight question about how to solve a specific problem. “We can, for example, present a problem or a situation that an executive has. We can get the whole of the workforce to add their interpretation in scenarios about future states, and from that, we can map overall attitudes and beliefs. But we can also find 17% of employees who are thinking differently about the problem, so you can focus on them.”

Focus on these groups renders surprisingly good results for corporations and governments. Cognitive Edge applied Snowden’s method right after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017. They found that communities applied small, localized solutions to confront the emergency. These actions worked well and were implemented before bigger government or international aid solutions came in.

The method makes these small-group practices visible. Oftentimes governments and aid institutions give inappropriate solutions that stand in the way of correct, local actions. “(Aid agencies) tend to apply what they have done a hundred times before, and that can take power away from the community. A community which is charting something out suddenly gets disabled.”

Cognitive Edge instead builds community knowledge into aid programs. Their story databases allow for what Snowden calls a horizontal exchange of ideas. “If you are in an earthquake in Greece, for example, you could find stories of people who handled the January earthquake somewhere else, rather than having to rely on aid agencies to pass that information around.”

“This direct, horizontal flow of narrative-based support for people creates capability in the community to provide local support,” Snowden states. This not only strengthens communities but makes government action more effective.

Understanding how communities generate their own solutions before the government intervenes is important to avoid the “John Travolta Effect,” Snowden states. He finds that after an incident, communities organize and quickly get things working. “Then the whole international development community flies-in. You know John Travolta and his play, and local initiatives are ignored. So we were able to identify those, and show issues that have to do with mistrust and with the social fabric of the people”.

Snowden’s method makes local groups noticed. “People in power often don’t know what the local people have done. I think that it is really important because it’s about agency. If you give people agency in solving their own problems it reduces the cost of interventions by governments and industry”.

Reinventing the past

Information of this sort can naturally be applied to the corporate world, and to get better corporate actions and results. Attitude changes can provide, for instance, early warning of switches in customer behavior. Real-time continuous capture of data on attitudes reduces the costs of marketing interventions, he confirms.

Modifying attitudes can also foster deeper, positive changes in behavior, Snowden argues. A Cognitive Edge study that was aimed at finding ways to break the hold of the drug barons in Mexico, showed that unless people modify their perception about their past and present, they won’t change.

This is particularly relevant, Snowden says, because most interventions coming from conventional management consultants are based on convincing people about better future outcomes. “People envision the future free of drug barons, and then that will motivate them. It actually turned out that it wasn’t true. What really matters is they had to reimagine their past and their present to actually make a difference”.