Orginally appeared October 2007
Andrew Bass’s Pragmatics Newsletter
Practical techniques and thought-provoking ideas
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The Right Response to the Wrong Situation
Have you ever found yourself trying to put the kettle into the fridge, thinking that you were actually replacing the milk? Perhaps you even noticed the kettle wouldn’t fit before you realised why, and so tried to jam the thing in harder? Psychologists call this an ‘action slip’ (the classic book on this is The Psychology of Everyday Things by Donald Norman). Another example of an action slip would be taking off the lid of a can and throwing the can away.
The essence of the action slip is doing the right thing at the wrong time. The mental mechanism that underlies it the same that a fencer, boxer or bowler tries to exploit: training their opponent into a particular response, and then taking advantage of the resulting blindspot to land a successful attack. The loser becomes conditioned to a skilled, comfortable pattern and doesn’t notice they are trying to apply it in the wrong situation.
Here are some examples of analogous problems in business:
- Relying solely on continuous improvement to the detriment of innovation: highly competent, results-oriented managers drive their operations to be better and better at delivering something while failing to notice that people are getting less and less interested in buying it (e.g. As great a company as Texas Instruments, who used their huge volume to benefit from the ‘experience curve’ and became the market leader in lowest-cost, basic calculators, were completely blindsided by HP and Sharp who introduced feature-packed devices costing consumers an unnoticeable few dollars more).
- Trying to repeat past successes that are well past their sell by date: Jaguar based the visual design of the S-type on the classic Mark II, ending up with something that looked nice (if too much like the similarly-inspired Rover 75), but was outclassed in the eyes of many by a dazzling modern Mercedes or BMW. Happily new Jags look fantastic.
- Not noticing that one’s power base has eroded: Staff departments such as HR and IT get used to dictating the way the rest of a company deals with them, rigidly repeat bureaucratic procedures until they find themselves being outsourced.
- Relying on outdated cultural assumptions: Many in the traditional professions who grew up during the deferential post-WW2 period have been slow to recognise that 21st century clients are neither intimidated nor impressed by status or professional trappings and have no compunction about shopping around and negotiating hard on fees.
Clever people in great companies fall into these traps all the time. The antidote is to remain aware of the changing ends required by customers, and by one’s own business, not automatically to favour historically successful means.
James Dyson’s approach is instructive. According to a recent interview on CNBC, his starting point is to go back to people’s everyday experiences, discover their repeated frustrations, and then search for answers using both existing capabilities and the capacity of Dyson’s engineers to develop new ones.
This is no argument against seeking incremental improvements in efficiency and skill, reductions in slack and inventory, and increases in the automation of existing processes. But at the very least, working backwards from customers’ desired results provides a reassuring check that the direction of your continuous improvement is still relevant. And at the most, it can avoid catastrophic failure, or even lead to a decisive breakthrough.
Now if Dyson would just design a kettle that fits in my fridge…
Copyright 2007 Andrew Bass. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint as long as you include attribution.