The three capabilities of an intelligent organisation
Intelligent or dead
It’s a hot day, so you stop for a refreshing drink of water. Consider two scenarios, both involving a cheetah, and by the way, you are a gazelle.
- Scenario 1: You are so focused on drinking from the lake that you fail to see the cheetah. You are temporarily startled and this is promptly followed by a ‘lights out’ event.
- Scenario 2: You are generally conscious of danger coming from all directions, so you do not allow yourself to become engrossed in sating your thirst. You hear the cheetah before you see it and so you can sense what is about to happen. Sure enough, the cheetah pounces and naturally you take flight. The cheetah instinctively follows. But almost immediately, you change direction and wrong foot the cheetah, opening a gap that ensures you will live to drink another day.
Gazelles today typically don’t exhibit scenario 1 behaviour, such is the punishing nature of life (aka natural selection) on the savanna. Many organisations seem to exhibit scenario 1 behaviour, and this does not augur well as we exit the synthetic certainty of the industrial age and find ourselves on the unforgiving digital age savanna.
Beyond scenario planning
So how do we create an organisation that can adapt to ever increasing volatility and uncertainty? It would be unwise to simply plan for cheetahs. The threats and opportunities that we will increasingly face will take unfamiliar forms. Skills are too specific. We need broad capabilities when dealing with the unknown. We need a modus operandi that is highly adaptable and, in many respects, intelligent.
Our organisation needs to be less an inert factory and more a living and intelligent organism.
Sterile and rigid strategic planning no longer cuts it. Broader macroeconomic vectors are driving business (and society) towards relative disorder. Situational awareness is a more appropriate approach.
The armed forces, once famous for their hierarchical rigidity, is adapting to the increasingly dynamic and unpredictable nature of conflict. To cope with combat situations, the US Airforce developed an approach called the OODA Loop. The acronym expands as follows:
- Continuously scan the environment. You hear the faint snap of a twig
- Given the information, you presume it is a predator.
- You decide that the best course of action is to escape. But it is best to leave it to the last moment in order to deceive the threat.
- The threat is about to pounce, you retreat but pivot immediately.
In our world, this requires us to be sensitive enough to detect early signs of a threat or an opportunity and to be ready to act quickly in respect of engineering the best outcome. In some cases, it may require a radical change in respect of your existing business model.
The OODA approach makes sense and is battle-tested. I believe that if we are to apply it to the digital age battlefield, we can distil it down to three fundamental neural behaviours. These being:
- O – Attend to your environment
- O – Detect threats and opportunities
- D – Decide on response
- A – Act accordingly.
Looking at these in turn:
In my view, very few people understand the difference between attention and focus. On the battlefield, focus gets you killed. If you train all your senses on the person you are fighting, you will be oblivious to other incoming threats.
At a more mundane level, when we let our lives be notification / pleasure driven, we have surrendered our attention. As you likely know, some of the more intelligent players in the market are cultivating and capitalising on your distraction.
There is a lot of talk around agile organisations. This is like the dozy gazelle who through lack of attention is startled by the cheetah, but nonetheless manages to escape. Agile organisations need to become attentive organisations.
We can build this capability into our organisations through improving the its sensory capability. Sensors can be built into our products, services and operations using IoT (Internet of Things) technology. Better workflow and collaboration technologies will enable intelligence picked up by your field staff to make its way to your product development function. Building a culture that has a tribal mentality in respect of staying alert will also go a long way.
Organisations that get their attention act together buy themselves time and so do not have to react impulsively to market fluctuations, threats and opportunities.
This capability requires us to make sense of what our senses are feeding us and to then decide what action is required. Most organisations do not harness the cognitive capacity of their people, leaving cognitive matters to a handful of people who gather from time to time in a well-appointment room. This is a waste.
AI is being positioned as the way to address this aspect of business. It is by the way overhyped.
In any case, the most intelligent organisations will unify the cognitive capacity of their people with evolving cognitive technologies. We need to move our cultures from one where people simply do stuff to one where people blend doing with thinking.
Animals, including humans, are capable of movement. At the most fundamental level, the only reason we move is to acquire what we need to survive (food, resources, sex) or move away from a threat to our survival. In recent years, we have developed a neocortex and so today we also move for social reasons (create, maintain and break social bonds). This neocortex enables us to collaborate at scale. Smart organisations capitalise on that.
I am an advocate of physical movement for personal wellbeing. Organisations that move frequently are similarly likely to be healthier than those that have a sclerotic business model. Movement doesn’t necessarily have to be physical. Think ‘evolving business model’.
If your organisation is still living off a product or service developed years ago, then it has stopped moving. Innovation is key to organisational movement.
Our ability to pivot at short notice needs to be reflected in our innovation activity. What can we develop today that will wrongfoot our competitors in whatever form they take, should they decide to pounce?
The golden thread
There is a golden thread that runs through these three capabilities. It is the ability to manage data. Data comes in through the senses. We use the data to make sense of the world and to detect signals that might require action. We act and we then pay attention to how that action has impacted our relationship with the environment.
So, to instil these three capabilities into your organisation, you need to manage your data with great care. Many organisations today have fancy analytics tools that are being fed by poor data. This leads to a poor understanding of the environment and in turn poor outcomes.
These three capabilities of an intelligent organisation are the three capabilities that have been harnessed by all living organisms across all time.
So, we might conclude that this post-industrial era is not so much a new era but a return to our true nature.
Consequently, success in the ‘digital age’ is less about acquiring new capabilities (and even less about acquiring new skills) and more about reigniting those capabilities that are part of our true nature but have been suppressed in recent centuries. Whether you are a cheetah or a gazelle, or even a Fortune 500 organisation, if you are not wired for the modern-day savanna, you are unfortunately lunch-in-waiting.