Opportunity is in the Gap Between What you Know and What you Don’t

Opportunity is in the Gap Between What you Know and What you Don't

I once worked with a mathematician to develop risk mapping tools. Aside from the occasional bruise from playing ice hockey, he didn't look or sound like a stereotypical scientist. However, the way he processed information and thought about problems produced radically different ideas.

My colleague was able to operate not knowing, in the gap between the observed and the uncertain. The risk modeling tool the firm could develop thanks to his work was the most useful I've seen so far. It was also the simplest to use.

Prevailing culture rewards people with answers. Yet, the longer you can hold yourself in the space between what you take for granted and what could be next, the more you can learn about potential futures. That's where the opportunity is.

Elsewhere I said this valuable skill doesn't challenge only existing limiting frames in generalit challenges you in the process. But it's what it takes to bring something new to the world.

At a time when the obsessive quest for certainties distorts opportunity, the questions you ask make a big difference.


Diversity is not obvious

Said another way, diversity can mean diversification and distinctiveness. Two qualities companies aspire to achieve. In this richer sense of the word, we encounter diversity in many non-obvious forms. From the way we're wired and process information, to the nuances in behaviors for different situations.

Technology has sped up the rate of change. But it has not changed this simple fact: a diversity of skills and approaches is good for companies. In day to day interactions this requires adjustments. Open and curious minds help and so does clear language.

As I worked alongside my colleague to position the company for a wider range of outcomes, I added consistent communication into every process. I doubled down on communication with clients and on the variety and formats of internal communiques and discussions.

Consultants, actuaries, underwriters, engineers, finance and legal experts all have their own way of seeing the world. Executives want the big picture, sales people want the details of how, analytical people want to dig deeper.

As I found through experience, this kind of diversity requires a four-dimensional approach. Things I thought I knew, the unknown, company's collective knowledge and the opportunity in the flow of change.


Leverage comes from lever

“Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it and I shall move the world,” said Archimedes. If you were to look up the etymology of leverage, you'd find that meaning shifted in a financial sense in the 20th century.

1724, “action of a lever,” from lever (n.) + -age.

Meaning “power or force of a lever” is from 1827; figurative sense “advantage for accomplishing a purpose” is from 1858.

The financial sense is attested by 1933, American English; as a verb in the financial sense by 1956.

Before then, it was about action and power. It's one of the words whose meaning got narrower with use. Pity, because this is a case where constrains are constricting opportunity. It's useful to play within constraints when you're creating, but you want to push outside them to explore alternative options.

A few years after working with my colleague mathematician, I worked in a company that wanted to increase its results nearly threefold. This without increasing budgets or hires. If this scenario sounds familiar, it's because it's now standard operating procedure in most industries.

It was then that I discovered there's wisdom in the popular saying, “sales is from Mars and marketing is from Venus.” People who gravitate towards some careers and jobs have aptitudes that make them suited to those roles and functions. You deal with situations in such and such ways and get results by pursuing paths that follow your way of thinking.

This type of diversity creates situations where things get lost in translation. When what you think, what you say, and how you go about doing your work don't align to that of others, you have disconnects. But often companies try to align by hiring people who think alike only with slightly different specialization. Hence the lack of leverage.

You want people who see the world differently. They can see the fulcrum in a different place altogether.


Gaps are places of opportunity

You'll recall, I said my job was to help the company increase revenue. Optimizing marketing worked to a point. I was sitting in an executive team meeting one day and had a sudden realization: everyone was talking at each other. This is why super smart industry veterans and experienced decision-makers took so long to strategize.

I had noticed a similar situation between supply chain and product marketing groups, regulatory and finance. My hunch was this disconnect was worth exploring further. As a company, we needed to get on the same page as to where we were going and each group's role in getting there.

I partnered with an executive consultant to design a method of inquiry. We used the Birkman Method® to identify the similarities and differences in the teams' behaviors. Along with motivational interests, ability is one of the two powerful levers of influence. If you want to understand how change affects behavior, you need to work on both.

As a methodology, Birkman Method has been used for over 50 years to assess human potential and enhance performance. The initial research was funded by the National Science Foundation. More than 3.0 million records are in the Birkman database to date, and it has been translated into nine (9) languages.

The tool helps you understand the gap between perceptions and behaviors by exploring:

1. Usual Behavior how others typically see your behavior in relationships and dealing with tasks.

2. Underlying Needs your expectations of how relationships and social situations should be in the context of the relationship or situation.

3. Stress Behaviors your ineffective style of dealing with relationships or tasks; how others see your behavior when your underlying needs are not met.

4. Interests – your expressed preference for job tasks based on the assumption of equal economic rewards.

5. Organizational Focus – the perspective in which you view problems and solutions relating to company goals.

Birkman MethodOur aim was to encourage a culture of connectionfor individuals and the company as a whole. The non-judgmental report allowed us to design communications and day-to-day operations to get to desired behaviors.

There are no right or wrong behaviors or interests, just more appropriate to the situation. The gaps are places of opportunity. I was fascinated to discover I have strong aptitude for legal, medical and scientific thinking, in addition to pronounced musical, artist and literary interests (the foundations for planning).


Business development depends on people development

When we mapped the teams supporting the business development function of the organization to the quadrant represented above, we found that there were striking similarities in competences and behaviors. In other words, the company kept hiring the same type of person over and over again. 

We lacked broader diversity of thinking and doing and critical skills in some areas of business development. For example, since my interest is focused on thinking of new approaches, planning, dealing with abstractions, innovating and working with ideas, my business development style tends to favor selling ideas, planning for new business opportunities and focusing on long-term benefits. This group is usually thoughtful, reflective, and optimistic, and can be orderly and cautious.

Colleagues who favor putting numbers to the deal like monitoring and controlling more than I do (and I do). Colleagues who like to focus on persuading others to their point of view and directing the meeting favor persuasion more than I do. This group is typically more assertive and competitive, yet flexible. You may note this describes the characteristics of an effective sales person. Also, it's degrees of emphasis and not hard lines.

How about motivation? Well, people who gravitate towards planning like a minimum of unnecessary rules, varied tasks and personalized incentives. Other colleagues prefer friendly support, plenty to do, clear-cut decisions, and direct and straightforward instructions. Yet others draw motivation from a controlled, consistent environment, minimum distractions, detailed direction, proven procedures to follow and advance notice of changes.

Stress behavior was eye-opening for everyone. Some people may become more easily distracted and disorganized with a touch of indecisive under stress. Under high stress, many sales colleagues become too busy to listen, insensitive, impulsive and restless. Others tend to be rigid, conforming, over-controlling and resit change quietly. The method allowed us to map fight or flight, insensitive and overly sensitive tendencies. Degrees of variance between perception and behavior along a spectrum.

The work that followed our assessment included self- and manager coaching. It got us to where we wanted to be in months, not years. Even without hiring new people, we were able to leverage many existing strengths that had gone underutilized. I still use the self-coaching part to keep working on my business development style. How to deal with emotions and how you deal with change are relevant to any situation.

The work became powerful when everyone shared the same understanding. People could finally relate to each other based on the neutral ground of non-judgemental, shared language. The opportunity was working on leveraging what we did best and being aware of the gaps, not papering over them.

Getting the proper perspective on the nuances between individuals and teams from a task-centered view of work to a system onegives you the opportunity to improve clarity and communication. Companies with very aggressive growth goals may find higher than usual levels of stress. Behaviors swing wildly in this environment. It creates a culture of distrust.

A deeper understanding allows you to address issues in real time. When you gain a better appreciation of your perception and behavioral gaps you can see how everyone is “fighting a hard battle.” In some cases you might need to change your habits. In others you might need to get out more, actively seek different reference points. 

Business development depends heavily on people development. Genuine connection supports confidence. Great work stems from that stance.


Holding into the place between what you know and what you don't

The innovators have mastered the ability to keep asking better questions. They're not afraid to keep exploring different options. When you're operating at your best, you're likely in an environment that exposes you to diversity of thinking and doing. We need bothlearning to think better and learning by doing.

Warren Buffett invests in insurance, which is a bet on the gaps between what we know and what we don't:

Simply put, insurance is the sale of promises. The “customer” pays money now; the insurer promises to pay money in the future should certain unwanted events occur.

Sometimes, the promise will not be tested for decades. (Think of life insurance bought by people in their 20s.) Therefore, both the ability and willingness of the insurer to pay, even if economic chaos prevails when payment time arrives, is all-important.

Make that bet large enough and you can manage risk across the portfolio. What would happen if all risks were the same? Isn't that a similar probability you create when you're hiring many of the same kind of person? Why not ask instead: which assemblage of strengths will deliver endurance and resilience to your company sustainably?

Reality is a context we're constantly interpreting. There's a tension between learning and knowing. Opportunity is in the gaps: being able to operate not knowing, between the observed and the uncertain.


I've been sharing ideas and perspectives about business and culture in my weekly email to nearly 1,000 new subscribers and growing. I organize issues by theme to minimize overwhelm. Subscribe here, if you're curious about reframing and rethinking business and ideas.