Practice Based Evidence
Reliable evidence comes from relevant real-world practice
“He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils — for time is the greatest innovator.” — Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626)
As the world becomes ever more uncertain and unpredictable, organisations increasingly need a culture that allows them to adapt, dynamically and systemically, their activities to continue to create value.
I first got involved in helping organisations create future-fit cultures like this more than 35 years ago whilst working for one of the world’s leading open innovation service providers.
Our own culture of innovation prompted a senior executive client to ask: “Could you come and help our people behave more like your people?”.
That invitation launched the career path I’ve been on ever since.
Most of the clients I worked with in the early days of this practice were in dynamic, high-tech industries, and therefore appreciated the vital importance of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness.
For most other organisations, the appetite was usually much lower, the pace of change slower, and the future seen as more predictable.
This led to a certain complacency and some organisations being surprised by competitors, but the generally prevailing attitude was that these were exceptions in a relatively stable context overall.
Most senior executives were used to having plenty of time to steer their organisations via a 1 to 5 year planning cycle to:
explore and extrapolate trends in technology, politics, environment, economics, and societal drivers of change
interpret the past actions and infer likely future intentions of current competitors and potential new entrants
make considered, data-driven, evidence-based decisions
formulate strategies and devise operating plans
cascade the plans down the organisation for execution
bring in consulting firms to advise or guide them and help convince boards, investors, regulators, etc they’d done their due diligence.
But as technology, globalisation, and demographic shifts have continued to accelerate, increasing complexity, fuelling volatility, and creating the ever more uncertain and unpredictable world we now inhabit, the time available per planning cycle was getting shorter and shorter.
Eventually, in any organisational context a threshold is crossed where, by the time a plan has been carefully crafted and is ready to roll out, the world has moved on, rendering the plan obsolete before it gets enacted…
Most organisations have crossed this threshold already, but very few have realised this deeply enough and made the necessary shifts in their attitudes, behaviours, actions, and interactions to respond appropriately to the challenge.
For an organisation to thrive in our increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world, sense making, decision making & action taking must become ever more tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
Creating a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness like this has significant implications for people in various traditional roles.
Senior executives will have to stop seeing their job as “making decisions” and instead recognise their role as “creating conditions” — conditions where sense making, decision making & action taking become tightly coupled, rapidly and repeatedly iterated, deeply embedded and widely distributed throughout the organisation.
Experts of various kinds will also have to accept that their expertise, whilst valid and valuable, is only one of many important inputs to the collective, iterative sense making necessary for effective action taking.
This is likely to prove especially tough for experts who embrace and espouse evidence-based practice — along with the implied assumption that their perspective is the “evidence” on which sense making should rely.
Evidence Based Practice
The term evidence based practice first emerged in medicine some 30 years ago, and has since spread to education, law, architecture, and organisations.
Evidence based practice is defined as: “the conscientious, explicit and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions” .
The key word in this is “current” — because in an increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world, what worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.
And, whilst the desire to make decisions and take action based on evidence is understandable, that’s unlikely to lead to much innovation.
If Steve Jobs had looked for evidence that customers wanted iPhones, there would have been none.
If Chester Carlson had looked for evidence that customers wanted photocopies, there would have been none.
If Alan Kay had looked for evidence that computer users wanted a graphical interface with overlapping windows and icons there would have been none.
In a future-fit culture, people feel confident in sharing half-baked ideas without the fear that they might get shot down in flames and/or it might damage their careers.
Compared to the two traditional top-down command and control organisations I’d worked for previously, this was the most striking cultural difference I experienced when I joined the open innovation lab mentioned above.
Even though the place was awash with super-smart people at the leading edge of their science, engineering, and technology disciplines, they acted and interacted with the humility and wisdom to explore and find value in the half-baked ideas of others.
It was in this practice that I first found the evidence that led to the 2D3D thinking tool and 2D3D mindset that’s been at the at the centre of my own practice ever since.
That’s why I firmly favour practice based evidence over evidence based practice.
Practice Based Evidence
In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.
It’s only by taking action in the real-world that you get reliable evidence of what actually works in practice
And with what worked yesterday not necessarily working tomorrow, the only way to remain current is to rapidly and repeatedly iterate sense making, decision making & action taking — taking action that flushes out new insights that help make sense of the world, enabling wise decisions to be made about what actions to take next, and so on.
The successful organisations of the future will use iterative sense making, decision making & action taking like this to ensure they continuously create new value in new ways, thereby continuing to earn the right to exist.
The human psychological challenge in this is of remaining open to new evidence, especially evidence that contradicts existing often strongly held and cherished perspectives.
That can be difficult because once you’ve found evidence of something working, it risks constraining your theory of what will, and what won’t, work in future.
Albert Einstein pointed this out at Werner Heisenberg’s 1926 Berlin lecture:
“Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.”
What theories might be stopping you seeing important things?
What do your customers want that you have no evidence for?
What experiments are you conducting to find out?
Is your organisation cultivating the capacity for iterative sense making, decision making & action taking so you find out before your competitors — or will you be left scrambling to catch-up because they imagined the future first..?
Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans ‘Of Innovations’, Essays, 24 (1625)
Cambridge Consultants “A future unconstrained by current thinking”.
For more detail, see my LinkedIn profile.
This is reflected in the first two of the Five Fatal Habits that have consistently stifled, smothered and strangled innovation, agility, and adaptiveness in organisations for the past 35 years, described in my 22-page report of the same title.
Find more on this topic in the post: Senior Executives Must Give Up Their Decision Rights
This is an example of the Seeing-Being Trap described in this 7 minute video and in this previous post.
For more on the 2D3D thinking tool and the 2D3D mindset at the heart of a future-fit culture of innovation, agility, and adaptiveness check out this 6 minute video and this previous post.