I think I'm obsessed with the searching-planning continuum for project implementation and intelligence. I was initially introduced to the thinking by the writings of economist Williiam Easterly and his research on the international poverty war. Easterly contrasts the heavy, top-down blueprint problem-solving approach of Planners unfavorably with the lightweight, bottom-up discovery of Searchers. Planners think they can “strategize”to solutions for knotty problems; Searchers know they cannot – and accordingly look for smaller intermediate “victories”, hoping to learn/adapt as they go. Though Easterly seems to side with Searchers, and I consider myself more a Searcher than Planner, I'd prefer a compromise that incorporates the strengths of both approaches.
This searching-planning compromise lens now colors my assessment of business strategy and intelligence. Two relatively recent articles, one from the Harvard Business Review and a second from the MIT Sloan Management Review, helped me understand this compromise. The HBR article, The Innovator's DNA, is nominally a case control analysis examining innovating CEO's like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos to determine what attributes differentiate them from non-innovators. I'm generally not a big fan of this type of investigation, but the article does a good job identifying discovery skills that I believe are solid foundations for searching and BI.
I'd categorize the traits the HBR authors identify as Entrepreneurial, Scientific and Strategic. Entrepreneurial skills include the ability to ask great questions that allow companies to break out of the status quo. Scientific skills include the ability to keenly observe and the willingness to experiment to find new solutions. Strategic skills include the abilities to network with those from diverse backgrounds to gain new perspectives and then to associate the seemingly unrelated ideas from the different fields. These discovery skills, found by the authors to characterize great innovators, should also be viewed as foundations for a repeatable science of searching, and part of the BI analyst's tool chest.
In contrast, the SMR article, Implementing a Learning Plan to Counter Project Uncertainty, approaches deployment from the planning perspective, with accommodations to the inevitable uncertainties that plague business environments. The authors identify five planning models that juxtapose on degree of uncertainty and strategic formulation. The Operating Plan, Stage Gate Approach and Milestone Planning are traditional business execution and planning models characterized by top-down thinking and more certainty than less. The points of departure for Discovery-Driven Planning and the authors' Learning Plan, on the other hand, are uncertainty with testable assumptions and learn-as-you-go evolution. The former are planning models for Planners; the latter, more for Searchers.
The authors discuss dimensions of uncertainty, identifying Technical, Market, Organizational and Resource considerations. They also provide detailed uncertainty management checklists for each dimension that can readily be incorporated in any planning methodology. Their Learning Plan: “allows a team to deal in a proactive way with the ongoing evaluation and redirection that characterizes any breakthrough innovation project, where the specific objectives are often unclear or highly malleable, or where the ultimate goal is clear but the path to it is highly uncertain”. BI is part and parcel of the Learning Plan methodology, providing a basis for evaluating performance at critical points in time. “Effective evaluation is critically important for the success of the Learning Plan methodology.”
And so it is that discovery skills touted by the HBR article serve to elevate searching to a reproducible methodology that can be a foundation for all projects, and the Learning Plan makes the top-down assumptions and components of traditional planning testable and evolutionary. Searching and planning start to evolve to a common ground that provides benefits for both project implementation and intelligence.