Remember all the things as a young child that you knew to be fact but later on found out weren’t quite so true? Things like, every night a monster lives under my bed. When I grow up, I’m going to be a movie star. If I wish upon a star all my dreams will come true.
Conventional wisdom says that as we grow older and wiser in the world, we lose most of our imagination. That by the time we reach adulthood, we forget all about how to make stuff up and spend the rest of our lives in dull reality.
As adults we have an even greater capacity to make stuff up. And we use this enhanced capacity all the time. The only problem is that we tend to use our imaginations in negative ways.
In the business world, we constantly make stuff up based on deep-seated beliefs and assumptions we hold about our customers, competitors, markets and the business world in general. In a stable world, this doesn’t pose much of a problem. In a world where constant change represents the norm, making stuff up can wreak havoc on our companies. The problem is not that we have assumptions and beliefs, it’s that we rarely pause and take the time to examine them because we are running so fast today. As a result, we go around acting and making decisions based on information (things we are absolutely, positively sure are so) that may or may not be true.
MSUs (making stuff up) occur in every organization. But at no time do they have more impact than during the strategic planning process. Here are some of the most common and harmful MSUs I have encountered:
- Bandwagon effect. The tendency to do or believe things because many other people do the same.
- Confirmation bias. The tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms your preconceptions.
- False consensus effect. The tendency to overestimate the degree to which others agree with you.
- Herd instinct. The tendency to adopt the opinions of others and follow the behaviors of the majority in order to feel safer and avoid conflict.
- Hindsight bias. The inclination to see past events as being predictable.
- Mere exposure effect. The tendency to express undue dislike for something merely because you are not familiar with it.
- Projection bias. Unconsciously assuming that others share the same or similar thoughts, beliefs, values or positions as you.
- Self-fulfilling prophecy. The tendency to engage in behaviors that elicit results that will (consciously or unconsciously) confirm your beliefs.
- Status quo comfort. The tendency to like things to stay relatively the same.
How do MSUs affect the planning process?
When MSUs go unchallenged, goals get set too low or too high. Opportunities are missed. Changes in customer needs and expectations get overlooked. Planning assumptions are made that have no basis in reality. People choose the status quo over change that needs to happen. Strategic initiatives get launched that have no chance at success. The list goes on and on.
To minimize the impact of MSUs on your strategic planning, start by acknowledging that everyone on the team still has a very active imagination. Then make your thinking transparent. During the planning process, put everyone’s beliefs and assumptions out on the table and challenge them. Ask, “What do we think we know to be absolutely true about our customers, competitors and markets? Is it still true? If not, what has changed and how do we need to respond to that change?”
Strategic planning involves imagining a future for your company and seeing what needs to happen in order to get there. Instead of focusing on what you can’t do, turn your imaginations toward what you can. Instead of saying, “We can’t do that,” or “That will never work,” try asking, “What if our assumptions are wrong? What if we did it this way…?”
The question for today’s business leaders is not, “Are we making stuff up?” It’s, “What are we making up and how does it impact our decisions and actions?”
What are you making up?