In 2001 two social psychologists (Richard Nisbett and Takahiko Masuda) ran an experiment.
They took two groups of people – one from America and one from Japan – and showed them video clips from underwater scenes. Then they asked the participants what they had seen.
The Americans talked about the fish. They recalled a lot of detail about the objects. They said things like “I saw these big fish swimming off to the left, they had white bellies and pink dots”.
In contrast the Japanese overwhelmingly talked about the context rather than the objects. They said things like “I saw what looked like a stream. The water was green, there were rocks, shells and plants on the bottom. Oh, and there were three fish swimming off to the left”.
It was almost as if the two groups were seeing completely different scenes.
This was a really surprising result for the psychologists. For a long time, the central assumption of psychology was that humans saw the world in fundamentally similar ways. The experiment (and further research) proved this is not the case.
What the Americans saw was shaped by their culture – America is a more individualistic society. So, they tended to focus on objects. Whereas Japan has a more interdependent culture. So the Japanese focused more on the context.
They looked at the same thing and saw different things.
Why are we talking about this? Well, in our industry we can often look at the same things through different lenses. For instance, how a manufacturer sees things may be different to how a retailer sees things. How someone in Sales sees things may be different to how someone in Marketing sees things.
The lens you look through is very influenced by what you are being asked to focus on. If you are working on an innovation project for 12 months, you will be really focused on that innovation. If you work on a brand you will be really focused on that brand, If you are an account manager you will be really focused on that account.
There will be a lot of things you do see. But there will also be a lot of things you don’t see. And it’s often the things that you don’t see that are most important. The things that can determine success or failure of a project or activity.
So how can you increase the chances of seeing everything you need to see?
Let’s take 2 examples…
Innovation Projects. Innovation is often clouded in a cloak of secrecy. There is a small project team. The project is given a code name (a name that is far more exciting than the project ever is…). As the project develops, the project team becomes more invested in it. There is more emotional commitment. There is more financial commitment. The stakes become higher. And it is often only at this stage – when the stakes are higher – that other people are consulted. But the product or proposition or recommended price has already been locked down. These new people see different things. Things that could really improve the innovation. But it’s too late. The project is too far down the line to change things.
What to do instead? Get people who are less invested in the project to give their thoughts much earlier in the process. Then keep doing that as the project develops. Get a couple of people from Sales to input on the proposition. Get someone from a different category to act as a consultant. If you are feeling really brave, share the concept with a wider group of people in the organisation. Ask them what they think. But also ask them what they’d do. If it was their money would they (think spread betting) buy the project – think it will succeed? Or would they sell it – think it will fail? The project team see the objects. A wider team sees the scene. Together it’s a powerful combination.
Strategy Projects. What is the typical modus operandi for strategy projects (e.g. category strategy)? Get a big group of people together for a big (2 or 3 day) workshop. Make sure those people have a lot of knowledge about the category. Give them a massive presentation of facts and figures. Then expect them to come up with all the opportunities for growth. All the actions. All the activation and creative ideas. Finish the workshop with everyone feeling exhausted. Then have a very small team that work up the final strategy. Strategy complete? Yes. Strategy really strong? Probably not.
What to do instead? Recognise that developing strategy is an iterative process. It’s not created in one mega workshop with the people who know most about the category or business. It is created with a mixed group of people and experience. It is created in stages. You build one block of content. Then you build the next block. You give people time to reflect on the content. Then you edit and refine it. You share the draft content with people outside the project team and get their challenges and builds. It feels uncomfortable – work gets pulled apart and then put back together. But you get to a much better place. You see the objects and the scene.
These are just two examples. The same principles apply to other projects and activities.
Different people see different things.
You can use this next time there are some dirty dishes next to the sink…”I didn’t see the objects, I just saw the scene”.
Feel free to forward. Have a great weekend. Speak to you in a fortnight.