Dee Ortner, my friend and fellow researcher into HR in the entrepreneurial space was recently at a gathering of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (VC’s) in Boston. Dee has an amazingly inquiring mind and a wonderful way of engaging with people. She told me that when asking a VC about his thoughts on HR he eventually looked at her and said, rather disdainfully “you sound like a social scientist!” The implication being that this was not a good thing! A bit along the lines of “Oh so you are related to the Boston Strangler then?”* Dee is a natural scientist – it’s most likely my bad influence that has led her to be seen as a social scientist! The VC was a Harvard MBA and was using that well placed and most likely very expensive lens to view the world through. He obviously had no idea that economics, one of the disciplines he no doubt uses to make sense of his world and make decisions by, is well and truly considered a social science.
This led me to mull a bit about different ways of thinking and the impact this has, on how we experience the world and the choices we make. For any seasoned OD practitioner this is a very well-trodden path of inquiry. As practitioners it is important we are aware that the lenses we choose to see the world through have a direct impact on how we work with clients and in turn how clients experience working with us.
Most of us working in the OD space will have challenged both our clients and ourselves to explore our lenses. If I had a pound for every time I have either heard or said the Alfred Korzybski phrase “The Map is not the Territory” I would be writing this from some sunny island in the Caribbean and not wintery Devon! As helpful as the metaphors of lenses and maps are I don’t think they are enough to really help us shift our thinking. What I would propose is that we develop the idea and metaphor of algorithmic thinking as a way of exploring and explaining the choices we make.
Algorithms are all around us, from driving search engines to shaping our purchasing patterns. If you use a supermarket loyalty card every time you buy something, the company tracks your purchases. This produces masses of data for them to analyse. I once had a really interesting chat with someone who was responsible for developing and looking after the algorithm the supermarkets use. Some of the correlations she told me about, were amazing if not a little weird! Here is a made up example – though not too far from the truth. If you regularly buy a certain brand of toilet paper, balsamic vinegar and brussel sprouts then the algorithm shows the supermarket, that there is a high likelihood that you will also be interested in buying a certain kind of floor polish. The supermarket is then very likely to send you a money off voucher for floor polish in the hope you will buy it and keep on buying it. The toilet roll + balsamic + sprouts = floor polish is not a correlation I could make no matter which lenses I looked through!
When I think about the truly brilliant OD practitioners I have worked with and learned from, they have had a form of algorithmic thinking. They have been able to take all kinds of unusual data both from conventional sources (surveys, focus groups, interviews etc.) and add it to more intuitive data – the feel of a place, the tone of a culture, the pace of a conversation and come up with quite amazing thoughts and ideas. Ideas and thoughts that have helped their clients to successfully bring about the kind of changes that the organisation needed. In the past this would be called using your intuition. I would argue that the use of the term intuition is one of the reasons OD and by extension HR is often not taken seriously. It is seen as soft and unrepeatable. Maybe it is time we brand intuitive thinking as algorithmic thinking and in doing so command more respect from people like the VC that Dee met? One of my old OD teachers and mentors used to say to me that ‘Intuition is what happens when imagination runs out”. She really helped me both understand the power of my intuition and at the same time to challenge and test it, as opposed to see it as a universal truth.
The supermarket soon knows if its algorithm is working as it will see a rise in the sale of floor polish to the people it has targeted. The challenge we face in the OD space is to know if our algorithm is properly calibrated and helps us achieve the kind of results our clients are looking for. So even though our interventions and feedback may on the surface look unusual they resonate with our clients and bring the desired outcomes. By converting the notion of intuition into the idea of a living algorithm we have the opportunity to refine and develop our personal process and make the kinds of adjustments and changes needed to increase our success.
If this idea makes any sense to you it would be great to hear your thoughts. I would be particularly interested in hearing about the strange and unusual correlations you have discovered in the OD space and how you think we all might go about improving and developing our personal algorithmic thinking.
* By the way Dee assures me she is no relation of the Boston Strangler…