Friday, November 01, 2013

Intuit Founder Scott Cook: Experimentation vs. Powerpoint

In a Fast Company interview, Intuit founder Scott Cook talks about a key lesson he learned about decision-making processes.   He regrets that too many decisions are made through a series of meetings, where people present their ideas to folks at higher levels in the organizational hierarchy.  Multiple reviews take place, as senior people scrutinize the proposals generated from below.  Powerpoint dominates these meetings.  Yet, despite all this review and critique, many poor decisions get made.  Cook advocates for a shift from decision-making by persuasion and Powerpoint to decision-making by experimentation.  Here's an excerpt:

There's a pattern here. Both companies make much better decisions because they don't rely on hierarchy, PowerPoint, persuasion. They're making decisions based on real experiments. So I said, wait a minute. Whenever reasonable, let's move from decisions by persuasion to decisions by experiment.  Three things happen. One, you make better decisions because it's actually real consumers or real production methods that aren't based on theory or a PowerPoint. It's based on real results. That's one.  Two, you enable your most junior people to test their best ideas, and when in you're doing PowerPoint presentations, whose ideas are most likely to get lost?  The third is, you get surprises more often, and surprises are a key source of innovation. You only get a surprise when you are trying something and the result is different than you expected, so the sooner you run the experiment, the sooner you are likely to find a surprise, and the surprise is the market speaking to you, telling you something you didn't know.

Cook does a very nice job here of explaining three key virtues of a shift toward experimentation.  I often advise executives that experiments can be a very effective tool for resolving key differences of opinion.  I encourage leaders to stimulate constructive debate.  We make better decisions if we encourage dissenting views.  However, sometimes we then find ourselves in a difficult spot.  An impasse emerges, and it's not clear how to resolve the differences of opinion that have emerged.  In those instances, how can we manage the conflict constructively?  One way to do so is through experimentation.  Rather than continuing to hold meetings and debate the issue, we can shift toward experimentation. Ask yourself: What are some of the key assumptions and hypotheses at the core of the arguments being made?  What could we do to test some of the key assumptions and hypotheses that have been put forward here?  Experiments, then, can become a way to manage conflict constructively and advance a decision-making process that is stuck in a stalemate.  

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