A Case for Outside In Thinking

girlzooConsulting as a business practice exists to serve two needs:

  • To provide subject matter expertise on an “as needed” basis; and,
  • To provide a fresh perspective on things.

It’s the second of these that I want to ruminate on a bit today. Why is an outside look at things so valuable for companies? Why can somebody on the outside see so quickly what is all but invisible to those on the inside? Increasingly, as my consulting career grows, I’m astounded to continually rediscover how different the view from outside-in can be from the inside-out view. Consultants look at things differently. Good consultants can translate that into insight for their clients. Great consultants combine that with their own experience and expertise to deliver what is, dollar for dollar, the best investment their clients can ever make.

Ideas from IDEO

Outside-in is a great business model. One of the masters of this, the design firm IDEO, has built an entire methodology around “design anthropology,” helping companies reimagine their products by providing a fresh look at things. They base innovation firmly on observation of real people, basically providing an outside-in view of the world. I’ve always been a huge fan of qualitative research, with ethnography in particular being an underused secret weapon. IDEO lives, breathes and eats this stuff. Better yet, they’re willing to share their secrets. You could do much, much worse than learn about more about the IDEO approach to innovation. Spend some time on the IDEO Resource page.

But why does being on the inside blind you to insights that are instantly observable to people on the inside? It’s not that the people outside an organization are so much smarter than the people on the inside. They have no special gift or source of information. They simply have a different view. Why?

Conforming to the Norm

As with most everything in life, I approach these questions from a Darwinian point of view – I seek ultimate rather than proximate answers. I suspect it’s because we humans, being herders, have a need to conform to the norm.

I’m in a unique position right now to test this theory as I’m writing this from a different culture – Germany. In the past few years, as I’ve traveled through different parts of the world, I’ve been amazed at how cultures shape behaviors. Yes, we have inherent human behaviors, but as you travel from culture to culture in Europe, the difference in national behaviors is almost palpable. Or at least, it is to an outsider. It’s probably not a coincidence that the most insightful cultural analyses have come from observers from outside the culture in question, from Alexis de Tocqueville’s (France) Democracy in America to Friedrich Engel’s (German) The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. Canadians actually have a long history of observing other cultures, in particular, America. I’ll touch on why that might be more in tomorrow’s post

I’ve written before about Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, a keen observer of culturally driven behavioral traits. His book, Bowling Alone, provides a razor sharp analysis of several cultural trends in America that are altering the very nature of our social bonds. But it’s an earlier work, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, that shows how our social connections determine not only our culture but also the effectiveness of everything from commerce to government. Let me veer a little off track to make a point.

The Making of a Clan

Analysis of cultures from mountainous, geographically isolated regions show that they tend to evolve around the power of the clan. These incredibly strong bonds of kinship have been documented in the Scottish Highlands, the Appalachians in the US and Southern Italy and Sicily as well as other similarly geographically restricted areas. There are strong divides between in-group/out-group that hamper the creation of inter-group trade practices and formalized governments. In particular, geographic restrictions on movement of genes in and out of the collective gene pool create even stronger kin selection bonds. Putnam, in his book, documents how this prevailing tribal attitude held Southern Italy back while Northern Italy flourished. There, easy trade routes lead to mercantilism and intergroup trading, reaching a peak in the trade guilds of Florence.

The impact of geography on evolved human behavior has also been fertile ground for UCLA’s Jared Diamond. Prevailing attitudes within a tribe quickly spread, bringing behaviors towards the group norm. The more isolated the group, the more homogenous the views and attitude of the group and the more resistant they are to an outside view. Because we conform to the norm, it quickly becomes true that either the members of the inside group are blind to realities easily perceived from outside, or, if they are aware, they cannot effect change because they’re stifled by the collective influence of the group.

There are some unique corporate conditions where this internal version of restricted group-think tends to flourish. Ironically, past success is usually a good indicator of future limitations in perspective. But again, I’ll get back to that in a future post.

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