Scouting for strategy
Scouting for strategy
“When faced with the choice to change his mind or find the proof not to do so, the conventional man always gets busy looking for proof.”
J K Galbraith
Developing an effective strategy for your organisation depends on your willingness to confront inconvenient truths, and your ability to see the world as it is, rather than how you wish it were.
The Dreyfus affair
In 1894, a member of the French army’s general staff discovered a torn-up note in a waste-paper bin. When they pieced the note back together, they found that an officer had been selling military secrets to Germany. The hunt began to find the traitor.
Suspicion quickly fell on Alfred Dreyfus: it was no coincidence that Dreyfus was the only Jewish officer of his rank in the entire army. It was at this point that confirmation bias kicked in. Every piece of evidence the investigators gathered was interpreted in a way that confirmed the conclusion they had already reached: that Dreyfus was the traitor. The investigators:
- compared Dreyfus’ handwriting to that on the memo, and concluded that they matched (even though professional handwriting experts were much less confident);
- searched Dreyfus’ apartment and found nothing at all to incriminate him (which just went to show what a clever and well-trained spy he was);
- talked to his school-teachers and learned he had been interested in learning foreign languages (useful for betraying secrets to foreign powers); and
- learned from his teachers that Dreyfus had an excellent memory (very useful for a spy, who has to memorise a lot of information).
Dreyfus was found guilty, publicly humiliated and imprisoned for life on Devil’s Island, a barren land off the coast of South America.
Mad, bad or wrong?
So were the investigators mad, bad or wrong to conclude that Dreyfus was guilty on such flimsy evidence? Did they know he was innocent but just not care? Was he framed to protect someone else?
Researcher Julia Galef argues that we don’t have to assume any madness or badness on the part of the investigators. What they did was all too human and predictable: we are all guilty at times of the confirmation bias to which they fell prey.
The soldier and scout mindsets
In an illuminating TED talk, Galef contrasts two different mindsets, which she calls the ‘soldier’ and the ‘scout’.
Imagine a soldier in the heat of battle, with adrenalin pumping and heart pounding. The soldier’s actions all stem from deeply-ingrained reflexes: instincts aimed at protecting their own side and defeating the enemy. They are swept along by this over-riding purpose.
By contrast, a scout’s job is not to attack or defend: the scout’s job is to understand how things really are. They may hope to learn there is a safe place to make camp just over the next ridge, but if what they find is an exposed plain with no good shelter, that is just what they will report back to their commanding officer.
These roles are also metaphors for different mind-sets. When the French high command were investigating Dreyfus, they were almost certainly in a soldier mindset. Their country was under threat, military secrets were being sold to a foreign power. It was an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation. And Dreyfus may well have stood out at first because he was Jewish – for the investigators he was not one of ‘us’, so he must have been ‘one of them’.
Enter the scout
A high-ranking French officer began to suspect that the case against Dreyfus was flawed. Colonel Picquart had reason to believe that the spying had continued after Dreyfus was in prison. But it took 10 years for him to finally have the case against Dreyfus over-turned.
Picquart demonstrated a ‘scout’ mindset. He was interested in confronting the truth, even when that was inconvenient for him personally (during his campaign to free Dreyfus, he himself spent time in prison for his disloyalty to the army). He was curious enough to investigate why Dreyfus might not be guilty, even when his organisation was convinced otherwise.
Scouting for strategy
In developing an effective organisational strategy, you need to follow a process that forces you to confront the world as it actually is, not how you would like it to be. The scout mindset – curiosity, a willingness to look for evidence that disproves what you believe, and an ability feel proud rather than ashamed when we discover our errors – is your friend when facing an uncertain future.
What you can say about this
- Are we being soldiers or scouts here?
- What evidence could we find to show this isn’t true?
- Who am I not listening to right now, because they see things differently to me?
Want to know how to see the world as it actually is when developing your organisation’s strategy? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.