The 93% Rule: How to Predict Unintended Consequences

The 93% Rule: How to Predict Unintended Consequences

Unintended consequences often catch us off guard despite their predictability.  The moment they occur, we gasp in shock, shake our heads, and look at each other in wide-eyed horror at this thing that just happened that we could never ever ever have anticipated. 

Yet, when (if) we do an After-Action Review, we often realize that these consequences were not entirely unforeseeable. In fact, had we anticipated them, we might have made different decisions.

The Unintended Consequences of Spreadsheets

In 1800 BCE, ancient Babylonians started recording data by scratching grids and columns onto clay tablets, and the spreadsheet was born.  Over the millennia, we went from clay tablets to papyrus to parchment and then paper. 

Fast forward to 1963 when R. Brian Walsh of Marquette University ported the Business Computer Language (BCL) program to an IBM 7040, and electronic spreadsheets became a reality.  The introduction of VisiCalc by Apple in 1979 revolutionized spreadsheet capabilities, followed by Lotus 123 and Microsoft Excel. Today, spreadsheets are ubiquitous in education, business operations, financial markets, budgeting, and even personal inventories.

Unintended yet predictable consequences

While spreadsheets have undoubtedly enhanced efficiency and accuracy compared to traditional methods like clay tablets or hand-drawn tables on parchment, their ease of use has inadvertently led to complacency.

We stopped engaging in a multi-millennial habit of discussing, debating, and deciding before making a spreadsheet. We started flippantly asking people to create spreadsheets and providing little, if any, guidance because “it’s easy to make changes and run scenarios.”

This shift resulted in a reliance on automated models and a lack of shared assumptions or analytical rigor in decision-making processes.

Of course, these behaviors were never intended.  They were, however, very predictable.

93% of Human Behavior is predictable.

Research spanning disciplines as varied as network scientists, anthropology, neuropsychology, and paleontology shines a light on how truly predictable we are.

Here are some examples:

Emotions before Reason: Ask someone if they make decisions based on their motivations, aspirations, and fears and use data to justify the decisions, and they’ll tell you no. Ask them the last time someone else made a decision that “made no sense,” and you’ll listen to a long list of examples.

Small gains now are better than big gains later: Thoughtfully planning before using solutions like spreadsheets, word processing, email, and instant messaging could save us time at work and help us get home 30 minutes earlier or work a few hours less on the weekend.  But saving a few seconds now by brain-dumping into Word, setting up a “flexible” spreadsheet, and firing off a text feels much better.

Confidence > Realism: We’ve all been in meetings where the loudest voice or the most senior person’s opinion carried the day.  As we follow their lead, we ignore signs that we’re wrong and explain away unexpected and foreboding outcomes until we either wake up to our mistakes or adjust to our new circumstances.

Predict the 93%. Create for the 7%

Acknowledging the predictability of human behavior is not an endorsement of stereotypes but a recognition of our innate cognitive processes. By incorporating this understanding into design, innovation, and decision-making processes, we better anticipate potential outcomes and mitigate unintended consequences.

While 93% of human behavior may follow predictable patterns rooted in evolutionary instincts, focusing on the remaining 7% allows for the exploration of unique behaviors and novel solutions.  By embracing both aspects of human nature, we can navigate challenges more effectively and anticipate a broader range of outcomes in our endeavors, leading to informed decision-making and value creation.

Now, if I could only get Excel to stop auto-converting numbers into date/time format.

The Surprising Secret Behind Customer Research Revelations

The Surprising Secret Behind Customer Research Revelations

Most customer research efforts waste time and money because they don’t produce insights that fuel innovation.  Well-meaning businesspeople say they want to “learn what customers want,” yet they ask questions better suited to confirming their own ideas or settling internal debates.  Meanwhile, eager consumers dutifully provide answers despite the nagging belief that they’re being asked the wrong questions.  

It doesn’t have to be this way.  In fact, you can get profound revelations into consumers’ psyche, motivations, and behaviors if you do one thing – channel your inner Elmo.

First, a confession

I find Elmo deeply annoying.  I grew up watching Sesame Street, and I still get an astounding amount of joy watching Big Bird, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Grover, and Oscar the Grouch (especially when Oscar channels his inner Taylor Swift).

Elmo moved to Sesame Street in 1985, and it hasn’t been the same since.  He’s designed to reflect the mental, emotional, and intellectual capabilities of a 3.5-year-old, and, in that aspect, his creators were wildly successful.   I fully acknowledge that Elmo plays a vital role in the mission of Sesame Street and that people of all ages love Elmo. But Elmo makes my ears bleed, and I will never be ok with the fact that Elmo refers to himself in the third person.

This is why my recommendation to channel your inner Elmo is shocking and extremely serious.

Next, an explanation

On Monday, Elmo posted on X (yes, the minimum age limit is 13, but his mom and dad help him run the account, so it’s apparently okay), “Elmo is just checking in!  How is everybody doing?”

180 million views, 120,000 likes, and 13,000 comments later, it was clear that no one was okay.

And lest you think this was Gen Z trauma dumping on their ol’ pal Elmo, Dionne Warwick, T-Pain, and Today Show anchor Craig Melvin responded with their struggles.  Comments ranged from, “Mondays are hard” to “Elmo I’m gonna be real I am at my f—ing limit,’ to “Elmo each day the abyss we stare into grows a unique horror. one that was previously unfathomable in nature. our inevitable doom which once accelerated in years, or months, now accelerates in hours, even minutes. however I did have a good grapefruit earlier, thank you for asking.”

Wow.  Thank goodness for that grapefruit.

There are a lot of theories about why Elmo’s post touched a nerve – it’s January and we’re tired, it’s easier to share our struggles online than in person, or we still enjoy “that wholesome and sincere bond from childhood that makes us want to share.”

I’m sure all those are true, and I think it’s something more, something we can all learn and do.

Now, the secret

Elmo may be a red, hairy, 3.5-year-old muppet. Still, he nailed the behaviors required to get people to open up and share their inner worlds – the very thoughts, beliefs, and motivations that enable others to create and offer impactful and innovative solutions.

Here’s what Elmo did (and you should, too):

  1. Show that you’re genuinely curious:  Elmo didn’t open with the standard “How are you?” that if answered with anything other than the socially acceptable “Fine,” results in awkward silence and inner panic. Elmo opened by declaring his intent – checking in – and then asked a question. Because of that, we understood his motivation was genuine, and he wanted an honest answer.
  2. Ask open-ended questions: Elmo didn’t ask a closed question that can be answered with yes or no.  He asked a question that allowed people to share as much or as little as they wanted and that could act as a springboard to a deeper conversation.
  3. Listen silently and without judgment: Elmo didn’t follow up his original tweet with options like “Are you doing ok, or not ok, or are you happy, or sad, or mad, or…”  Elmo asked a question and then listened (read the responses) without jumping back into the conversation or firing off follow-up questions.
  4. Acknowledge and thank the person sharing: On Tuesday, Elmo responded but not by skipping off to the next scheduled post.  He acknowledged the response by opening with, “Wow!  Elmo is glad he asked!”  He didn’t share his opinion or immediately ask another question.  Instead, he thanked people for sharing, acknowledged that he heard their responses, and was grateful.
  5. Do something with what was shared: Even if you do #4, it’s tempting to move on to the next question.  Don’t.  Elmo didn’t.  Instead, he wrote that he “learned that it is important to ask a friend how they are doing.” He also wrote that he “will check in again soon, friends!  Elmo loves you.”  You don’t have to profess your love but do respond with what you learned and what it makes you wonder.

People can’t tell you what to create because they don’t know what you know.  But they can tell you the problems they have.  If you’re willing to listen (just don’t talk about yourself in the third person, you’re not a muppet).

Don’t Waste Your Time Talking to Customers (until you answer these 3 questions)

Don’t Waste Your Time Talking to Customers (until you answer these 3 questions)

You know that customer insights are important.

You spend time and money to collect customer insights. 

But are you using them?

And by “using,” I don’t mean summarizing, synthesizing, discussing, PowerPointing, and presenting the insights.  I mean making decisions, changing strategies, and rethinking plans based on them.

I posed this question to a few dozen executives.  The awkward silence spoke volumes.

Why do we talk to customers but not listen to them?

In a world of ever more constrained resources, why do we spend our limited time and money collecting insights that we don’t use meaningfully?

It seems wild to have an answer or an insight and not use it, especially if you spent valuable resources getting it.  Can you imagine your high school self paying $50 for the answer key to the final in your most challenging class, then crumpling it up, throwing it away, and deciding to just wing the exam?

But this isn’t an exam.  This is our job, profession, reputation, and maybe even identity.  We have experience and expertise.  We are problem solvers.

We have the answers (or believe that we do).

After all, customers can’t tell us what they want.  We’re supposed to lead customers to where they should be. Waiting for insights or changing decisions based on what customers think slows us down, and isn’t innovation all about “failing fast,” minimal viable products, and agility?

So, we talk to customers because we know we should. 

We use the answers and insights to ensure we have brilliant things to tell the bosses when they ask.

We also miss the opportunity to create something that changes the game.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

What do you NEED to learn?

It’s easy to rattle off a long list of things you want to learn from customers.  You probably also know the things you should learn from customers.  But what do you need to learn?

What do you need to know by the end of a conversation so that you can make a decision?

What is the missing piece in the puzzle that, without it, you can’t make progress?

What insight do you need so badly that you won’t end the conversation until you have it?

If the answer is “nothing,” why are you having the conversation?

Will you listen?

Hearing is the “process, function, or power of perceiving a sound,” while listening is “hearing things with thoughtful attention” and a critical first step in making a connection.  It’s the difference between talking to Charlie Brown’s teacher and talking to someone you care about deeply.  One is noise, the other is meaning.

You may hear everything in a conversation, but if you only listen to what you expect or want to hear, you’ll miss precious insights into situations, motivations, and social dynamics.

If you’re only going to listen to what you want to hear, why are you having the conversation?

Are you willing to be surprised?

We enter conversations to connect with others, and the best way to connect is to agree.  Finding common ground is exciting, comforting, and reassuring.  It’s great to meet someone from your hometown, who cheers for the same sports team, shares the same hobby, or loves the same restaurant.

When we find ourselves conversing with people who don’t share our beliefs, preferences, or experiences, our survival instincts kick in, and we fight, take flight, or (like my client) freeze.

But here’s the thing – you’re not being attacked by a different opinion. You’re being surprised by it. So, assuming you’re not under actual physical threat, are you willing to lean into the surprise, get curious, ask follow-up questions, and seek to understand it? 

If you’re not, why are you having the conversation?

Just because you should doesn’t mean you must.

You know that customer insights are important.

You spend time and money to collect customer insights. 

But are you using them to speed the path to product-market fit, establish competitive advantage, and create value?

If you’re not, why are you having the conversation?

Defining Design: What Einstein Got Wrong

Defining Design: What Einstein Got Wrong

“If you can’t explain something simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Albert Einstein (supposedly)

This is one of my favorite quotes because it’s an absolute gut punch.  You think you know something, probably because you’ve been saying and doing it for years.  Then someone comes along and asks you to explain it, and suddenly, you’re just standing there, mouth agape, gesturing, hoping that this wacky game of charades produces an answer.

This happened to me last Monday.

While preparing to teach a course titled “Design Innovation Lab,” I thought it would be a good idea to define “design” and “innovation.”  I already had a slide with the definition of “innovation” – something new that creates value – but when I had to make one for “design,” my stomach sank.

My first definition was “pretty pictures,” which is both wrong and slightly demeaning because designers do that and so much more.  My second definition, I know it when I see it, was worse.

So, I Googled the definition.

Then I asked ChatGPT.

Then I asked some designer friends.

No one had a simple definition of Design.

As the clock ticked closer to 6:00 pm, I defaulted to a definition from the International Council of Design:

“Design is a discipline of study and practice focused on the interaction between a person – a “user” – and the man-made environment, taking into account aesthetic, functional, contextual, cultural, and societal considerations.  As a formalized discipline, design is a modern construct.”

Before unveiling this definition to a classroom full of degreed designers pursuing their Master’s in Design, I asked them to define “design.”

It went as well as all my previous attempts.  Lots of thoughts and ideas.  Lots of “it’s this but not that.”  Lots of debate about whether it needs to have a purpose for it to be distinct from art.

Absolutely no simple explanations or punchy definitions.

So, when I unveiled the definition from the very official-sounding International Council of Design, we all just stared at it.

“Yes, but it’s not quite right.”

“It is all those things, but it’s more than just those things.”

“I guess it is a ‘modern construct’ when you think of it as a job, but we’ve done it forever.”

As we squinted and puzzled, what was missing slowly dawned on us. 

There was nothing human in this definition. There was no mention of feelings or empathy, life or nature, connection or community, aspirations or dreams.

In this definition, designers consider multiple aspects of an unnatural environment in creating something to be used. Designers are simply the step before mass production begins.

Who wants to do that?

Who wants to be a stop, however necessary, on a conveyor belt of sameness?

Yet that’s what we become when we strip the humanness out of our work.

Humans are messy, emotional, unpredictable, irrational, challenging, and infuriating.

We’re also interesting, creative, imaginative, hopeful, kind, curious, hard-working, and resilient.

When we try to strip away human messiness to create MECE (mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) target markets and customer personas, we strip away the human we’re creating for.

When we ignore unpredictable and irrational feedback on our ideas, we ignore the creative and imaginative answers that could improve our ideas.

When we give up on a challenge because it’s more difficult than expected and doesn’t produce immediate results, we give up hope, resiliency, and the opportunity to improve things.

I still don’t have a simple definition of design, but I know that one that doesn’t acknowledge all the aspects of a human beyond just being a “user” isn’t correct.

Even if you explain something simply, you may not understand it well enough.

3 Maps to Innovation Success

3 Maps to Innovation Success

Several years ago, my now-husband and I were in London. It was his first time in the city but my 4th or 5th so, naturally, I talked a big game about how well I knew the city and how I would be, with the help of our handy tourist map, our tour guide.

Things were going fine until I took the wrong road leading away from Buckingham Palace. I thought we were heading straight to Parliament. We were not. 

After a walk that lasted far longer than it should have, he nervously asked,” We’re lost, aren’t we?”

With wounded pride and astounding stubbornness, I declared, “We’re not lost. I know exactly where we are. It’s just not where we want to be.”

Maps are incredibly useful. Until they’re not.

Innovation literature has more maps than a Rick Steves’ guidebook, and most are quite useful. If they’re used at the right time for the right purposes in the right way by the right people (which is a lot of rights that have to be right).

Here are three of my favorites – 2 classics and a new one that blew my mind

Stakeholder Map:

Avoid getting blind-sided, buttering up the wrong people, or ignoring potential champions

  • What it is: A visual representation of the people, roles, and groups who (1) are involved in and affected by a challenge or system and (2) have the power to affect or are likely to be affected by the proposed solution. Stakeholders can be internal and/or external to the organization
  • Why you need one: To prioritize where and how you spend your time understanding, influencing, communicating, collaborating, persuading, and selling
  • When to create it: At the very beginning of a project and then updating as you learn more
  • How to use it: Interaction Design Foundation explains it simply and concretely:
    • Brainstorm who your internal AND external stakeholders are
    • Prioritize them using an Influence x Interest two-by-two matrix
    • Engage and communicate based on their place in the chart

Journey Map

Spot opportunities to create radical value through incremental innovations

  • What it is: A visual representation of what your customer/consumer/user does, thinks, and feels as they move from awareness of a need/want/JTBD to loyalty to a solution. Journey maps should dig deep into moments where customers currently interact with your organization and highlight opportunities where interaction can and should occur
  • Why you need one: To identify opportunities for innovation by surfacing customer current pain points between your customer and your business (or competitors if your business isn’t there and can/should be)
  • When to create it:
    • Create the basic structure (start and end point) or a hypothesized journey before primary research.
    • During research, work with individual stakeholders to develop their maps using (and adapting) your initial structure.
    • At the end of research and before ideation, synthesize insights into the smallest possible number of maps to use as inspiration for solution brainstorming
  • How to use it: IDEO offers simple instructions and tips based on practical use:
    • Brainstorm who your internal AND external stakeholders are
    • Prioritize them using an Influence x Interest two-by-two matrix
    • Engage and communicate based on their place in the chart

Service Map

Make journey maps actionable (and see how your innovation affects your operations)

  • What it is: A visual representation of the people, touchpoints, processes, and technology required/desired both frontstage (what customers see) and backstage (what happens behind the scenes). Similar to process documentation with a special focus on the customer
  • Why you need one: Doing something new (i.e., innovating) often requires changes to internal operations, organizations, and processes, but these changes are often ignored or unexplored until late in the process, potentially slowing or stopping the development and launch of a new solution.
  • When to create it: Draft a baseline current state once you have 50% confidence in the general area or type of solution to be created (e.g., we want to improve the use of digital tools in classrooms, so let’s create a service map for our current digital offerings and operations). Then continually revise and update it as the solution/service develops.
  • How to use it: Interaction Design Foundation offers practical instructions and advice.
    • Identify the service to be blueprinted
    • Identify the customers to be service
    • Examine the customers’ experience of the process (customer journey map)
    • Identify the role and impact of employees, processes, technology, and other operational and organizational factors on the service
    • Link activities together to show a natural flow between frontstage and backstage

What’s your favorite map (innovation or otherwise)?

3 ‘How Might We’ Alternatives That Actually Spark Creative Ideas

3 ‘How Might We’ Alternatives That Actually Spark Creative Ideas

Q: How might we brainstorm new ideas to serve our customers better?

A: Have a brainstorming session that starts with “How Might We help customers [Job to be Done/problem]?”

If only it were that simple.

How Might We (HMW) is an incredible tool (not BS, as some would assert), but we misuse it. We focus too much on the “we” and not enough on the “might.”

Might > We

HMW was first used to prompt people to be “wildly creative while simultaneously leveraging [company’s] innate strengths.” 

IDEO popularized the prompt as a way to solve “wicked problems” – problems so complex that there is no right or wrong answer.

In both of these cases, the assumption was that the word “might” would free people from the shackles of today’s thinking and constraints and give people permission to dream without fear of judgment and reality.

“We” kept ideas tethered to the reality of the company’s “innate strengths,” providing a modicum of comfort to executives worried that the session wouldn’t result in anything useful and would, therefore, be a waste of time.

We > Might

Alas, as time went on and HMW became more popular, we lost sight of its intent (prompt wildly creative thinking about wicked problems) and twisted it to our purposes.

  • We end the HMW sentence with our problems (e.g., HMW cut costs by getting more customers to use self-service tools?).
  • We use it to brainstorm solutions to things that aren’t even problems (e.g., HMW eliminate all customer service options that aren’t self-serve?)
  • We mentally replace “might” with “will” so we can emerge from brainstorming sessions with a tactical implementation plan.

How Might Can YOU Fix HMW?

If you’re not getting creative, radical, or unexpected ideas from your brainstorming sessions, you have an HMW problem.

As a result, continuing to use HMW as a tool to prompt creative, radical, or unexpected ideas is the definition of insanity. And you are not insane,

Instead, mix it up.

Use different words to articulate the original intent of HMW.

How would we solve this problem if the answer to every request is YES?

Innovation thrives within constraints. Brainstorming doesn’t. 

Even when you tell people not to constrain themselves, even implore them to value “quantity over quality,” you still get more “safe” ideas rather than more “crazy” ideas. 

Do more than tell. Make a world without constraints real. Explicitly remove all the constraints people throw at ideas by creating a world of infinite money, people, capabilities, willingness, appetite for risk, and executive support. Doing this removes the dreaded “but” because there is no “but we don’t have the money/people/capabilities” or “but management will never go for it” and creates space for “and.”

What would we ask for if we were guaranteed a YES to only ONE request?

This question is often asked at the end of a brainstorm to prioritize ideas. But it’s equally helpful to ask it at the beginning.

This question shifts our mindset from “the bosses will never say yes, so I won’t even mention it” to “the bosses will say yes to only one thing, so it better be great!”  It pulls people off the sidelines and reveals what people believe to be the most critical element of a solution.   It drives passionate engagement amongst the whole team and acts as a springboard to the next brainstorm – How Might We use (what they said yes to) to solve (customers’ Jobs to be Done/problem)?

How would we solve the problem if the answer to every request is NO?

This one is a bit risky. 

Some people will throw their hands in the air, declare the exercise a waste of time and effort, and collapse into a demotivated blob of resignation. 

Some people will feel free. As Seth Godin wrote about a journal that promises to reject every single person who submits an article, “The absurdity of it is the point. Submitting to them feels effortless and without a lot of drama, because you know you’re going to get rejected. So instead of becoming attached to the outcome, you can simply focus on the work.”

For others, this will summon their inner rebel, the part of themselves that wants to stick it to the man, prove the doubters wrong, and unleash a great “I told you so” upon the world. To them, “No” is the start of the conversation, not the end. It fires them up to do their best work.

Don’t invite the first group of people to the brainstorm.

Definitely invite the other two groups.

How Might Will/Do YOU Fix HMW?

If you want something different, you need to do something different.

Start your next brainstorm with a new variation on the old HMW prompt. 

How do people react? Does it lead to more creative or more “safe” ideas? 

How might we adjust to do even better next time?