wide angle lens

Now’s the time to showcase our skills as the wide angle lens

We are learning that the pandemic prompted a number of CEOs, suddenly faced with massive disruption, to call in their heads of insight and ask them what was going on and what was likely to happen in the future!

This was no time to undertake a market research study. This was the time for tapping into the knowledge and experience of those who knew how to piece together the emerging story from existing information. This was the moment for those who have a deep understanding of human behaviour and could provide clarity on what was happening.

What CEOs wanted was someone with the wide angle lens mindset.

The Wide Angle Lens

I latched onto this phrase several years ago after watching an episode of The West Wing. One of the characters had been appointed as a Presidential Advisor. He asked “What do I have to do as a Presidential Adviser?”

The answer was: “You are going to tell the President how the meeting he just had with his Council of Economic Advisors related to the meeting he had with the Agriculture Secretary, relates to his intelligence briefing, relates to the environment, relates to jobs, relates to education, relates to the campaign.”

Then, there is a dramatic pause… “In other words you are the President’s wide angle lens!”

The ability to join up the dots and explain complexity – and its implications – in an enlightened way to senior decision-makers has always struck me as a super power. For me, the idea of being the wide angle lens seemed to capture the essence of the customer insight role.

Now more than ever there is an urgent need for strategic insight advisors – polymaths – who can make sense of information and bring some clear deep thinking to bear.

Let’s do a whistle stop tour of the mindset needed to deliver in this wide angle lens strategic advisor role.

A problem crystalliser who is a fully paid up member of the 55-5 club

As a strategic insight advisor, you are will be a member of Einstein’s 55-5 club. Einstein said that if he had one hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem – which would allow him 5 minutes to find the solution.

So, one of the key skills of the strategic advisor is having the forensic energy – relentless curiosity – to constantly ask penetrating questions to unearth the true phenomenon in play.

Strategic advisors always go for the jugular and test to destruction the critical underlying assumptions underpinning the initial presentation of a problem. They are always going to be working on what really matters not the symptoms.

As a strategic advisor you need to stay ruthlessly focused on the core problem and act with purpose and intentionality in finding solutions. You never shuffle – sleepwalk – into situations.

And the chances are you won’t suffer fools gladly. If you encounter someone displaying lazy, cognitively miserly thinking behaviour, you will be on their case. Initially you’ll give them the Paddington hard stare – and, if necessary, you will escalate this to the full Roy Keane death stare! (Roy was a premiership footballer who didn’t take any prisoners.)

Join up the data dots to paint a picture of the accelerating present

Strategic advisors love working with multiple sources of messy, imperfect, fragmented evidence. They enjoy the challenge of piecing all this together to identify any accelerating trends that are beginning to paint a picture of what the near future is likely to look like.

And, when they see something looming up on the horizon, they are not hesitant or diffident in getting their message over to the C-Suite about the consequences and implications of this trend. They don’t waffle around saying “trust me I’m a market researcher”. Or worse still, at the other end of the spectrum, naively start talking about findings that are “significant at the 95% level of confidence”.

No – strategic advisors confidently and authoritatively explain their message in a confidence and straightforward way to stakeholders. What they do is based on rigorous abductive and fuzzy logic reasoning skills.

This is all about providing the best possible interpretation of events given the available evidence, but they keep it simple. There’s no need for them to share all their workings. I like talking about the ‘safety’ of the evidence supporting each strategic foresight I am unfolding.

Strategic advisors know all about touching their stakeholders’ world. They know how to turn data centric cognitive problems into simple, easy to understand, intuitive solutions.

Make sense of the emerging tribal belief culture

For me a challenging feature of modern life is the emergence of tribal like belief structures that seem to be completely resistant to any form of evidenced-based debate around the wisdom of the initially held point of view.

Moreover these days, if you challenge someone’s belief structure around a particular issue this is often received as a ‘personal insult’, rather than opening up the opportunity to review the pros and cons of the initially held position, with the prospect of a subsequent shift in perspective.

How we have arrived here seems to have been fuelled by the ‘slaughterhouse’ that the social media has become. There is something deep going on here around why attitudes now quickly become so entrenched and polarised. The way that the social cognition process works seems to be changing. The facility to instantly access thousands of (what can be venomously expressed) views via different social media platforms seems to be changing the way people initially formulate, lock into and then defend their attitudes.

But the bottom line is that the strategic advisor – wearing their cool Simon Baker ‘Mentalist’ hat – will be digging deep to understand and explain this polarised belief phenomenon.

Elegantly frame the decision choices

Strategic advisors don’t fall into the trap of being a presentation show pony who is forced to magically pull an insight rabbit out of the hat.

They don’t show up with their slide deck, take the audience through a procession of data, and then get cajoled – without knowing the full business context – into making a giant leap to a final recommendation that could be at odds with C-Suite thinking. They avoid the naivety of this “OK Mr market researcher, what’s-your-recco?” culture.

In contrast, the strategic advisor comes to the whole presentation thing with a different process. It’s one that sidesteps the macho culture whereby the big stakeholder egos often commit to their own pet preferred approach early in the research process in a way that it makes it politically difficult for them to budge – notwithstanding the compelling arguments that will be eventually be delivered at the final presentation.

Instead, strategic advisors shift the presentation modus operandi away from ‘defending positions’ towards one of ‘framing the decision choices’ for the C-Suite. This is a more collegiate and informed approach.

On the ground this framing approach looks like this… For each (prioritised) decision choice – throughout using just the right amount of supporting evidence – the strategic advisor elegantly outlines the ‘opportunities’. They follow this with a review of the ‘risks’. They then provide an assessment of the ‘likelihood of success’ of that option. And, they map out the longer term ‘consequences’ of pursuing each option. And at this point – now with the benefit of the full business context – they are in a position to provide their own recommendation, if asked.

So with this consultative stance, it becomes all about an intelligent debate around informed choices, rather than people defending and squabbling over predetermined positions.

Construct memorable narratives and remember you are admissible evidence

The strategic advisor, with their wide angle lens, knows that they need a compelling narrative – storyline – that will win both the hearts and minds of CEOs. They know that in a straight choice between emotion and reason, emotion wins. So they will weave together the hard-nosed statistical arguments with in-depth qualitative insights that tell the full customer – human – story.

In addition, strategic advisors have the confidence to know that they are admissible evidence. They are prepared to share their own experiences and intuition alongside the evidence.

CEOs can smell confidence and authority (and also desperation) in a presenter. But strategic advisors have the confidence to put together a full package of facts, personal experience and intuition to get buy-in to the central storyline.

Strategic advisors will have ‘personal storytelling episodes’ plumbed into their presentation – designed to get lean-in and engagement from demanding and restless audiences.

Think Renaissance Man (person) and show your Hinterland

As the agenda moves from being customer centric to understanding the full human experience, CEOs are looking for strategic advisors – insight professionals – with a genuinely eclectic wide angle lens. They are looking for someone whose understanding of what is going on goes beyond surveys and focus groups.

They want to talk to someone who is taking on board lessons from movies, novels, poetry, plays, quality journalism – arts and culture. All of these are genuine ingredients if insight is now claiming to understand the rounded human experience.

Here, I am reminded of a comment made by a former Deputy Leader of the UK Labour Party – Denis Healey. He was an accomplished pianist and photographer, and he one famously said of his nemesis Margaret Thatcher that she did not have any Hinterland.

Apparently, Mrs Thatcher, who was time urgent and highly focused, asked her press secretary to cut out from the newspapers each day those articles that he thought were relevant to her PM role.

Alas, this cut context, serendipity – and what the ‘man on the Clapham omnibus’ is talking about – out of the equation. Consequently, she apparently – maybe apocryphally – famously said things like “What is The Sainsburys?” and “Who is The Gazza and why is he crying?” (Apologies for yet another UK centric football reference.)

The point being that the wide angle lens strategic advisor will have the ternary thinking skills that enable them to look back in from the ‘third corner’ to see the big issues and concepts in play. This is in contrast to the binary/black vs white/win vs lose thinker who is going to struggle with grasping the overall panorama and wider human experience.

Don’t panic: we can help you to show up as a wide angle lens strategic advisor

The good news is that acquiring the mindset and skills of the wide angle lens insight professional is susceptible to training and coaching – everyone can move up this performance curve.

At DVL Smith we would be delighted talk to you about our different coaching and training programmes to help your team members operate as a wide angle lens strategic advisor to the C-Suite.

When it comes to enhancing wide-angle lens skills, we break everything down into manageable chunks. We have modules on problem crystallisation, sensemaking, how to be an insight detective, how to tell the insight narrative, and how to operate as a trusted strategic advisor who always shows up with their A game.

Just get in touch to see how we can put together a powerful and effective training and coaching package for your organisation.


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