Information or insight - which is more important in strategic thinking?


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Western-based management philosophy places a huge premium on analytics. Information is the new lifeblood of business (the old one - cashflow - is still relevant today though) and without knowing the shifts in demand, the spending patterns of new markets, we will lose out on an opportunity, and give up pole position to the competitor. Just look at F1. Cars are hooked up with so many sensors and pick up so many pieces of information that racing now comes down to the engineers telling the drivers what needs to be done to drive the race. It is now such a team sport that drivers are just a "small cog" in the whole racing machinery. Yet, why do we still celebrate success for the driver? Why do drivers get paid the most amount of money in this team sport? Because they are the ones who put their lives on the line and provides insight to the changing conditions that data cannot provide. Ultimately, it is the driver to calls the shots, because his life is on the line. Insight overrules information.

Is this the same in business? Should we spend so much money in collecting information only to have it overridden by insight? How do we quantify the value of insight over that of information?

Information is unbiased, but unfeeling

Information is unbiased. It provides a snapshot of the state of the business without fear or favour. How we react to it depends on the perspective we use to make sense of it. In other words, information can be manipulated by the way the person chooses to see what it says. Insight, therefore, gives information its sense. The fact that information is unfeeling, also means that it cannot predict as well as we hope that it can. We can perform regression analysis to anticipate how a group of people may react to a change in the system, but regression is premised on straight-line logic, and in the cyclic world of systems, there is no way we can use straight-line thinking to predict a worldview. This is why, even till today, we cannot predict the price of shares and it would better to simply put our money on an index than in individual stocks, if we want decent returns.

What is, what if, what wows, what works

Should we then just leave the running of business to the seat-of-our-pants reaction? This is not advisable. After all, there is good value to be had with information. Being unbiased, it tells us what is happening, so that we can use our intuition to make what ifs. It is only through the what ifs that we can identify what wows, and finally what works. What is, what if, what wows, and what works - these are the four elements of design thinking developed by Jeanne Liedtka and associates that give credence to information, but utilises the primacy of insight to solve real world issues. Ultimately, it is insight that triumphs over information.

Insight for the future

When dealing with the future, there is no way we can use information alone to make the right decision. It is important, but it cannot make the intuitive leap to tell us where to invest, how much to put down, and when to leave. Intuition and insight are needed to build the strategic intent, to identify the links across time, to identify the centres of gravity and to articulate the crux. If we only relied on information, we might still be stuck. Insight is needed to make that call for the future!

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