Want Foresight from Insight? Part II: Interview with Greg Heist


A Q&A with Greg Heist, Chief Innovation Officer, Gongos, Inc. by Braden Kelley, Co-Founder, Innovation Excellence

Braden: This is Braden Kelley, Co-Founder of InnovationExcellence.com. I’m here today with Greg Heist, Chief Innovation Officer at Gongos, a decision intelligence company. Greg, for those out there who may not be completely familiar with Gongos, why don’t you tell our audience a bit about what the company does?

Greg: Gongos is a decision intelligence company, and what that means is that we help our clients develop the capacity to make great consumer-minded decisions. We’ve been in business for 24 years, and over the past several years, we’ve recognized a need for clients to change the way they think about making decisions, especially when it comes to understanding consumers, and in many cases, even themselves.

That pointed us towards this idea of trying to understand and create a more holistic view of consumers, particularly as data becomes more abundant. It’s no longer solely about asking primary research questions. It’s ultimately about helping organizations develop a competency in leveraging the data and knowledge the organization already possesses to tackle business challenges, both large and small.

Braden: So it’s really all about seeking existing data sources and mining new data sources and helping people understand what’s actionable within that?

Greg: Absolutely. That’s a very good way of summarizing it.

Braden: In part two of our interview, let’s talk a little bit more about how Gongos works at developing and integrating insights and foresight.

Greg: While insights are and will always play a critical role in looking at what has been, foresights are an attempt for organizations to determine what could be.

We’ve recently seen this play out with a client whose portfolio planning strategy is critical to their future.  We essentially had to look at hundreds of different data streams—macroeconomic, sales and forecast data, global trends—and analyze them to find which ones are most predictive of what the market structure would look like under different sets of conditions. The predictive ‘variables’ could be factors such as population density, disposable income, commodity prices and GDP growth.

To get to this point requires a lot of sophisticated analytics work that ultimately provides the “foresight” to help make business decisions that will impact both the here and now, and the future.

There’s also a qualitative dimension to foresight, and it begins with a willingness to explore. Things like trends, cultural nuances and external expert perspectives can also be synthesized and triangulated against the data.

Braden: So once people have identified those insights and foresights you’re sharing with the client, how do you make them real for the organization?  One of the things I’ve written about in the past is the importance of broadcasting the voice of the customer across the organization instead of keeping it close to the vest within the research group or one or two customer insights people in the organization.  What’s your perspective?

Exploration Needs to Occur Across Silos

Greg: Information wants to be free, right?  If you’re going to create true foresight, your information needs to be freed from traditional organizational silos so that it can benefit the entire organization.  All too often, the audience with access to that knowledge is too narrow…and the opportunity to cultivate foresight is suppressed.

Our insight curation practice, Artifact, focuses on organizations addressing that pain point.

Bringing this knowledge to life can take the form of interactive or static deliverables, documentary-style videos, physical spaces that reflect that understanding and so that people can immerse in it – on the far side of the spectrum we would call these “insight museums.”  When you get people experiencing and internalizing things like this, you unleash their power.

Braden: Very cool.  And so you’ve written about disruption and discontinuity.  Please remind the audience about what they are and why they’re important and how to spot them approaching.

Disruption, Discontinuity and Decisions

Greg: Humans tend to look forward into the future from a linear perspective of the past, and we know that’s not how it works. Disruptions are a seemingly unexpected change of paradigm.  They create the potential to completely change the status quo.

We see it all the time now: Uber. Apple. Amazon. Netflix. Each of them has created a completely new kind of value in their space to the point where they’ve changed the nature of the game itself.  And we believe our highly interconnected culture will continue to accelerate the rate of disruption.

That being the case, it also calls for companies to develop a new way of thinking about the future, their customers and the decisions they make. Gartner research shows that 35% of companies fail to make good decisions about significant changes in their business. In other words, when the game is on the line, companies find themselves unable to consistently hit the ball out of the park. It’s a profound and costly problem that is rooted in decision making, and the information that needs to be at the disposal of decision makers to ensure their judgments are attuned to the emerging future.

In fact, the whole philosophy of decision intelligence is born out of our belief that companies need to develop systems and capabilities that arm decision makers at all levels to answer questions like: What do customers fundamentally value?  What do they fundamentally need? What cultural currents provide opportunity for us to create unique value for them?

Disruption is inherently non-linear, so embedding a way for decision makers to integrate non-linear thinking into company strategy is increasingly important. It’s complex to do this, because it means creating a unified way of seeing the future that includes the interactions of societal, technological and competitive currents. It’s a competency that is rare these days, but it’s important for organizations to be able to look at the world this way in order to navigate their future.

Decision Science as Inspiration for Innovation

Braden: I definitely agree. So one of the things that I’d like to ask you is, do people need to be inspired to innovate, and if so, what is the best way to inspire innovation?

Greg: I think that it’s great to inspire people to innovate.  I think the traditional view of great ideas omits the notion that great ideas don’t happen in isolation. One of my favorite Ted Talks is Steven Johnson’s Where Great Ideas Come From.

He uses Rodan’s Thinker and Sir Isaac Newton getting hit on the head by an apple as our cultural stereotype of innovation; that breakthrough ideas happen in isolation.  In reality, the discipline of innovation makes it clear that great ideas happen at the intersection of many different points of view. It makes collaboration critical, as is creating a culture that values the transformative power of ideas. To achieve this requires an organization of great people who are both inspired, and empowered to turn ideas into something new and valuable for the organization.

As a chief innovation officer, driving a cultural orientation towards innovation is an important part of my role. The more that people see that their ideas have power and traction is when momentum starts building and when the real magic happens.

Personally, I’m inspired by spirit of experimentation and exploration our group of data scientists bring to their work. This spirit ultimately creates new ways of uncovering insights and wisdom from data. Ultimately, this helps clients see what’s possible from large data sets and helps them drive organizational change.

Braden: One final question, Greg. You mentioned the company should try to invest in creating an innovation culture as a competency in the organization.  Are there any other capabilities or competencies that you see as critical for organizations as we continue to move forward in the area of accelerating change?

Greg: One of the competencies that organizations need to build is that of taking a very broad view of the world.  Why?  Having a limited worldview is one of the reasons businesses become victims of disruption. They narrowly focus on “the business we’re in” which can become myopic and dangerous.  Blockbuster is a classic example of this. Their worldview was “we’re in the business of retail video rentals and sales.”  In doing research for a presentation a couple of years ago, I found a quote by the CEO of Blockbuster from 2008. In an interview he said, “Netflix isn’t even on our radar as a competitor.” Of course, within 24 months Blockbuster was bankrupt, largely due to Netflix.

That quote crystallizes the fallacy and danger of getting too rigid about how you view the world and how your business fits in. It causes you to lose that broader vision of what’s going on elsewhere and how trends like the rapid evolution of broadband in homes coupled with the trend of people being time-compressed, i.e. not having to go out if they don’t have to.

It’s a great example of why companies need to develop their competence of peering outward and identifying currents that, though seemingly irrelevant, can impact your business and competitive playfield in unexpected ways.

Braden: Yes,  I definitely agree, and the Blockbuster example is a great one because there are so many lessons to be learned in that particular case study, one of which is Blockbuster actually pulled back from doing so by making some initial changes that might have saved them. So that is a very interesting example of how people are afraid to disrupt themselves and as a result willing to stay and expire and drive off a cliff rather than getting out and trying it a different way.

Greg: Yeah, no that’s very true.  The old Greek adage “Know thyself” is so critical to 21st century business. If organizations don’t get in the habit of disrupting themselves, like you mentioned, some of them are going to cause that disruption for you.  So it’s better to get an organization used to the idea of adapting to change, creating change, and being resilient. And as a result, they’re going to be much better able to compete as that whole landscape inevitably shifts.

Braden: Yeah, particularly disruption does not happen overnight, so it’s important for companies to understand how to track potential disruption and how to monitor which ones look like they have strong sequential and to experiment with some of them and to make those difficult decisions of when is the right time to disrupt yourself and when does something not seem to catch on hopefully to make that right decision.  Any final words Greg?

Greg: We are really excited about being a part of what Relevents is creating at the Insights + Intelligence Festival and we’re excited about the opportunity to continue the dialogue with the Innovation Excellence global community.

As published in Innovation Excellence.