Bernadette Jiwa's new book is a reminder that we shouldn't surrender our human faculty to the advance of big data.
There is no better accolade I can give a book than to say that even before reading the last page, I’d already been influenced by the ideas within to guide my actions in managing our company. Some books demand immediate action, and that’s true of Bernadette Jiwa’s new book, Hunch: Turn Your Everyday Insights Into the Next Big Thing. While working on my review of Hunch, I decided to scrap the agenda I had drawn up for an early morning branding and strategy meeting, and replace those notes with the following:
What’s Wrong? | What Change? | What Problem? | What Story?
*Curiosity *Empathy *Imagination
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned from my mentor, Jack Covert, is that nothing in business is certain. You consider, you decide, and then… you see what happens. In his words, that advice might sound something like: Throw it against the wall, and see if it sticks. This advice is similar to the words of wisdom Bernadette Jiwa received from her mentor, Seth Godin, to whom she dedicates this book. She notes that he taught her that “... we don’t need more time, we just need to decide.” In both cases, these successful business people, Jack and Seth, are offering similar stars by which to steer: no amount of forethought or planning or information gathering can guarantee a positive result, though not trying guarantees no result at all. Consider, and decide.
Especially in this age of readily-accessible data, it’s easy to stop listening to ourselves, to ignore our hunches. Or, at the very least, to minimize their importance, or their accuracy. It’s also easy to become overly reliant on data, assuming that the data never lies. But we forget two very important things: algorithms are set by people, and thus, still offer biased results; and the human brain collects data and experience over a lifetime, already performing many of the functions an algorithm is set to consider, and thus, hunches are based on a whole host of data that we aren’t even aware of collecting.
Because I am in the bookselling business, I have a Google alert set for all stories regarding Amazon. (It’s important to observe, if not react to, the dog that wags the industry’s tail.) Tricia Romano’s article “Amazon is Killing My Sex Life” in Dame magazine popped up in my results. I learned quickly that the article has little or nothing to do with Amazon the business, and instead Romano claims Seattle’s dating scene has been detrimentally affected by Amazon’s hiring of young men who know their coding, but not much about conversation.
Still, there are gems to be mined in any well-written piece, wisdom that cross-pollinates its way into other themes, and in this one, Romano quoted one of her interviewees who, about those tech men she dated, quipped: "They interpreted information as intelligence." Yes, I thought. This real-life anecdote so economically encapsulates what social scientists have been trying to explain to use for years now: the gathering and assessment of data, so available with so little filter online, convinces us that we can find the right answer to any decision, whether it’s what refrigerator to buy to why or what direction to aim our business. This assumption breeds over-commitment to information-based conclusions, and overlooks our own accumulated intelligence. We think data is smart; smarter than we can possibly be.
Hunch clears us a path toward trusting ourselves again. We harbor this erroneous assumption that instinct is absent logic, that basing a decision on a hunch is less valid than basing a decision on information.
The great hope is that if we can gather enough data, we will have the power to change the things we want to change—and that we can do it without having to face the fear of uncertainty.
But, Jiwa makes clear that so many of the most significant entrepreneurial insights of recent years have been the result of a hunch, absent data. That doesn’t mean, however, that our instincts don’t need fertile soil in which to take root. And perhaps that is the most critical takeaway from Hunch: we must set the stage for discovery if we want to cultivate ideas and act on opportunities.
The ability to question, to be imaginative and curious in the face of uncertainty and to act on the information we have, the things we sense but may not yet know to be true, is what enables us to pioneer … And it’s a skill we can cultivate with practice.
Most of us have our eyes glued to our iPhones, and a mind distracted by the day’s to-do list, and those distractions prevent us from observing the world around us. “We can’t be brilliant without the willingness to try,” Jiwa warns, and “being open to discoveries and breakthroughs happening in unexpected, nonlinear ways” is possible for all of us if we make the effort to notice what problems in the world need a solution.
In order to identify opportunities and provide creative solutions, Jiwa offers us a trifecta of necessary qualities: curiosity, empathy, and imagination.
Curiosity: Learn to see problems and discern which ones are worth solving.
Empathy: Understand how it feels to be the person with the problem.
Imagination: Connect ideas and describe new possibilities for the future.
This is where the data-dependent probably ask, “Huh?” and shake their heads with doubt, because this sounds like ephemera in place of the concrete. But Jiwa offers us real-life examples of each quality in action, and exercises with which to practice these new skills, and, as a result, get reacquainted with our inner voice. We all can learn, she assures us, how to leverage our curiosity, empathy, and imagination to spark our next great idea.
As we fall deeper and faster through the rabbit hole that is data collection and algorithmic inference, it's critical that we don't detach from our own intelligence, from our innate ability to consider, and to decide. And in fact, in a world that becomes increasingly automatic, what's possible may be found instead in our very humanity.
Later today, at our company strategy and branding meeting, I will bring all I’ve learned from Bernadette Jiwa’s Hunch to bear on the discussion we have about where our company is headed, how we direct our natural evolution, and then how we tell that story.
I’m particularly keen to ask our leadership team to be curious: What are the problems we are trying to solve for our clients, the publishers, authors, and book buyers who depend on us in sticky situations? And to be empathetic: Why do our services matter to the people who use them? And how can we solve more problems for our friends in the industry? And to make connections: What becomes possible when we combine what we already do with what we know our clients need?
It’s a scary thing to make decisions when we can’t guarantee the results. But the companies that lead with innovations based on problem-solving make peace with that uncertainty. Or, as Bernadette Jiwa puts it in her concluding chapter:
The purpose of fear on the journey of discovery is to signal that we might just be onto something worth working toward.
It’s that kind of forward thinking in Hunch that makes the book so encouraging. Instead of being distracted by or dependent on data that only assesses what was, we can learn to listen to our own instincts and discover what might be.