OD meets Supermarket Sweep!

Posted: January 18, 2014 by Ian Gee in OD

supermarket sweep

Dee Ortner, my friend and fellow researcher into HR in the entrepreneurial space was recently at a gathering of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists (VC’s) in Boston.  Dee has an amazingly inquiring mind and a wonderful way of engaging with people.  She told me that when asking a VC about his thoughts on HR he eventually looked at her and said, rather disdainfully “you sound like a social scientist!”  The implication being that this was not a good thing!  A bit along the lines of “Oh so you are related to the Boston Strangler then?”*  Dee is a natural scientist – it’s most likely my bad influence that has led her to be seen as a social scientist!  The VC was a Harvard MBA and was using that well placed and most likely very expensive lens to view the world through.  He obviously had no idea that economics, one of the disciplines he no doubt uses to make sense of his world and make decisions by, is well and truly considered a social science.

This led me to mull a bit about different ways of thinking and the impact this has on how we experience the world and the choices we make.  For any seasoned OD practitioner this is a very well trodden path of inquiry.  As practitioners it is important we are aware that the lenses we choose to see the world through have a direct impact on how we work with clients and in turn how clients experience working with us.

Most of us working in the OD space will have challenged both our clients and ourselves to explore our lenses.  If I had a pound for every time I have either heard or said the Alfred Korzybski phrase “The Map is not the Territory” I would be writing this from some sunny island in the Caribbean and not wintery Devon!  As helpful as the metaphors of lenses and maps are I don’t think they are enough to really help us shift our thinking. What I would propose is that we develop the idea and metaphor of algorithmic thinking as a way of exploring and explaining the choices we make.

Algorithms are all around us, from driving search engines to shaping our purchasing patterns. If you use a supermarket loyalty card every time you buy something the company tracks your purchases.  This produces masses of data for them to analyse.  I once had a really interesting chat with someone who was responsible for developing and looking after the algorithm the supermarkets use.  Some of the correlations she told me about were amazing if not a little weird!  Here is a made up example – though not too far from the truth.  If you regularly buy a certain brand of toilet paper, balsamic vinegar and brussel sprouts then the algorithm shows the supermarket there is a high likelihood that you will also be interested in buying a certain kind of floor polish.  The supermarket is then very likely to send you a money off voucher for floor polish in the hope you will buy it and keep on buying it.  The toilet roll + balsamic + sprouts = floor polish is not a correlation I could make no matter which lenses I looked through!

When I think about the truly brilliant OD practitioners I have worked with and learned from, they have had a form of algorithmic thinking.  They have been able to take all kinds of unusual data both from conventional sources (surveys, focus groups, interviews etc.) and add it to more intuitive data – the feel of a place, the tone of a culture, the pace of a conversation and come up with quite amazing thoughts and ideas.  Ideas and thoughts that have helped their clients to successfully bring about the kind of changes that the organisation needed.  In the past this would be called using your intuition.  I would argue that the use of the term intuition is one of the reasons OD and by extension HR is often not taken seriously. It is seen as soft and unrepeatable.  Maybe it is time we brand intuitive thinking as algorithmic thinking and in doing so command more respect from people like the VC that Dee met?  One of my old OD teachers and mentors used to say to me that ‘Intuition is what happens when imagination runs out”.  She really helped me both understand the power of my intuition and at the same time to challenge and test it, as opposed to see it as a universal truth.

The supermarket soon knows if its algorithm is working as it will see a rise in the sale of floor polish to the people it has targeted.  The challenge we face in the OD space is to know if our algorithm is properly calibrated and helps us achieve the kind of results our clients are looking for.  So even though our interventions and feedback may on the surface look unusual they resonate with our clients and bring the desired outcomes. By converting the notion of intuition into the idea of a living algorithm we have the opportunity to refine and develop our personal process and make the kinds of adjustments and changes needed to increase our success.

If this idea makes any sense to you it would be great to hear your thoughts.  I would be particularly interested in hearing about the strange and unusual correlations you have discovered in the OD space and how you think we all might all go about improving and developing our personal algorithmic thinking.

* By the way Dee assures me she is no relation of the Boston Strangler…..

  1. Ian, once again an excellent and thought provoking article. Please forgive the length of this response.

    I can understand how Dee may have felt after such a ‘cultural’ collision of minds. I was blessed, or cursed, with the type of brain that does just what you describe. My greatest difficulty over the years has been how to help others understand what appears to them as far fetched illogical steps into the future of work/business/education etc.

    Frustratingly for me, a large number of my predictions, insights and ideas became reality. I say frustratingly because I was not able to help my client understand at the time. Over the years my skills of communication have improved and my clients are now benefitting more. It is still not easy and maybe the idea of an algorithm is worth pursuing. The complexity of such an overt design concerns me though.

    By way of example of my dilemma, I have been increasingly concerned about how we educate our managers. The MBA has, for me, outlived a lot of its usefulness in the sense of being what organisations need for continuing success. The DBA has not added any more value either because both are, for me, coming from the wrong direction.

    This was reinforced when I reflected on an in-company management course that I designed ended this month. It was 2 hard years of a combination of many aspects and included an academic element leading to an MBA. The participants were very satisfied with the course and the management want to start another later this year. It is the third one that I have run for them.

    The problem that I have is that I really believe it is no longer valid.

    I have discussed this with the director of management development of the company and he understands my concerns and, at a cognitive level, the basis of my new concept. His dilemma is the pressure to continue a programme that the executives see as successful in terms of meeting its objectives – that of educating the managers and showing potential fast track recruits that they have a ‘state of the art’ development programme for them (when compared to alternative approaches in the market).

    I believe that it is time to break away from the processes and methodologies that are still embedded in the industrial revolution way of doing things. The whole concept of doing business in both B2C and B2B has changed radically over the last few years and there are still many more changes in the pipeline. The ‘Z’ generation will need a new approach and the challenge is for us to find what that means with and for them.

    So, returning to your theme. What type of algorithm can we develop that helps move people’s minds from the current paradigm of tools and techniques that are older than most people now using them?

  2. You may find the following article interesting as it helps to show the importance of looking outside the box as part of the algorithm approach:


  3. Very interesting and thought provoking Ian. Like you, I think metaphors can be very insightful but stop short of describing the complexity of many situations and can limit thinking. I like the concept using algorithms. They seem to embrace the complexities and breadth of a situation, as long as they’re not used to describe causation (which is something that OD practitioners need to watch out for). I can see how algorithms would be a better way of helping people describe and understand organisational culture and what’s going right or wrong. Going back to your supermarket example, it would also be helpful to know why some people buy more floor polish, as well as being able to define which ones are most likely to do so from previous purchases.

  4. Lisa Trusty says:

    Great article, Ian. I think in OD and in HR we often do say that our gut or instinct tells us this or that. Maybe we don’t articulate our own algorithms to clients as well as we could. For example, being specific that X behaviors often lead to Y type of organizational cultures…

  5. Ashley Fields says:

    Hi Ian:
    I like the idea of algorhythmic thinking. Intuition truly exists – read my book “The affexts of intution on Decision-making” as there is clearly a correllation between certain organizational functions as well as hierarchy.

  6. Janine Buis says:

    Hi Ian
    Thanks for a thought provoking article. Your supermarket example was very helpful and made a couple of things stand out for me. The first is the use of data analytics to complement intuition. The algorithm “toilet roll + balsamic + sprouts = floor polish” was the result of data analytics. How are we as HR/OD practitioners using available data to allow us to create new algorithms that support and complement their intuition. The second thing is the learning loop. Just as the supermarket quickly learns whether or not their algorithm is working and adjusts, HR/OD practitioners must also build in learning loops and adjust algorithms based on the insights they generate.

  7. Janine Buis says:

    Hi Ian

    Thanks for a thought provoking posting. Two things stood out for me after reading this. The first relates to data analytics. The supermarket algorithm “toilet roll + balsamic + sprouts = floor polish” was made possible through data analytics. How are we as HR/OD practitioners leveraging data analytics to support our work. The second is the learning loop. The supermarket quickly learns how well their algorithm works. We must also be tracking results and adjusting our algorithms based on the insights and learnings along the way.

  8. Michel says:

    Hi Ian,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter. It’s thought provoking indeed.

    You wrote: “Dee has an amazingly inquiring mind and a wonderful way of engaging with people.”

    Now I wonder, was she able to engage this VC since she knew now where he was coming from? And if so, how did she do that? How did she respond?

    • Dee Ortner says:

      Hi Michel,

      Sorry for the delay in replying about engaging the VC, here goes:
      After (internally) simmering down and noticing that no one else was in the queue to speak with him, I shifted from our work – which was his only interest so that he could quickly move on if he suspected a non-starter of a business – I asked him several general questions, such as the areas of focus (e.g. social network or HW design) that the startups entered. His replies were quite general as well.:-)

      I came away better prepared for my next VC interview in the sense that I began asking more questions about his experiences with startups rather than letting him take the lead in the discussion. Perhaps it was better chemistry, but our chat went more smoothly and he was more encouraging about one approach we may take.

      Perhaps Ian will have a think about the positive/negative influence of chemistry in this very fast-paced era of entrepreneurialism, which may benefit all of us!

  9. Jonathan Cormack says:

    Hmm …. I’m in two minds on this. On the one hand I completely buy the notion that we have to find a language which is compatible with our stakeholders … and much of the language that OD professionals use is simply not.

    However, I question the metaphor of algorithms. They are based on rational analytical patterns, i.e. A,B,C results in D and E. I always thought that intuition invokes the emotion as well as rational thought … this would be alien to an algorithm.

    Rather than generate fancy new concepts, perhaps we need to get back to some more prosaic mirroring of our stakeholders and, to use another well worn phrase, “meeting them where they are.”

  10. Kais Uddin says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OipkhcxS10 + http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oLVqE13mMps

    = http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxXWP12WqAQ. Like you, I was with Beatrice’s aunt (Cynical Director of Human Resources) , Neruda was onto something here ( OD guru and visionary who had to leg it for putting ideas into the Postman’s head). The Postman ( boy he was a results focused deliverer with ideas way above his station). Beatrice said sod the algorithm, the poets and the aunt, She was an intuitive woman.

  11. Tiina says:

    Hi Ian,
    Quite often what is mixed: correlation and causality. All stuff that correlates does not mean that one causes another. Most important in OD area is to find real root causes and that is also many times the most difficult thing to do. If you have good internal leading key performance indicators on how e.g. product is performing on the field, then you can start managing your business and getting real business results.

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