I agree with Donald Sull that most executives either do not recognize or ignore anomalies and even when they’re pointed out, the same executives underestimate their potential importance. True, they are easy to miss. Sull suggests that “the human mind is hardwired to reinforce existing maps [documentation of what is already known], even in the face of disconfiguring evidence.” So despite various obstacles to spotting anomalies, are there any steps to be taken to notice gaps they’re not looking for, even when the clues are subtle and the mind resistant”? Yes. Sull identifies 11 recurrent anomalies:
1. This shouldn’t sell…but it does.
2. There should be a product here…but there isn’t.
3. This shouldn’t be so bad, expensive, time-consuming, or annoying…but it is.
4. This resource shouldn’t be so cheap…but it is.
5. This must be good for something…but we’re not using it.
6. This should be everywhere…but it isn’t.
7. Customers should use our product this way…but they do.
8. Customers shouldn’t care out this…but they do.
9. This could work in our industry…but we don’t do it.
10. We should have this at home…but we don’t.
11. They shouldn’t be making so much money…but they are.
When concluding her latest book, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, Margaret Heffernan observes, “As all wisdom does, seeing starts with simple questions: What could I know, what should I know, that I don’t know? Just what am I missing there?”
We are also well-advised to keep in mind what Isaac Asimov observed years ago: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ (I found it!) but ‘That’s funny….’”
You can check out Sull’s brilliant analysis of anomalies and their potential value in his latest book, The Upside of Turbulence: Seizing Opportunity in an Uncertain World, published by HarperBusiness (2009).