Data+Design event by the Koch Center for Family Business
Leading family enterprises though data and design

Peter Boumgarden, Koch Center’s director and Olin’s Koch Professor of Practice of Family Enterprise, wrote this for the Olin Blog.

When it comes to our mission of supporting family business leaders as they pursue new ways to thrive in the emerging economy, we can learn a great deal by looking at WashU Olin’s model of being data-driven and values-based. But living this theory in practice means flexing a muscle that is often under-developed in many organizations, family businesses notwithstanding.

So what does it mean to have an eye toward relevant data while simultaneously being shaped by a guiding set of values? At the Koch Center, one way that we do this is in our unique approach to combining data and design in our engagement with the broader business community.

Inaugural data+design dession: Balancing continuity and change

On October 29, the Koch Center hosted the first of our new “data+design” series. Each of these sessions is organized around a particular strategic challenge for organizations. Our first event focused on how family and private enterprise balance a commitment to continuity with the past alongside the need to change to match any number of emerging realities.

Approximately 50 leaders from around the region participated in a session designed to leverage some of the university’s best offerings, particularly a rigorous approach to data built upon a strong research foundation. Unique to this model, we asked each participating leader to fill out an assessment that mapped their organization across several distinct dimensions before our time together. This battery of assessments included a modified version of the “World Management Survey,” a measure of business uncertainty, and an evaluation of how much they have changed over the past year and must change over the year ahead.

While it can be helpful to get objective numbers on these items, the data+design format enabled us to provide each attendee with a customized report that contrasted their self-assessment with all other attendees. Indeed, much of the value can come through this comparison. It is one thing to know you self-assessed at a “3.5” out of “5” when it comes to your company’s talent strategy, but a whole different level of insight if you know others in your organization scored this same item lower, and the average across a set of peer institutions was closer to 4.

Sample Participant Result from the Data+Design October 29 Event

With comparative data in hand, the group came together on October 29 and heard me present a set of research-backed framings on what kind of balance is especially high-performing. One study in particular from McKinsey & Company indicated that firms that maintain a relatively robust refresh rate in their product/service portfolio outperform those who do not change enough and those who change too frequently. This refresh rate of approximately 10-30% change over a decade they called “rivers” in contrast to the static “ponds” (less than 10% refresh) or overly dynamic “rapids” (over 30% change). Simultaneously presented with data about where their organization stands alongside a guiding framework to guide our discussion, and we were off to the races.

Extending rigorous measures with design and values

But back to Olin’s guiding framing, even rigorous data without a precise understanding of values runs into limits. After all, it is one thing to know your organization’s metrics compared to your peers, but the leader still has to make clear tradeoffs on what they are optimizing toward and why.

For example, core value commitments will inevitably shape whether one prioritizes progress on this dimension and how one goes about operationalizing this commitment. For example, how do leaders balance accountability with grace? What kind of patience is required as people move to aspirational performance standards? Critical considerations for building this into practice are not always easily captured in the data alone.

And so, the discussion pushed forward with designing potential futures with data in one hand and a set of guiding values in mind. The “design” part of “data+design” came in by our use of forcing mechanisms to have those present consider more than one potential future for these design challenges. “Want to professionalize your approach to growth and innovation? Let’s see if you can identify four different routes in this direction.”

In this approach, we used a modified version of the “Crazy 8’s” design prompt to push people to generate four different alternative futures. In doing so, we encouraged leaders to expand the number of strategic options too many of us consider—which Dan and Chip Heath have found is unfortunately often only one.

Generating progress through the power of data and design

Generating creative routes forward for family businesses will require creativity. In so much as this ownership form is commonplace across the country and globe, approaching questions of strategy and structure with fresh eyes holds the potential for a transformative effect for the families who lead the operations and the broader global economy.

As a university, one of our goals is to support this creativity by bringing elucidating frameworks and the precision of empirical work while at the same point leveraging the teaching function to push our thinking in ways we would not have considered previously. For us, this work requires leveraging the power of data while also operating up to the generative power of design fueled by close attention to both leader and firm values.

We look forward to walking this journey together.

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