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A Bristlecone Belief: “Just Enough Knowledge” Is the Key to Unearthing the Roots of Top-Line Growth and a High-Powered Culture

Who said “ignorance is bliss”? Bristlecone Partners have been thinking a lot about this lately. Does our comprehensive knowledge of a topic lead to breakthrough insights, or to inefficiency and complexity?

Fact: Businesses consistently devote countless hours to the pursuit of knowledge about various topics. Why? The obvious response is that more knowledge equals more insights, leading to better solutions.

Bristlecone Partners has another perspective. We believe that much of this pursuit is simply an old habit, firmly ingrained in the culture, behaviors, and expectations of business. Do we ever truly stop and account for the cost of these efforts? How many people? How many hours? How many PowerPoint decks? How many months? Does all of this data and insight make for better decisions?

PREMISE:

Much of this old corporate habit is wasteful and doesn’t lead to better business outcomes.

SOLUTION:

Pursue the “good enough” effort and devote the reclaimed time and investment dollars to deepening your client value proposition. It is a trade-off—invest in acquiring comprehensive knowledge, or sharpen your value proposition.

All of this brings us back to the age-old adage “ignorance is bliss.” For the record, it originates in 1742, from Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” In “Ode,” Gray observes the pleasure of youth with its lighthearted days of playfulness unscarred by the realities of adult life. When read closely, however, the poem reveals Gray’s deeper perspective—not only is ignorance bliss, but knowledge is misery. So, it’s even worse than we have been told.

Now, allow us to introduce the normal distribution curve. The normal distribution curve should be at the root of a company’s top-line growth and high-powered culture. Frankly, it’s helpful to think about a normal distribution curve when contemplating just about anything in life.

Why? So much in life is presented to us as binary, black-and-white, yes or no, good or bad. Nothing works that way. It’s a strange thing to bring into the conversation at this time, but so much of business is better understood and optimized with a deeper understanding of the normal distribution curve.

Normal Distribution Curve

 

The chart is meant to represent 100% of the outcomes in any given situation. The chart reveals that 68% (the fat part of the curve) covers quite a bit of the curve, but not all of it. Let’s refer to the areas left of -1 and right of 1 as “the tail.”

Bristlecone Partners find this curve to be useful at work in so many ways. Let us explain.

At work, we seek to improve and to drive better outcomes. Every one of our organizations is searching for more effective ways to run a business—we need to produce higher top-line growth numbers. When big projects are contemplated, Bristlecone Partners ask about the assumptions that have been made in the process. This exercise generates spirited discussions and actionable insights. Then, we test the assumptions with the overall premise of the project. Often, there is a disconnect.

Companies devise strategies, projects, initiatives, or campaigns to get after what needs to be done. When creating these strategies, companies often fail to recognize the realities of the normal distribution curve. When companies devise the campaign, they need to realize that their solutions will not work in every

situation; maybe they will only work 68% of the time, or on 68% of the scenarios. Likewise, the due diligence effort (the data collection effort) cannot be an attempt to aggregate 100% of all available insights. It’s simply unnecessary. Narrow the assumptions—narrow the scope of the project—narrow the data collection effort to “good enough”/the fat part of the curve.

Businesses consistently make the mistake of trying to create something that works in every situation. This is a fool’s game. It’s simply not possible. When we do this, the project becomes too complex; it seeks to accommodate every possible scenario. Instead, the enlightened approach is to focus on the 68%. If we can make a big improvement in 68% of the organization, we will produce a highly desirable outcome. This outcome will drive top-line growth and a high-powered culture.

In large organizations, just about nothing works one way everywhere—sometimes for good reasons, sometimes otherwise—and exceptions exist. We need to be aware and respectful of those exceptions. However, when we try to remedy or solve for those in our broad-based corporate projects, we will fail.