Turning Insights into Results

Why is it so difficult for groups, organizations, and systems to turn insights into results?

The Case of a COVID-19

I took note of Bill Gates’ insights during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2015  TED talk he warned of the need to prepare for a deadly epidemic. In that talk he provided a prescription for readiness, prevention and responsiveness. It included:

  • Planning as we do for national defense;
  • Building a global warning and response system;
  • Developing systems for recruiting, training and equipping health workers;
  • Investing in new tools;
  • Conducting “war games” to understand the vulnerabilities in our public health system.

His insights were sound. But less than 5% of them were followed. Why?

The Case of Profitable Climate Action

A while ago I attended a presentation that showed how business could profit from dramatically reducing its energy use. The presentation was 100 slides long. In it, a very smart physicist, explained exactly what was needed. It was very insightful and included lots of technical detail. The last slide was a chessboard. The header read “Now it’s Your Move.”

The advice was sound. But progress has been slow and shallow. Why? 

The Knowing-Doing Gap 

These examples point to the large gap between knowing and doing. Most of us can relate. Just think of how difficult it is to achieve your New Year’s resolutions. 

So how can people align around insights and act together to deliver results? How can our groups, organizations, and systems be more successful?

Success requires overcoming four challenges:

    1. Align and unify;
    2. Reveal hidden obstacles;
    3. Remove obstacles and act toward our goal;
    4. Learn and adapt. 

1) Align and Unify

Aligning for results begins with effectively framing the situation. This begins with the scope.  For example with an epidemic; are we looking at a global response?  Or are we focusing on a region, country, or smaller geography?  Next we must we must identify important stakeholders, account for interdependencies at the boundaries, and identify the important questions to be answered.

From here we can develop insight and align around shared understanding.  

  • Insight – this can begin with initial ideas from a small group of experts.  However these must be combined with insight that emerges from a larger group of important stakeholders.  Stakeholders would include those responsible for and effected by key activities. This includes the people needed to anticipate challenges and voice requirements and concerns.
  •  Shared understanding – The process must capture the collective intelligence of all involved through leveraging strengths and integrating differences. When the people who are involved and effected co-create together they also align around shared understanding.
Dairy Industry Case

In 2007 the US dairy industry industry mobilized to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint for milk in the US. The industry used a co-creative process to:

  • Engage the whole system;
  • Build a credible way to measure;
  • Create a baseline;
  • Cooperate on systemic innovation;
  • Compete on implementation.

More than 250 people representing all parts of the system collaborated during a 3-day summit. This convening the “whole system” was key to the success of the effort.

A pre-summit briefing paper informed summit participants. It included a greenhouse gas baseline for each step of the value chain. It also identified possible initiatives and estimated feasible reductions from each.

The summit was designed to achieve Big Change Fast. It used a co-creative Appreciative Inquiry to understand and appreciate the strengths of the system, dream of a better future, identify and prototype initiatives, and orchestrate deployment. The summit spurned many initiatives and innovations. Following the summit the industry has driven systemic change and achieved a 19% reduction in industry greenhouse gas intensity.

2) Reveal Hidden Obstacles

Hidden obstacles include dysfunctional social dynamics. Like the submerged part of an iceberg, these can be deadly. People resist when pressured. The more urgent the circumstance the more resistance. Under such situations people react and defend themselves with variations of fight, flight, freeze and/or appease. Such dynamics are so common in the workplace that they fueled more than 30 years of success for the comic strip series Dilbert

Sylvia Lafair, in Don’t Bring it to Work, has characterized and named some common patterns. These include super-achiever, pleaser, victim, rescuer, avoider, martyr, clown, rebel and persecutor. People can practice together to reveal such patterns as they occur within their workplaces, groups, organizations and systems. 

3) Act  4) Learn and Adapt

People resist less when they co-create what to do and how to do it. For diverse groups we can design interactions to help everyone act more effectively together. This can foster smooth high-quality dialog where people align and agree around the actions they will take. Ideally we can use a combination of good social design, awareness of social dynamics, and practice to minimize, reveal, and respond to hidden obstacles.

Excellent cooperation is a multiplier that amplifies effectiveness throughout the system. Yet, cooperation is challenging because the causes of dysfunction are often invisible. Dysfunctions result from habits and defensive patterns that are baked into our nervous systems. A culture of practice can help people spot hidden social dynamics and reduce their tendencies to react. When people react strongly they can be empowered to “pull the cord” to stop the action. They can then turn their attention to what is happening inside. They can surf their emotional sensations until the sensations dissolve using a technique Raphael Cushnir calls emotional connection. Now they are ready to reengage and choose how to respond. Ultimately, we need to learn to skillfully respond rather than react. With skillful responses we can  embrace and integrate differences into a higher unity.

Dairy Industry Case

The principles of Appreciative Inquiry allow us to avoid the typical challenges that arise when smart people with strong opinions work together. In the dairy summit people shared highpoint stories. These were situations when they were highly engaged and creative. By re-living these experiences people again felt highly engaged and connected. The summit design and sequence helped people feel safe and connected and work together in creativity and flow. This deepened relationships and fostered success that lasted beyond the summit. 

The summit did not specifically address habits and defensive patterns. But such patterns can be addressed through W-Holistic Appreciative Inquiry, introduced in our book, Flourishing Enterprise. This calls for helpful practices during and after the summit.

Many of the activities for educe greenhouse gas were accomplished by organizations on their own. Other actions required cooperation. For these, the industry formed the Dairy Sustainability Alliance. The Alliance, which is still operating, is a multi-stakeholder group from across the dairy community. It provides governance, collaborates on industry wide issues, measures progress, identifies and shares learning, and solves common challenges.


Too often we fail to turn what we know into real results. This is especially true with the complex challenges facing our organizations, systems, and world.  When we learn to overcome the four challenges discussed above we can be assured of increased success.

By David Sherman, Founder, Cooperative Advantage.  David equips and supports leaders to develop and integrate the cooperative power of people, organizations and systems to advance a better future.

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