Obvious, Not Obvious

Innovation and transformation across almost everything we know, fills the future landscape with exceptional opportunity as well as some tough challenges. While our eyes are fully focused on forward progress, I am reminded that there can be great value found in lessons from the past. This lesson is found in an unlikely example: not everything is at seems and even more important is that obvious is obviously, not always obvious.

It was the fall of 1962 and tensions between the U.S., Cuba, and Russia, were straining the threads of peace like no other time since World War 2. It was a dire period in U.S. history. Advisers urged President Kennedy to take action against a potentially growing military threat in Cuba. The human sacrifice, as well as the political and collateral wounds sustained because of the Bay of Pigs invasion in the spring of 1961, were still fresh. The president was reluctant to move into Cuba without hard evidence; Kennedy needed his advisers to be sure and any proof to be incontrovertible.

The unsophisticated evidence that convinced Kennedy came in an obvious form, with not so obvious content. Advisers provided the president and his team with reconnaissance photos. The subject of those photos was a soccer field. Some council members may have been confused and their inquiry was met with a very matter of fact response, ‘Cubans play baseball, Russians play soccer.’ While soccer was played in Cuba, baseball had been the country’s most popular sport since it was introduced a century earlier. So why the new soccer field?

Hindsight is ‘obviously’ 20/20, and while the issues with Cuba were getting a significant amount of attention, it was an unlikely perspective that made a critical difference during a very unstable period. Henry Kissinger used the same evidence and explanation (and the actual phrase – Cubans play baseball, Russians play soccer) with Nixon more than a decade later. By looking beyond the obvious and not accepting the usual explanations, these advisers were able to see a developing situation without, the usual evidence of troops, equipment or installations – what everyone else was looking for. The hypothesis that soccer fields suggested a growing foreign presence convinced Kennedy to take a closer look at Cuba, find missile installations and move forward with a plan, eventually avoiding a global catastrophe.

Your challenge or opportunity may not be as critical or have the potential geopolitical consequences of the Cuban Missile Crisis. But it can possibly be helped by looking beyond the obvious. Seeing opportunity in an unlikely scenario or an improbable use case may provide the breakthrough revelation you need. A customer complaint, could be a true customer need. A minor product flaw could turn into a major process improvement opportunity. A failed attempt could bring major insight leading to future success. These signals and trends can present themselves in many, not so obvious manifestations.

So the next time you and your team are pouring over ‘customer needs’ feedback, developing a new business plan, mapping out your marketing strategy or simply trying to figure out how to solve an issue,  try to see beyond what is there and look for insights from an unlikely clue; maybe listen to your advisers with an open mind…a different perspective.

Thanks for reading, I hope it gives you something to think about.

Photo from http://www.history.com



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