Back in undergraduate school I had an artsy roommate who quickly dropped any intention of attending classes. Soon thereafter he picked up a line cook job at the local diner and took on a nocturnal lifestyle. That lifestyle led to a whole new set of friends who quickly helped him develop a recreational drug habit. To support his new found hobby, my roommate began dealing to his new found comrades and their acquaintances. The temptation of having all of that product around him turned out to be too much though and, soon enough, he was consuming more than he was selling leaving him increasingly in debt to his suppliers. This culminated in a day I’ll never forget. I had to take him to the pawn shop so he could trade his car (his last possession) for cash to get out of that debt. We rode home on the back of my motorcycle (which became our only means of transportation for the duration of our cohabitation).
I see that same temptation with many of the teams I work with. In this case the “drug” is information and often it’s supplied by just one person. That person holds all the insight for the team or the company and begins to, quite literally, get high on their own supply of information. They see themselves as the one person who can answer all the questions. When the organization is at a cross-roads and needs to make a decision they seek out this person. When a new line of business or market is being pursued, this person’s expertise is sought out to ensure the company doesn’t make any crucial mistakes. This fuels the temptation to continue to use only that one person’s supply of information which drives the organization into an increasing state of insight debt.
Insight debt is the increasing reliance on single points of view for strategy and direction. Of course, subject matter expertise is important but at best it helps us avoid basic mistakes and ensure that baseline workflows are accommodated as we explore new ways to solve customer problems. At worst it leads us into believing we know what’s best for the customer. We know how they behave and we know what they’ll do with our products. The concept of assumptions driven by humility is forgotten. This is extremely risky since we don’t truly know how people will use our digital products or even IF they will use them at all. The increasing level of insight debt can only be paid down with the launch of the product and accurate measurement of its usage and value — which inevitably comes far too late in the process for companies who inhibit the flow of information with ego-driven subject matter expertise.
Reduce the risk to your projects by increasing the number of points of view incorporated into each product decision. Start with the subject matter expertise but then ensure that those assumptions hold true with this new feature, a maturing market, the increasing mobile landscape or whatever other factors are evolving in your industry. Keep your team’s thinking fresh by continually injecting new insight, reducing their debt and mitigating the amount of your own “supply” that is being consumed.