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What If Coronavirus and Captain Sully Are Future of Work Signals? Guest contributor Heather E. Mc Gowan - March 31, 2020

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What do an US Airways pilot and a Chinese ophthalmologist have in common? Both have well-trained intuition, in fact, they have mastery of heuristics, a not well understood, but incredibly important, type of tacit knowledge that may just be the hallmark of those who thrive in the future of work.

In 2009, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger captained US Airways flight 1549 as it hit a flock of geese just after takeoff from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Drawing on his deep experience, Captain Sully made the split-second decision to land the plane on the Hudson River rather than risk a near-certain catastrophic crash by attempting to return to a nearby airport. His quick thinking saved the lives of all 155 passengers on board.

In Wuhan Central Hospital last December, ophthalmologist Li Wenliang connected the dots among patients exhibiting respiratory symptoms. Dr. Li realized that each of the patients had frequented the Hunan Seafood Market and, using WeChat, alerted health officials of the potential zoonotic outbreak. While Dr. Li’s intuition predicted the COVID-19 pandemic, his government’s impulse to avoid controversy lead to his censure for “making false statements on the internet”. Had the Chinese government heeded Dr. Li’s alert, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 might have been contained.  Instead, we find ourselves in the midst of a global epidemic that has, as of this writing, infected more than 173,000 people, taken the lives of nearly 7,000, projected to impact millions, and accounted for trillions of dollars of lost economic value, and likely tipping off a global recession.

Whether the marvel of the “Miracle on the Hudson” or the catastrophe of the coronavirus COVID-19 global pandemic, both of these stories illustrate the power of the facet of tacit knowledge, known as a heuristic, in a rapid response scenario. Colloquially, a heuristic is - - a rule of thumb or a hunch. It is the opposite of explicit knowledge; that is, anything that can be codified and transferred, automated, or otherwise acquired without human experience or interaction. Tacit knowledge cannot be codified. It emerges in humans and can only be acquired through experience. Howard Gartner identified the ability to leverage tacit knowledge through the creation and application of heuristics as searchlight intelligence, which he describes as, “the ability to connect the dots between people and ideas, where others see no possible connection”. Searchlight intelligence is the ability to apply the heuristic to future events and scenarios enabling innovation.

I believe the future of work is rapid and continuous learning and adaptation for both individuals and organizations. Those who can quickly assess changing conditions and employ heuristics to connect the dots and adapt ahead of inevitable change will be advantaged over colleagues and companies that cannot. 

Heuristics and Searchlight Intelligence

A heuristic is a technique for finding a solution through trial and error for rules that are only loosely defined. It is an approach to problem solving that employs a practical method based upon experience.  Dr. Li, for example, saw characteristics that looked like SARS when others saw the more commonly expected pneumonia because he asked behavioral questions and, as such, saw beyond conventional symptoms.  According to the Washington Post, “Li had posted a snippet of an RNA analysis finding ‘SARS coronavirus’ and extensive bacteria colonies in a patient’s airways” in effort to immediately alert other medical professionals of his suspicions. Other medical professionals attributed the disease to pneumonia because, unlike Dr. Li, they did not make the connection between the patients and the seafood market. (COVID-19 is believed to be a Zoonosis, or a disease like SARS and H1N1 that spread to humans from animals.) Dr. Li did not wait to prove the diagnosis with explicit knowledge or follow the conventional wisdom that pointed to simple pneumonia because he knew lives were potentially at stake. 

Similarly, Captain Sully explains his decision to land his jet on the Hudson River as one born of experience, guided by instinct, and aided by education and training.  He described it to CBS News this way: "One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I've been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal." 

Dr. Li identified the COVID-19 coronavirus by employing a heuristic to rapidly diagnose an emerging, life-threatening condition. Captain Sully drew on his wealth of experience to quickly respond to an imminently lethal situation with a heuristic that guided his safe landing on the water. Both are examples of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge cannot be codified. It emerges in humans and can only be acquired through experience. 

What Does This Have To Do With The Future of Work 

Not long ago a company could explore to find a new business opportunity, translate that discovery into a unit of value (product, service, or business model) and scale that solution focused on a efficiency over a much longer span of time. Now, no matter how you measure it, product, services, business models, and even entire companies are not lasting as long as they once did. Further, in most instances, particularly when it comes to digital or digitally enabled products (read: most products in the future) value creation will be about serving the long tail of multiple markets/consumers rather than simply scaling a single solution. The consulting firm Innosight , founded by the late Harvard Professor and innovation guru Dr. Clayton Christensen, has been tracking the steady decline of company longevity evidenced by time spent on the S&P 500. That average has dropped from 33 years in 1964 to 24 years in 2016 and is projected to drop to 12 years by 2027 based upon the impact of accelerated change.  In summary, the lifespan of both units of value (products or services) and value creation itself (business models or companies) are shorter and as such more of us need to become adept at searchlight intelligence and heuristics as these skills fuel the engine of continuous innovation

In this reality of accelerated change, the best leaders are constant learners who scan the horizon for emerging trends or changes in behavior and employ tacit knowledge, notably heuristics, to identify opportunities not yet evident to others.

Why Tacit Knowledge and Searchlight Intelligence Matters Now: Exploration and Acceleration

According to neurologist David Eagleman, cognition works in two modes: exploiting the knowledge we’ve earned and exploring for new knowledge, ideas, skills, and opportunities. Animals exploit existing knowledge when they rely on existing sources for food or shelter and explore when they seek new sources for each. Businesses work in the same way: exploiting to scale solutions for maximum profit and efficiency and exploring to find new product, services, and business models. Exploitation relies on stored explicit knowledge to drive efficiency. Exploration, on the other hand, demands that we work in ambiguity and uncertainty, leveraging our searchlight intelligence to identify new opportunities.  Put another way, the fuel source for value creation and innovation is new tacit knowledge creation. 

In a rapidly changing business environment, people need to work in exploration mode more frequently and that means more of us need to understand tacit knowledge, searchlight intelligence, and the role of heuristics. 

When the world is fast, small errors in navigation can have huge consequences

Thomas L. Friedman, Thank you for Being Late: An Optimists Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations

Innovation, Heuristics, and The Art of Translation

In his seminal book, The Design of Business (2009), Roger Martin first popularized the concept and role of heuristics in the creation of knowledge in business. Martin described the formation of knowledge to fuel innovation in business as a progression from mystery to heuristics to algorithms.  My colleague, Ellen di Resta, an innovation strategy expert who works in organizational capacity alignment, refers to the movement from mystery through heuristic towards algorithm as “the art of translation”. I asked Ellen how she summarizes the challenges companies face today and she shared, “Today, organizations no longer have the luxury to plan ten years into the future, and gradually evolve in that direction as you note in your S-curve scheme. The market conditions that will exist in six months may not be knowable today. To ensure continued relevance, they need to develop the ability to harness the pattern recognition skills that exist inside the company and provide a path to translate this insight directly to new activities and offerings on a continual basis.”

What Does This Mean for You and Your Company?

Who in your organization exhibits searchlight intelligence? Mastery of heuristics requires a depth of background knowledge. This can be both an asset and liability because over reliance on past paradigms, models, and products can cloud one’s ability to clearly see over the horizon.   Searchlight intelligence may not be necessarily found in your executive team or even in your star performers of today. Some of your star performers of today are stars because they excel in the current context, the current business model, or the current product or service form. What happens when the market conditions change? The coronavirus global pandemic is changing business at an unprecedented rate, the only businesses that will survive will be those that can adapt. Adaptation is the lifeblood of the future of work. 

Take Netflix, for example. In 1997, Netflix was formed around the idea of shipping DVDs by mail and eliminating the dreaded late fee of video rentals. At the time, Blockbuster ruled the market by providing customers a broad array of new releases. The business was predicated on frequent rentals of those new releases, which meant customers needed to promptly return DVDs to the store. Onerous late fees were imposed to encourage customers to promptly return a movie so the next customer could rent it. Netflix tackled this challenge by focusing on developing algorithms based upon your preferences to suggest movies to you from their aging, and more profitable, backlist. Recommended movies were often ones you may not have otherwise considered. The Netflix algorithm changed the business model from one reliant on new releases to one more broadly spread over the company’s movie inventory. 

Back in 1997 shipping DVDs by mail required expertise in shipping, logistics, quality control, and business partnerships for shipping. Just ten years later, in 2007, the cost of digital storage had dropped while the quality of streaming media dramatically improved. Netflix capitalized on the combination of these two emerging trends and launched a streaming service. The streaming service and DVD by mail businesses ran in tandem. Just four years later, Netflix saw a growing shift towards watching high quality television and movies at home and began creating original content. In 2019, 44% of Netflix revenues came from original content. If Netflix had focused only on its star performers in the DVD distribution by mail business or those who focused exclusively on recommendation algorithms, they may not have made these two very successful pivots to streaming and then to original content. 

Look at your organization, how deeply are you invested in today’s solutions and how tightly is your top talent tied to the current value proposition in its current form? Innovation is reliant upon exploration to find new knowledge and translating tacit knowledge into actionable explicit knowledge. It requires continuous adaptation. Today the coronavirus global pandemic is reshaping work (remote working is required) and our lives (social distancing as a norm), it is also likely reshaping multiple business models for those entities that can ride out this extreme, rapid change to our norms. Who in your organization is connecting the dots to rethink how you deliver value in this crisis? 

The Human Adaptation Advantage

Fortunately, humans are uniquely equipped for this kind of adaptation—more so than any other species. Dr. Anthony Brandt, professor of composition and theory at Rice University and David Eagleman, neuroscientist and professor at Stanford - both champions of human potential -- describe the human drive to create and improve the human condition in their 2017 book, Runaway Species:

“Above all else, the relentless drive of human beings makes us unique among living creatures. It’s built into our brain, into our biology, and it’s why you don’t see squirrels building elevators to their treetops or alligators inventing speedboats….Creativity lives in the predictability between exploring the unknown and exploiting what we know. We bend, break and blend everything we observe, and the fruit of that mental labor results in new and improved versions of the world.”

Who in your organization is charged with, to use Eagleman’s language, bending, breaking, or blending your current offerings to form new value? My motto is the future of work is continuous learning and adaptation to create new value. Do you have a Dr. Li or a Captain Sully?  Is your organization, as Ellen suggests, focused on long multi-year, evolutionary plans or are you simultaneously delivering on the current business model while scanning the horizon and connecting the dots of emerging tacit knowledge to disrupt yourself before one of your competitors does? 

Special thanks to Sean Gallagher of Swinburne Centre for The New Workforce for his support and contributions to this work, to Ellen di Resta for all our discussions of tacit knowledge from which I always learn, and Chris Shipley for always checking my blindspots.

Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley are coauthors of The Adaptation Advantage, available for preorder now on Amazon (Publication date April 14, 2020)

Heather Bio
Guest contributor Heather E. Mc Gowan

Heather champions humans in the learning-centric future of work. She is a future of work strategist, keynote speaker, author and advisor. You can see her highly visual,...

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