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Business & Strategy

True Insights vs “Actionable Takeaways”

It’s the seventh inning stretch of every keynote sales process: the event planner asks what kind of actionable takeaways the audience will have. Or sometimes they will ask for “actionable insights.”

We do in fact, at KO Insights, have a five-step process for generating more insights and foresights. I won’t break it down here, because that’s part of the magic I want people to experience in the keynote. But while I’m obviously a fan (I named my company after them), I find that insights are not actionable in and of themselves.

Insights often point the way to action, and to what is useful and needed. And they are often timeless, and can point the way again and again. That’s indeed part of our process.

That process can help you see insights that are as close to actions, as close to usable approaches as we can possibly make them.

But — stay with me here — I have two quibbles with the idea of actionable takeaways for leadership audiences in general.

One: Can we all agree that as high-functioning adults, we don’t respond very well to being told what our takeaways should be?

When I was a member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization — some of you may be members too — there was a rule that we couldn’t give each other advice. We could frame our feedback as “here’s what I did in a similar situation,” or we could ask what kind of input you might be looking for, or we could use a number of other techniques that would allow our input to be received as welcome, not intrusive, and not unsolicited. I have adopted that approach in my advisory work, and I carry it over into my keynote speaking as well.

And quibble number two: Since my audiences most often are senior executives and other top leaders, they are probably not going to walk away with a checklist or easy, tangible answers. When it comes to future-ready strategy, executives don’t usually get that luxury. As Gary Hamel and C.K. Prahalad wrote in their brilliant book Competing for the Future:

“Impatient, “results-oriented” senior executives must be willing to come back again and again to issues that are complex and seemingly indeterminable; they must be patient with open-ended discussions that yield no quick answers and produce no immediate decisions.”

Instead what I aim to offer are new ways of thinking. Greater clarity. Easier decision-making. A stronger sense of how to arrive at insights and foresights, and more comfort with what the future means for the organization.

If you’re more of a fan of Monty Python than business books (no judgement! I happen to like both), John Cleese also said it eloquently: deciding that you always need to be decisive is the surest way to strangle creativity. Some amount of sitting with a problem is necessary to find novel approaches to solve it.

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