Gulliver’s Troubles

Three international executives recently listened with great interest as a man complained long and loud about how cellphone numbers should never be reissued. He had just bought a new mobile and was angry because he kept getting annoying calls for someone else. He was especially indignant because something this stupid would never happen where he was from. He insisted his experience was clear evidence of the obvious superiority of his cellphone network back home.

Like most of us, the man was unaware of how limited his knowledge was. 

  1. He was visiting the U.S. from a country with fewer residents than Guinea-Bisseau. His island nation has a population of just over a million, while the population of the U.S. is well over 300 million.
  2. The U.S. has 335 times as many different telephone area codes (his has one).
  3. 400,000 people visited his country last year while 80 million people traveled to the States. 
  4. Millions of visitors to the U.S. buy prepaid cellphones to use as navigational computers for only a few days or weeks, then abandon them. 
  5. Phone numbers are recycled in the U.S. because demand and turnover are so high that if issuers threw them away after a single use, they’d run out of numbers. 
  6. Back home, every call our traveler gets is for him. In the U.S., every call he gets is for someone else.

In our post-interview debriefing, the executives were stunned to learn that half of all cellphone calls in the U.S. are now scams or wrong numbers (Forbes says we get 182 million unwanted calls per day, or about 2,000 every second). When they asked how people dealt with these endlessly irritating and unwanted intrusions, I told them the solutions-oriented ones use a simple strategy to protect themselves:

  1. They suppress their instinct to automatically answer a ringing phone. Instead, they look at the display name first.
  2. If it’s someone they recognize, they answer the call. If not, they don’t. 
  3. Later, they check voicemail, because valid callers might leave one.

These strategists are different from our traveling man in that they are solutions-oriented  (they accepted the responsibility to protect themselves) rather than whiners and complainers (someone else should fix my problem).

Companies everywhere are full of experts subject to the same nearsightedness. 

Just like our traveling man, experts’ perspectives are constrained by their single-skill specialization. Surely you’ve heard of the waggish definition of an expert being “one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”

Nowhere is this more evident than marketing, the place where so much of your company’s money goes (in the U.S. last year, $900 billion was spent on marketing). By definition, the activities of your organization’s marketing experts are fixated on a single brand, a single product, a single promotion. Narrowly-focused specialists everywhere see only a tree or two and never the forest. Far too many concentrate on only a few leaves and twigs.

The “world” of our individual experiences is always narrower than most of us like to admit.

Experts can no more grasp the big picture than Gulliver could in Brobdingnag, a world so huge a child’s sneeze would blow him away (In Lilliput, the satirical shoe was on the other ironic foot and Gulliver was unable to see the details).

Our international traveler’s micro frame of reference prevented him from seeing the bigger picture. Lacking relevant comparison metrics, he was unable to understand how little he knew. As Daniel Kahneman would say, “We’re blind to our blindness. We have very little idea of how little we know.”

Astute leaders have learned to not count on internal experts for the big picture. They use outsiders to tell them the many things their insiders cannot. Take a few minutes and ask me how I can quickly and inexpensively help you find why your information isn’t as helpful as you need it to be. Here’s my number: 800-652-7595. Here’s my email: david@davidallanvan.com.