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“Lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Media mogul Ted Turner said it, and so did General George S. Patton, but they weren’t the first. That was Thomas Paine, the revolutionary whose 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, called for American independence from Britain. Paine was known as a skeptic whose writings were intended to provoke controversy and did just that. I mention Paine because he was also a philosopher, and I’m going to tell you it’s time for you to change your philosophy about how you acquire and use information to competitive advantage. 

We have all noticed how businesses are scrambling to figure out what to do next.

Some are doing more, many are doing less, and still others are trying different things altogether. Of course you can’t predict the future, but you can get ahead of the curve and stay there by examining these five things:

    1. What you think you already know.
    2. How you investigate.
    3. When you investigate.
    4. Who you study. 
    5. What things you ask them.

1. What do you really know?

All of us know less than we think do because we take so much for granted. Assumptions are the things we believe to be true. There are three types:

    • Things that were once true and still are. 
    • Things that were once true but are no more. 
    • Things that were never true. 

The big problem with assumptions is that they are beliefs held to be immune from criticism or opposition. This is what makes them so dangerous, because nothing should be exempt from challenge and investigation. As a matter of fact, the sacred cows your organization holds most dearly are the ones you should challenge most vigorously and investigate most closely.

Conjecture, a synonym for assumptions, is the formation or expression of an opinion or theory without adequate evidence. How do you determine if the evidence for your beliefs is sufficient? First, identify every one of them. Put stakeholders in a room and have them make a list of all the working assumptions the company uses in decision-making. Then make proper arrangements to investigate all of them by testing them rigorously and objectively. 

Every company I’ve ever worked with has been surprised to learn a significant number of their key assumptions were past their sell-by dates and others were just plain wrong. I’ve shown more than a few that many of their assumptions were not true. The worst reacted by damning the evidence and the researchers who did it. 

Here are some famous assumptions:

    • “Stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” Economist Irving Fisher, three days before the stock market crash of 1929.
    • “A rocket will never be able to leave the earth’s atmosphere.” New York Times, 1936.
    • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.
    • “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a box every night.” Daryl Zanuck, movie producer, 1946.
    • “It’ll be gone by June.” Variety magazine on Rock n’ Roll, 1955.
    • “Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop.” Time magazine, 1966. 
    • “The idea of a personal communicator in every pocket is a pipe dream driven by greed.” Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, 1992. 
    • “There’s no chance the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO, 2007.

For centuries people insisted the earth was the center of the entire universe and the sun revolved around it. One man observed things that contradicted their wisdom. He encouraged others to look through telescopes and see for themselves. And then he had the audacity to insist that evidence yielded truth, not experts. His book was banned and he was imprisoned.

A modern day assumption that could use some rethinking is fast food restaurants. 

Before the coronavirus, such a large proportion of sales came via drive-thru windows that their focus has been on how to increase efficiency and speed. Suggestions include using menu boards, wireless headsets, mobile payment, better leadership, better training, signs, and upgrading the landscaping. All good ideas. None, however challenge the basic assumption of how the buildings are designed, with the majority of the square footage devoted to tables and chairs. Only two years ago McDonald’s spent hundreds of millions of dollar on a “visual facelift and rebranding strategy.” Modernizing their dining rooms with new furniture and new décor to lure people inside was a cosmetic strategy.

I have yet to read about fast food restaurants doing away with most indoor seating in favor of adding more service windows. Most drive-thrus end up with a single line (even those that have two lines for ordering), for paying and picking up at the same choke point. If they asked me, I advise them to spend some time thinking about a radical redesign with pickup windows on at least two sides, halving the time spent inching forward in a long line. And while we’re at it, how about turning some of those unused parking spaces into queuing lines? You know, functional strategies.

Studies have shown that generalists are better than experts at figuring out what the future holds. 

Political scientist Philip Tetlock found out why. Instead of focusing all of their attention on a narrow field like salty snacks, digestive distress, or manure spreaders, generalists work across dozens of categories and see more things in common than experts can imagine. Generalists, instead of blindly obeying dogma and worshipping entrenched assumptions like the experts, deliberately seek out contradictory views. These they integrate into broader pictures that reconcile differences instead of ignoring them, as do the decision-makers who don’t bother with challenging assumptions.

2. How do you conduct your investigations?

For most companies, the way they go about conducting research is an automatic and habitual reaction, like what happens when the doctor taps your knee with that little hammer and unthinkingly, your knee jerks. Too many companies pull out old studies and old questionnaires and dust off the cobwebs without ever asking if they’re the right tools for this job. Instead of automatically reaching for your old standbys, ask and answer these two questions: 

  • What do we need to know?
  • How do we intend to use the information? 

It wouldn’t hurt to take a tip from Albert Einstein, who spent 90% of his time thinking about problems and 10% thinking about solutions. Or Abraham Lincoln, who said “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Spend more time thinking what you want to learn and how you intend to use it – especially when you need to get ahead of the consumer curve.

3. When do you investigate?

What did you have for lunch six months ago? The best way to ask customers about their experiences is to do it as close to the experience as you can get. What did you have for lunch yesterday? Which are you are able to recall more clearly? In more detail? Which is the way that allows you to collect more and better information? 

Use common sense to synchronize your investigations with customer experiences.

Say you want to learn about the new car buying process. Do you want to interview people who bought cars six months or a year ago? If you don’t specify in your recruitment, you’ll be nowhere as well-informed as if you asked within a week of their purchase and delivery experiences. If you want to know how customers feel about how your product works, you need to give them time. Surely you’ve received push notifications asking for reviews when you haven’t had enough time to learn what the product can and cannot do.

Here’s an example from our case files of taking the consumer pulse. 

We asked executives why their company conducted its customer satisfaction research only once a year. After much hemming, hawing, and harrumphing, the answer was no more than they had always done it that way, which Forbes says is the most dangerous phrase in business.

A woman was asked by her young daughter why she cut the tail off the roast before putting it in the oven. “I don’t know,” she said, “let’s go ask my mother.” Grandma didn’t know either, and said “Let’s go ask my grandma.” “I don’t know why you do it,” said great-grandma, “but I only had a very small pan.”

Refusing to change how we think about and do things while the world around us is ever-changing means refusing to identify alternatives before making up our minds, the equivalent of wearing perceptual blinders.

Change from “we’ve always done it that way” to “we’re going to find new and better ways.”

We switched the clients’ survey from asking 1,200 customers once a year to asking 100 customers every month. The rewards they reaped from collecting and analyzing fresh data twelve times a year instead of only once were huge. Investigating each month takes into account how our thoughts and feelings change over time as we use products more and their strengths and weaknesses are revealed to us. How many times have you been over the moon when your shiny new thing arrived, but the damn thing fell apart a week later?

We have recently seen how things can change drastically in a very short period of time.

When situations change, as they always do, monthly surveys pick it up quickly, allowing decision-makers to swiftly formulate response strategies. With continuous data, analysts can produce many useful reports. Monthly reports allowed us to spot trends more quickly than waiting around for an annual report. Quarterly reports gave us a broader view, as did Year-To-Date reports, Rolling Twelves, Annual Reports, and Year-Over-Year reports. We also designed the investigations so decision-makers could add topical questions to their monthly surveys and get immediate feedback on hot-button issues. If you have trouble convincing your boss why this is so important, ask her why she doesn’t collect sales data only once a year.

4. What things do you ask them?

The most common complaints from survey takers are they’re too long, too boring, and go into too much detail about things important to companies but not to customers. Most business research tries to ask too many questions. The result is that bored and disinterested survey takers fill out your questionnaires carelessly because they are giving your questions little thought. Recently I was asked to comment on a questionnaire that asked customers to answer 280 questions about cat food, a trifecta of long, boring, and too much detail. I asked them why they were letting the tail wag the dog.


After companies have identified all the things stakeholders want to know, we ask them to give some very serious thought to which are critical, which are important, and which are worth exploring. To keep surveys from becoming too long, too boring, and too detailed, we keep them shorter than most.

Invariably, clients apply the critical label to too many issues.

Here’s an example:

A marketing executive once presented her department with 27 strategic imperatives. When asked by the managers which were the most important, she said they all were. This is, of course, sheer nonsense. Unwilling or unable to establish priorities and assign resources, the executive had abdicated responsibility, figuratively tossing everything on the table and saying ‘have at it.’ It was the organizational equivalent of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

When we see too many “critical” issues, we turn to other methods of assessing priority.

The critical issues are the essential actions that must be accomplished ahead of all other things and everything can’t go first. Ranking “critical” issues from most to least is an eye-opener. It always provokes lively discussion and we all get to see some interesting turf battles, too. Another way of establishing priorities is to tell stakeholders they can only investigate five of them – which ones are they? A third one, and big fun, is to say we need to downgrade five from critical to important – which five won’t make the cut? Resources need to be allocated to the most critical activities first, and everything else needs to be aligned with them.

5. Who do you ask – and who don’t you ask?

Start by asking a broader cross-section of study subjects than usual. What people from NY and LA think doesn’t tell us anything about the other 310 million people who live in the US. How can you understand Europe’s 44 countries and 690 million people by going only to London, Paris, and Berlin? Would it be more valuable to do your concept testing with customer evangelists who’ll say everything is wonderful or with a cross-section of people who don’t want what you sell and will tell you why, so you can make better products?

One of my favorite stats is this: one customer in ten says the companies they buy from provide superior customer service, while ten times as many companies claim their service is superior. Most brag about what their in-house statistics show. This enormous disagreement between companies’ rose-colored beliefs and nearly-universal customer frustration with bad service raises some interesting questions. How can so many companies claim they provide excellent customer service when: 

  • Half of all customers say service reps fail to answer their questions and/or resolve their problems.
  • Three out of four customers decide not to buy again because of a poor service experience.
  • Every week, one million people post complaints about bad service experiences on social media.

These compelling statistics are why I advise clients to not limit themselves to inbound comments. I advocate reaching out to people and asking if they ran into any problems with sales, service, delivery, website, call centers, and more.

The endless stream of glowing reports that arrive at executives’ desks ignore all those people who don’t bother to complain.

When so many customers are not bothering to tell us when they’re unhappy or why, we have to go find them. When we do, we generally find about twice as many customers had problems than were reported to executives. You can either choose to actively investigate the many negative experiences you don’t hear about or you can stick your head in the sand. You can’t fix problems you don’t know about, can you?

I remain firmly committed to this philosophy with all clients: One of the key functions of research is to dissent from the popular when it is necessary, important, and warranted by the data – especially in the face of denunciations by insider experts.

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