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What are three things that AT&T, Boeing, Citibank, Del Monte, Estee Lauder, Ford, General Mills, Hilton, IBM, Jaguar, KFC, Lowes, Macys, Nokia, Office Depot, Pepsi, Quiznos, Ryder, Subway, Time-Warner, UnitedHealthcare, Verizon, Walgreens, Xerox, Yum Brands, and Zales have in common?

  1. They are highly successful multinational companies, one for each letter of the alphabet.
  2. During my years as a researcher, I led for-hire teams that conducted paid investigations into customers’ wants, needs, expectations, and experiences for every one of these 26 companies. I could easily add several more for each of the common letters (Allstate, American Express, American Airlines, Apple, AutoZone) – but only one or two for most of the letters that have high Scrabble values.
  3. Nine times out of ten, our teams found these companies had based at least one very important decision on a belief that was so deeply entrenched that not a single person who worked there had noticed it wasn’t true. 
There were three types of reactions
  • Burn them, they’re witches was the most common. Closed-minded people don’t like it when evidence shows how they have been zigging when they should have been zagging. Closed-minded people also don’t cotton to outsiders who won’t join them in pretending the emperor is wearing magnificent clothes.

  • Thank goodness someone turned on the lights is the response of people who are so open-minded that they pay outsiders to tell them what’s hiding in plain sight, what’s going on behind the false fronts of all those Potemkin Villages, and advance notice about which way the industry is turning.

  • Everybody already knows that is the response of the naysayers who think research is a poor substitute for gut feelings. They never explain how if everyone knew it already, why had no one done anything about it?
A 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 any organization holds most dearly are the ones they should challenge most vigorously and investigate most closely.

Here are four things you can do to test assumptions
1. Ask questions

Why? is always a good one, and can be used over and over again to continue to dig more deeply. When kids ask pesky questions and parents reach the limits of their knowledge, they resort to such statements as “Because” and “I said so.” The most famous child question that doesn’t get answered is “Why is the sky blue?”

2. Find examples of pros, cons, and indifference
  • Spend a lot of time looking in places you’ve never looked before.*
  • Use different browsers and different search terms.
  • Look in ten places, twenty places, more if it’s really important.
  • Always make a point of gathering information that you have not seen before.
  • Pay particular attention to sources that are unpopular with mainstream thinking.
3. Look at things in different ways

If you are a part of an organization, look at things the way an outsider would. If you are an outsider, learn what goes on in the inside.

4. Ask more questions

Born sociologists are the ones who as kids always wanted to know how things work. They ask questions like “Where do babies come from?”

What do most kids get as explanations of sexual reproduction?

A fumbled explanation of seeds and eggs, or a plumbing lesson, or the timeless, “The stork brought you.” Let’s take a closer look at that last statement and see what evidence we can find for it.

Why do we say the stork brings babies?

Some say the notion began in Greece around 800 BC. A vengeful goddess named Hera grew jealous of a beautiful rival and in a fit of rage transformed her enemy into a stork who stole babies and flew away with them.

Others say the stork story began in Norway in the 12th and 13th centuries and was driven by the seasons of nature. 

  • Summer was the time when most Nordic tribes harvested their crops. This temporary lull was the time of fertility festivals and a popular and practical time to get married. 
  • Spring was the time when the native storks came back to their breeding grounds from their winter feeding grounds.
  • The babies from those Norwegian summer weddings arrived about the same time in the spring that those Norwegian storks returned from spending their winters in Africa.

  • This calendar-based farmer/migratory bird connection is as good a definition of a makes-sense relationship as you will find, but neither causes the other and certainly storks don’t bring babies.

The lesson is this: Ignorance always makes more out of coincidence than it should.

*A passerby comes upon a man under a city lamppost, scanning the ground, looking for something. The passerby asks what he’s looking for. Car keys, he says and the passerby helps him look for a minute until it is clear the keys are not there. The passerby asks the man if he’s sure he lost them here. No, the man said, I lost them in the next block, but the light is much better here. This is the streetlight effect, what happens when people look for things only in places where the looking is easy and never where they should be looking. Every day, the streetlight effect is demonstrated when someone claims they did some research but all they really did was look up something on Wikipedia – and nowhere else.

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