Let's Take A Closer Look

Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

As most of us understand history, white settlers from Europe considered the native peoples they met in the Americas to be heathens because they didn’t worship the God of the Bible, which was the one and only true word. Heathens dressed crudely, were uncivilized and couldn’t even speak our language, all signs of what were known as primitive peoples, little more than cavemen. Some set about converting the savages. 

Missionaries are the customer service reps of the Christian faith 

When we attempt to convince someone to reject their beliefs and change over to ours, we are proselytizing. The goal of all missionaries is to convince you to give up your own religion and take up theirs because theirs is right and yours is wrong. Political arguments are the same thing: their position is right and yours is wrong. 

I’m not a missionary 

But as a teacher, researcher and writer, one of my goals is to help non-scientists understand more about the differences between good information and bad, because having better information invariably leads to making better decisions. 

Which is more important, education or experience?

If you ask recent graduates, you know what their answers will be. They are right, from their perspective, because they’ve just spent four years of their lives learning from others who have gone before them. Education is even more important when the job requires extensive, exacting and demanding training such as that required for radiologists, astronauts and physicists.

Ask grey-haired veterans and you’ll hear about how important hands-on experience is, especially in critical situations where there’s a lot at risk. They’re right, too, but both are missing the point. The best answer is that people who have both education and experience are more capable and more valuable than those who have only one.

Venn diagrams show the similarities and differences between sets of things

Each set of things is represented by its own circle. Inside those circles are all the cases with that characteristic. The area where the circles overlap is the place where both conditions are met. The intersect between education and experience is the area where hands-on knowledge combines with advanced degrees to make a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. And the more the education and experience, the better.

Let’s use an example that comes up three times a day

When I was an apprentice, I was shown a simple conceptual model with a simple premise. Our next meal can have any two of these three characteristics: cheap, fast and good, but we can’t have three, so we have to make trade-offs defined by our priorities. Remember, we’re deliberately oversimplifying to establish the big picture by using visuals.

What does cheap and fast get us?

Fast food, mostly. Most of those who argue that fast food is good food are children. If we happen to show up at a friend’s house just as dinner is being served, that’s fast and cheap for us (not them), but only because we got lucky.

How about cheap and good?

These are the meals we make by hand at home. The tradeoff is that when we prepare things at home, we have to shop for foods and ingredients, wash, slice and chop things, then boil, broil, bake and serve them – and clean up after. Every one of these activities takes time, so a good meal at home won’t be fast.

What’s fast and good?

Let’s agree that we can microwave meals quickly but let’s also agree that frozen TV dinners and canned spaghetti are not good food. We can pick something up and take it home, or we can dine out. Casual restaurants are not as fast as drive-throughs, but they do serve our food in a timely fashion. Fine dining restaurants are not fast either, but the surroundings are usually pleasant.

The dilemma

There is no solution that gets top marks on all three categories. This forces us to decide what things are important to us so we can make trade-offs. When it comes to delivering customer service, for example, most companies choose cheap, which is why we have to navigate all those endlessly annoying phone menus and when we are in big stores we unable to find anyone to help us. 


Any intelligence-gathering activity is a series of trade-offs. We never have unlimited time, money, access or expertise. Higher-quality information often takes longer and costs more, but not always.

Three Little Pigs

Fifer, the corner-cutting pig, took the cheap and fast approach, building his house from straw.

Fiddler Pig was smarter. He knew straw wouldn’t make a good house, so he chose sticks. It took longer and cost more, but he felt it was worth it.

Practical Pig’s brick house cost more than the others and took longer to build, too. His house was the only one to survive the Huff and Puff test. Surely there’s a moral there somewhere.

Think of the pigs’ houses as symbols of your ability to acquire and use competitive intelligence to your advantage
  • Some studies are made of straw, the cheapest, quickest, and flimsiest of the Three Little Pigs’ houses. Straws research is worse than having none at all because bad research provides decision-makers with a false sense of confidence while sending them off in the wrong direction.
  • Sticks are better than straws, but not much. Sticks research provide some good information some of the time, but because there are too many assumptions, results are not consistently trustworthy.
  • The brick house is the only one that withstood the rigors of serious testing. Not only are the materials stronger, but the construction processes are better, too. Brick-level information-gathering consistently does the right things in the right ways for the right reasons.

If you start by mandating things need to be done cheaply and immediately, quality suffers.


The gatekeeper at the organization sponsoring an important study decided the new product research had to be done quickly and cheaply. The gatekeeper conducted the study and wrote a report that said every potential new customer was over the moon about the new product. The report did not mention that the prototypes were not finished in time, so study subjects heard descriptions of the new products instead of seeing them in action. Ignorant of how useless the information was, executives made what they thought were fact-based decisions. 

Want to look at old things in new ways, see the commonplace in greater detail and hear complex subject matter explained in simple, conversational language?

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