Wait! Wait! We Don’t Have To Be Just Sheep

Yesterday I met an incredible business man.  He did not have an MBA.  He also wasn’t Little Miss Sunshine giving me a “hip hip hooray” quote of the day.  He wasn’t moaning the economy.  He stood out from the crowd of business people I have met in my life because he was going to try an experiment!

Now for all of you non-business owners you may think that business people experiment with things everyday.  You are wrong.   Business people are some of the most cautious sheep in the world.  I apologize if you are a business person reading this, but to get a business person to experiment with something is like getting one of my grandsons to try some new vegetable.

Dan Ariely is one of the most thought-provoking authors to come around in a long time.  His book “Predictably Irrational” is easy to read and factually based.  He doesn’t believe in shooting from the gut.  His career started when he was in the hospital with burns all over his body.  The nurses believed that ripping the bandages from his body was the least painful way to redress his wounds.  Being the patient, he felt, as you can imagine, differently.  But he could not convince the nurses to do it slowly.  It started him off on a career where he does experiments questioning the gut feelings, the irrational behavior of humans.

He has written a great column entitled “Why Businesses Don’t Experiment”.    He has found that there are two reasons businesses are afraid to experiment.

1.   Businesses don’t experiment because “experiments require short-term losses for long-term gains. Companies (and people) are notoriously bad at making those trade-offs.

If you try something it presupposes that you may not succeed.  Most business people would argue against Ariely just for stating that.  After all, they are entrepreneurs.  Aren’t entrepreneurs risk takers?  (I will address entrepreneurs and personality types in another post.)

Fear is hard for most business people to overcome.  If they set up a hypothesis and test it they may embarrass themselves and fail.  Nobody enjoys failure, especially in front of other people.  It is one thing to do a science experiment with your child at home where no one is looking.  It is something very different to do it in front of your employees, your family, neighbors and all of your customers.  So believe it or not, fear of failure is one of the biggest obstacles to overcome for businesses.

I was a division President for a Fortune 500 company and one of my favorite questions to ask a potential manager was “What was one of your most embarrassing mistakes in business?   This question eliminated many a candidate that looked promising before I asked that question.  Two of my last top managers went on to be division presidents of divisions and both of them were risk takers.  They could tell me their mistakes.  That is why I hired them.  They were not sheep.

With those two managers we had some of the most spirited creative “discussions” (others outside the office called them arguments).  We tried various experiments until we found out what worked.  We embarrassed ourselves sometimes, and at times I am sure customers and many others thought we were crazy.  But, two years in a row we were division of the year!

2. Ariely says that the second reason businesses don’t experiment is there’s the false sense of security that heeding experts provides. When we pay consultants, we get an answer from them and not a list of experiments to conduct. We tend to value answers over questions because answers allow us to take action, while questions mean that we need to keep thinking.

I have been fortunate to be around professional athletes for the last few years and it surprises me when I compare them with business people.  You would think that a professional athlete would be hiring all sorts of “coaches” to motivate them.  But that is not the case.  The “coaches” are hired by business people.  Why?

I have a hypothesis.  I may be totally wrong, but as you can guess I am willing to take that risk.  By the time an athlete makes it to the professional level the time for a cheerleading Mommy and Daddy are over.  When I sit with the parents of professional athletes it is not a “Little Miss Sunshine” cheering section.  That happens in Little League.

Business people are notorious for hiring “an expert” that has a “gut feeling”.  You know the type – Steven Colbert of the business world.  Don’t bore me with facts!  I want a gut feeling.

These are tough economic times that are testing many businesses today.  The business person I met yesterday was only 30 years old.  Back when I was his age marketing was relatively simple.  You took out an ad in the yellow pages, tried to get a press release published in the paper, took out an ad in the paper or a magazine and if you were very creative you had a glossy brochure printed.

Remember, sheep get slaughtered.  We don’t all have to be sheep.  Allow yourself to fail, and be proud that you didn’t just follow the crowd.  Give yourself the ok to try something in your marketing plan that you have not tried before, because we know for sure that what worked before is not as effective today.


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