Ignoring Facts and Hoping for a Miracle Cure

PowerBalance, provider of trendy bracelets that are “designed to work with your body’s natural energy field”, have admitted that there’s “no credible scientific evidence that supports [their] claims and therefore [they] engaged in misleading conduct.”

Duh!

Evolution has apparently hard-wired us to LIKE superstition. We don’t want to live in a world without magic cures and horoscopes that guide our destiny. And it clearly applies to the business world, too. What is each trendy business fad but a “PowerBalance” promise of painless performance gains?

We all know that good business is a painful process of getting lots of little things right, day after day – but when it works (and when it doesn’t), we love simplifying that complexity and declaring that some aspect of it was “truly pivotal” and the rest didn’t matter.

Last year, I participated in a very successful customer meeting. It had been arranged by a very talented sales team, which had built a great relationship over the years, by delivering on promises and understanding the business. They were planning to demonstrate some business intelligence software running on an iPad to a large meeting of the customer’s senior employees – who had just received a talk from their CFO outlining the importance of better access to information to the performance of the organization. At the last minute, I was asked to help out with some of the presentation. The short, lively demonstration held people’s attention, and iPads were handed out (temporarily!) to attendees to try out the software themselves during the break after the session.

It was clear that this was the kind of event that should be repeated elsewhere. But as news spread of the event, the details were ruthlessly simplified – all mention of executive sponsorship, the great relationship, the seniority of the group being addressed, and the clear customer recognition of the need vanished, and all the success was ascribed to “the iPad demo”. Senior executives and marketing people rushed to arrange customer meetings elsewhere, and I was frequently called on to “do the same demo” – but to very different audiences, in very different circumstances.

When I attempted to explain the context, and talk about what else was needed for success, I had exactly the same impression I get when I try to point out to people that miracle cures and superstitions are unlikely to work – people didn’t really want to know. Because it’s hard. Because we have other things to do. Because it really would be much easier if we didn’t have to do those things, and so we would rather ignore them.

Conclusion: fact-based decision making isn’t just about having facts in the first place – it’s about not deliberately ignoring the facts you do have, while hoping for a miracle cure!

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2 Comments
  1. Researchers at the University of Michigan in the US found that “when misinformed people were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs.” http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/07/11/how_facts_backfire

    While the studies were focused on political partisans, I often see the same behavior in business. Business Intelligence and other analytical tools used to “prove” existing biases. It’s one of the reasons that I’m a fan of also using model and knowledge-driven decision support systems based on optimization techniques, simulation models, and recommendation engines. More here: http://alignment.wordpress.com/2009/03/23/the-return-of-decision-support

    — Jonathan

  2. I admire the goal, but despair at the enormity of the task.

    Stop people ignoring facts and hoping for miracle cures? Good luck with that! What about the weight-loss diet industry would lead you to believe such a thing was possible?

    Your post struck a nerve because, like you and countless others, I’ve been there. Your point is deeper, but I couldn’t help noticing the way the shiny new iPad became the toy that attracted all of the attention. Powerpoint did much the same thing when it arrived. It was depressing how impressed people when MSintroduced video embedded in the slides. Ugh.

    Keeping the context relevant is a big task that involves lots and lots of work. The right leadership needs to buy in and it takes a lot of communication. It is definitely not a winnable fight in all organizations. Is it in yours?

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