Critical not cynical

My son used to believe advertising.  He was very little at the time.  He would come up to me and say things like, “we should buy this brand, because it — and he’d quote verbatum from the T.V. commercial.”   Being a good parent, I’d take the opportunity to teach him the wisdom that I’d learned over the years — never trust advertising.

Over time, I guess he’s learned.  Slowly.  It’s a difficult process.  He occasionally comes to me with something that’s pulled from an advert, but a lot less frequently.  Eventually, he’ll learn not to trust the ads at all.  He’ll be just like me.

And that’s a shame.

Why?  I was thinking about that this week when I was giving my lecture to my marketing class.  I tried to point out to them that I wanted them to be critical and not cynical.  There is a real distinction.

Over my career I have found, read and been guided by some fabulous writing from authors who have contributed a great deal to the knowledge of management and marketing sciences.  To be totally cynical about it would have been to miss some of these truly great epiphanies.

Yet most of popular business writing is absolute nonsense.  At best, much of it is poor research or opinion masquerading as research  – at worst it’s just plain wrong.   It scares me to think at how many key strategic decisions are made on the strength of “research” by “experts” which wouldn’t stand up to any sort of critical analysis.

Case in point.  Beer and diapers.

I can’t remember when I first read it, but this story has sold a lot of people on the concept of data mining.  For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, data mining is a way extracting patterns from large samples of data.   It has a lot of applications, but one critical usage is in the area of consumer based marketing.  If you can truly detect patterns in the way consumers behave, you can use these to position and sell your goods more effectively.

For years, the “beer and diapers” story was used to illustrate the effectiveness of this type of research.

I really do not remember the article or publication, and I’m not going to embarrass the person or publication by digging it up.  Essentially however, it went like this.  The article I read described a discovery made using data mining as a decision support tool.  By going through massive amounts of data an analyst working for a retailer in the U.S. had discovered a co-relation between sales of beer and sales of diapers.  Their hypothesis was that men coming off shift were sent to buy diapers and also picked up a six pack of beer.  By moving the beer closer to the diapers sales increased.

Great example.  There was only one small problem with it.  It wasn’t true.

Like many tall tales there may have been some root in reality.  DSS news is a blog that will give you what might be the most accurate history of the legend.  If you are interested.

Yet even though the story wasn’t true, it might have been.  When you do the research into it, you can see that someone may have actually done some queries on this.   If you look at the work of Paco Underhill (Why We Buy) he will point out the unique behaviour of men in stores and the power of positioning product in selling.  But the fact remains that this was not done with data mining — nor did anyone actually put the products together and see the increased sales.

So even though it wasn’t right – it could have been.

Which makes this a difficult one.  But what if it had been wrong?  I don’t know if people still remember the controversy surrounding the book “In Search of Excellence”.    This landmark book made Tom Peters a name in business literature. It presented 43 companies which the book described as “excellent” and went on to point out 8 characteristics they exhibited.  As the wikipedia article on this points out, there were problems with the sample as early as 1984 when Business Week pointed out that as many as 1/3 of the sample were in financial difficulty.  On the 20th anniversary of the book’s publication in 2001, Peters admitted that there could have been some problems with rigour or the analysis – stating in a Fast Company article that the book had been “an afterthought… a hip-pocket project that was never supposed to amount to much”.

Yet amount to something it did.  I remember it clearly since it was still pretty early in my career that I was marched out into a session with McKinsey consultants who chided us for the fact that we had not modelled this excellent behaviour well enough.  My boss at the time was enamoured of the book and tried to use it as a blueprint for turning around the declining fortunes of our division.

If only he had known at the time that in the cut that they made to get to the 43 companies, they had taken out GE – which would go on to become one of the great success stories in business.  In fact, if there was only one of the original 62 companies that many companies should have emulated it would have been GE.

This was pretty early in my career and I certainly didn’t have an MBA.  My degree was in literature (but that’s another story).   I was certainly no researcher at the time, but I certainly had a good foundation in critical thinking.  I couldn’t figure out how this supposed “research” was supposed to help us.  It seemed facile and pretty superficial.  Yet even I was smart enough to not raise those concerns.  Luckily, our boss soon forgot about searching for excellence and went back to searching for the quarterly numbers.

This was the first business book to start me on the road to cynicism, but it wasn’t the last by any means.

Not too long after that, another boss of mine read the “One Minute Manager” by Ken Blanchard.  He was a great guy, but this cute little formula for success was superficial and trivialized the issues that we faced – many of which required more than one minute of attention.

I continued to read but became more and more cynical about what I saw.  Like many people, I hid behind my increasingly dark sense of humour.  Sometimes this got me into trouble.  I still remember going into another boss’ office who had read some book that claimed that “there were no problems, only opportunities.”   I brought a stack of papers and letting it fall with a slam onto his desk.

His question was predictable.  “What’s that?”

My answer was, “An insurmountable opportunity.”

Suffice it to say that he didn’t think it was as funny as I did.

Later on, I wasn’t so lucky and I have to confess, I became part of the problem.  I was working for an insurance company in the early 90’s and I was convinced by our consultants that we needed to “re-engineer” our processes.  This made a great deal of sense to me.  I knew for sometime that technology alone would not solve the problems that we saw in our business.  I welcomed this – even championed it – as a more holistic approach.

I was soon to see regret that.  Someone gave me an article which explained the thinking of Hammer and Champy – the gurus of re-engineering at that time.  I began to have some real reservations.  I got a copy of the book, but I had real trouble with it.  I think I abandoned it about half way through.  You have to understand that I’m one of those guys who reads the side of the cereal box.  For me to drop a book halfway is unheard of.  But I just couldn’t stand it.

Yet the damage was done.  We were “re-engineered”.   Later on I remember an interview with Mike Hammer where he said, “We forgot about the people.”   I though at the time of writing him and asking for my money back.

Okay, so I’ve trashed Peters, Blanchard and Hammer.   And I’ve always felt bad about doing that to Blanchard because he seems like a very nice man.  At least I did feel that way until someone plopped a copy of “Who Moved My Cheese” on my desk and recommended it as a serious book in the area of change management.  Nice guy or not – he has to be stopped.  If you want to know why go back and read the book and figure out which of the mice are the “winners” in this book.   But please – read it in the store or borrow it from someone – don’t encourage him with more book sales.

I could have found dozens of other best sellers to trash in my rant.  Sloppy research.  Opinion passed off as fact.  Wishful thinking put forward as theories.  Logical fallacies galore.  Science drawn from one discipline is slapped into another with no research at all.  Metaphors presented as theories.   Even when there is some merit to the ideas, the authors skim the surface, giving you little in the way of content and a lot of fluff.

I tell students now that they can save a lot of money on business books by going to a book store with a coffee bar, then going and reading the first chapter of a best seller book while standing at the shelves.  It won’t take long and there usually aren’t too many hard words.  I always say that they should put the book back – carefully.  We want to leave it pristine for the next person and make sure that the store can return it or remainder it later.   I then recommend sitting down with a chai latte and making a few notes for networking meeting chit-chat.  In most cases, they will have gotten most of the book and even if it was a stinker, they get a chai latte to show for it.

Cynical? Yup.  And not really that proud of it. Because it’s not my nature.

The poet Irving Layton said that an idealist is a “cynic in the making” and I think that’s true.  Perhaps that’s one reason why I’m so brutal in my critique of some authors.

Yet I refuse on a personal level to become, as Sidney James put it, “prematurely disappointed in the future.”   There is a lot of junk out there, but there are some gems.  Sure, “In Search of Excellence” is trash, but it shouldn’t keep you from reading Jim Collins’ “Good to Great” or “Built to Last”.  Collins is a thinker and researcher who really does try to bring some critical thinking and analysis to what he does.  I still don’t agree with everything he says, but I don’t think he expects me to.

Nor should the nonsense that’s in “Re-engineering the Corporation” keep you from looking at the great work that’s been done in Lean by James Womack and others who have really looked at how we can achieve excellence in our processes.  It shouldn’t blind you to Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline.   You’d miss Peter Drucker and everything that he had to say.  I could list others  In the boundless offering that we see out there, there are some thinkers among the stinkers.

But there is little in the way of quality control.  I hope I’ve offered enough proof that “best seller” status cannot be equated with quality in the land of business publishing.  In fact, the more a new book catches fire, the more suspicious I’ve become.  As my friend Craig Hubley says, “any unanimous opinion is most like wrong.”

The reason why I know Craig is right?  It’s simple.  Any idea that has not been question, tested and validated is bound to have serious flaws in its logic.

But I make a real distinction between criticism and cynicism.  The cynic is not open to new ideas.  The critic is open to new ideas, but wants to question them, test them — not with the idea of destroying them – but with the idea of seeing if they will stand up to critical analysis.

Yet we’ve come to equate critical thinking with negatives – skepticism, cynicism and resistance to change.   Or maybe we always have.  I think back to the number of times in my own career where raising a question was seen as “not being on the team”.   The fact is that we really don’t like criticism.

Yet its so necessary.  I still remember the President of DMR, Yves Thibodeau, who taught me the ultimate lesson on this.  He came to speak to our management group when I was part of the Toronto office of the old DMR.  It was a culture where you could speak your mind – many corporations could learn from this.  I felt comfortable there because more than once speaking my mind has gotten me into trouble.  Anyway, Yves gave his speech as he new president using a metaphor that he loved – car racing – comparing us to the team in the pit. In retrospect, it wasn’t a bad speech, it was just a little superficial – we were going through real problems at the time.  I pointed this out, perhaps less than elegantly.

The next day, I went to Yves to apologize.  I really had been out of line.  Instead of being offended, he showed incredible grace.  He said, and I believed him, that he’d rather have people who spoke their mind than mindless followers.  We became friends after that and Yves would jokingly refer to me as his consiglieri – the hard nosed advisor who would always tell him the “way it was”.

What I learned from that exchange was that I should show others what he’d shown me.  I should presume that when people questioned my ideas that they might be doing it not to criticize me, but to try to understand, test and even improve the ideas that I put forward.  In that light, criticism should be seen as the ultimate compliment to a writer.

This is the spirit that I wanted to impart to our students.  Critical not cynical.

I’ve had some bad experiences and I even wonder if I’m a little “over the top” in my criticism.  In my defense, I have to say that somebody has to say that the emperor has no clothes.   And sometimes that message needs to be shouted out.  When you do, there is a responsibility to ensure that you have listened well and thought it through carefully.   So even if you do end up exposing a charlatan – you owe it to yourself to first listen to them with an open mind.

Which is the other thing that I try to impart to my students.   Criticism is not merely disagreeing.  It’s easy to confuse the two — and we all fall victim to our own ego and opinions.  I love to debate and I’ll easily become the devil’s advocate.   But we have to recognize that this should be done with a spirit of generosity.  There’s an old Monte Python skit where one of the crew is sitting with a sign that advertised “arguments” for a fee.  The other comedian comes in and puts down his money and says “I’m here for an argument”.  The first comic says, “No you’re not!”.

What a wonderful way to remember that argument is not simply disagreement.  It’s a generous offer to test an idea and make it better in the process.

So I establish some rules to bound our critical thinking.  The first is a presumed spirit of generosity.  The second is someone related – in order to truly have the right to criticize someone’s idea you must consider it thoroughly.

In regular discussion that involves some etiquette.  I insist that before we can criticize someone’s ideas, we must first be able to honour them by being able to repeat back the person’s point to their satisfaction.  That ensure that we truly listen and that they are indeed heard before we criticize.

I also challenge those people who want to offer a speech as a question to really ask themselves – am I asking a question or trying to show off what I know?  Are we truly asking a question?

Both of these serve a point – they force us to truly consider what we criticize.  They force us to also understand that critical thinking places responsibilities on us as well.  I once had a boss who asked me a pointed question when I proposed an alternative scenario.  All he said was, “Is it better, or is it just different?”.    Implied, but not stated (which I thank him for) is that the fact that the idea is not yours is not grounds for criticism.

Critical thinking takes courage as well as grace.   But a big part of that courage is being able to take a long hard look at our own opinions and prejudices.  We have to be able to ask if we are serving our egos or the idea in question.

It takes a certain maturity to get to this stage – either as a person or as an organization.   Critical – not cynical.

1 Comment

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One response to “Critical not cynical

  1. Walnikg in the presence of giants here. Cool thinking all around!

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