Category Archives: Reality checks

Dunning-Kruger And You

One episode that has stayed with me for many years involved a young employee that I managed. Like most of the folks I hired, he had a lot of raw talent in the areas that you really can’t teach – excellent intellectual curiosity, a good work ethic, etc. As I saw it, my job and that of his immediate supervisor was to develop that raw talent over time.

When review time came up, he asked me when he’d get made a VP. He had been with us about 6 months and had been out of school for about 18 months. Now, most of the people who achieved VP rank were 10-15 years older than him and used those years to develop their work skills to a point that was light years past where he was. I asked him why he thought he should be made a VP and he went on about having paid his dues and that he knew as much as many of the VP’s he’d met.

He was a perfect example of something called the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people fail to recognize their own incompetence. I see it on the golf course all the time as my playing partners will often try to hit shots that they might be able to pull off 1% of the time or they overestimate how far they actually hit the ball and come up woefully short of their target. The kid was a business example, one with which I’m sure you’re familiar.

Have you ever walked out of a meeting in which someone thought they were being brilliant while it was obvious that they really had no clue about the subject matter? The sad fact, borne out by research, is that the most incompetent individuals are the ones that are most convinced of their competence while the most competent people often underestimate their competence.  I’m a believer in knowing what you don’t know and in not assuming that just because you’re smart and very knowledgable about one subject that you can translate that into expertise in another area without doing the work to understand that area.

It’s not just stupid people who don’t know they’re stupid. Entire organizations can behave this way, believing that they can get beyond their core competency and into another business sector with equal success. Management sees that the business has a good year and deludes itself into thinking the organization is performing at peak efficiency when competitors are actually doing better and are gaining share.

We need to be on the lookout for Dunning-Kruger everywhere. For businesses, use an independent standard of measurement, hopefully, something that’s reflective of your entire industry.  As individuals, a little humility and getting outside your own bubble helps to keep your perspective. That kid didn’t make VP and in fact, ended up leaving the organization to a higher level job from which he got fired. He Dunning-Krugered himself to unemployment. I’m sure he was convinced it was due to something other than his own incompetence. You’d never make that mistake, would you?

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Filed under Helpful Hints, Huh?, Reality checks

How Dumb Do You Think We Are?

We’ve all been lied to. It always feels bad when we discover the lie and we often get angry at the liar. A co-worker of mine had an expression that comes to mind all the time: “Forgive and remember.” It’s fine to “forget” in that holding a grudge is self-defeating. It’s better to remember (without anger if possible) so that you’re a lot warier the next time you hear something from that person.

It’s in that context that I shook my head when I read about Facebook pivoting to privacy. Now if there is one company that has violated user privacy more than Facebook I’m unaware of it. Frankly, I thought it was something that The Onion had written, but no, it was a blog post from Mark Zuckerberg.

“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever”

Seriously? This is the same guy who is literally at this minute lobbying against privacy laws everywhere. This is the same company that encouraged you to give them your telephone number to use for two-factor authentication (yay privacy) and then used the phone number to target ads. Oh, and there’s no way to delete or disable that.  Then there was that time that they used an app to steal everything you did on your phone. Suckers…

Fool you once? Um, no. Back in 2010, there was a piece in the NY Times that outlined just how hard it was to make your data private on Facebook. To truly opt out of sharing all your personal information, you had to click through more than 50 privacy buttons, and then choose between more than 170 total options. There were some options that you couldn’t even opt out of at all. How dumb does he think we are?

No business can afford to lie constantly to its customers, especially one that is almost completely reliant on those customers for every bit of content. If and when users wake up, as many under 21 users of the platform have, we won’t need regulatory intervention to “fix” Facebook or any other company that lies constantly. It will just die, buried in its own untruthfulness. We’re not that dumb after all, are we?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks

The Root Of The Problem

I bought tickets to see Bob Seger last week. The concert is still a few months away but I’m a fan of his music and this might be the last time he tours. One of my favorite Bob Seger songs is “Feel Like A Number.” It was written in 1978 and yet it is incredibly prescient about how things are today.

What prompted that thought is this statement from a piece of research issued by the CMO Council:

One issue plaguing many organizations is a sense that in the race to master data and harness the power of the marketing technology stack, the customer, and perhaps an understanding of human relationships, has been lost. In fact, 41 percent of respondents admit that focusing on the relationship being built instead of the campaign being deployed, has been a key challenge. Nearly one-third admit that they sometimes forget that their “targets” are human beings.

It’s part of a study called Bringing a Human Voice to Customer Choice. It really should be called “The Root Of The Problem” since it strikes me that forgetting we’re dealing with humans is really the primary cause of so many issues businesses have. They’re customers, not accounts. They’re not phone calls to be cleared as quickly as possible but consumers with a problem that needs to be solved. They’re not employees, they’re co-workers and humans who go home to their families each night just as you do.

Business is all about data today but when was the last time you had a relationship with a database? It’s easy to be seduced by data but it’s also easy to miss the nuances that focusing on individuals can yield. Do you really understand what problem people are trying to solve by using your product or service or are you relying on “the numbers” to show you something that number can’t really show?

Sing Seger’s couplet to yourself every once in a while:

I’m not a number
Dammit I’m a man

It’s an important reminder and gets to the root of the problem, don’t you think?

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Lucky Or Good

I have a rant for you today and I’m going to say upfront that it is not political in nature although as you read it you might think that it’s my intention to make it so.

One of the things I’ve noticed in business is that we tend to put people who are rich or successful (and usually both) on a pedestal. We assume that they know a heck of a lot more than we do because they are rich or successful. We listen to them give speeches and prognosticate on business and the world. The reality is that more often than not they’re more the beneficiaries of “right place, right time” than they are smart.

You think I’m exaggerating? Let’s take a few examples in tech. The founders of Google at one time said they’d never take ads because it might throw in to question the purity of their search results. It took a non-founder, a person you probably have never heard of, to convince them that great computer science is one thing but running a business that has investors is quite another. Advertising is what makes Google profitable. Are the founders smart or lucky?

Think of all of Google’s products or Facebook’s for that matter. Besides the “core” product, what have they invented that demonstrate that they’re not just a one-trick pony? YouTube? Instagram? What’s App? Sorry, all acquisitions. Most of the features or products they have were created elsewhere and either bought or copied. Think about how many failed products or features those companies have produced. I’d suggest that they, like many in tech, we much luckier than they were good and yet we venerate many of them as if they were Einstein.

Then there are those in business who were born on third base. These are the ones who came from money and often are working in a family business. The positions they’re in can command respect but unlike those people who advance into those positions via hard work and demonstrating talent, these folks are often unsuited for jobs several levels below where they are. I’ve encountered several of them in my career and did my best to avoid them in business dealings.

Would I rather be lucky than good? I often say exactly that, mostly after a wayward golf shot hits something and ricochets back into a good spot. Studies have shown that we can create luck by being extroverted, observant, and positive It also helps to have perfect timing as many of those who got rich in the early internet days did. The really smart ones got out, recognizing that when a rogue wave throws you out of the ocean rather than drowning you, use the dry land to run away.

This isn’t prompted by anything other than a two-hour car drive which afforded me some time to think. I’ve been both lucky and, I think, pretty good. Life isn’t a zero sum game and I don’t begrudge these charlatans their success. I do, however, wish some of them would stop confusing their success or the jobs they hold with who they are as people and what skills they possess. Hopefully, none of us are doing that, right?

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Filed under Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Slow Down

“Fail fast” has become one of the mantras of our age. The notion is that iterating fast failures will get us to the desired result faster than taking our time and seeking a more perfect answer. I agree that the perfect can be the enemy of the good and that at some point the cost of reducing variance and getting to the perfect far exceeds the benefits derived from actually getting there. But I’m not so sure that slowing down and taking a bit more time is a bad thing. Let me explain why.

People are deluged these days. Marketing messages overwhelm them. We don’t have 100 channels of entertainment nor even 1,000. There is an unlimited and expanding number of sources, both physical and digital, of entertainment. Walk into any supermarket and the product offerings in almost any category boggle the mind. Why is this a big deal? Because I don’t think you get a second chance. If you’re not solving a problem and creating value for the customer right out of the box, you’re dead. That means that you have to get it right the first time.

How many apps have you installed and removed from your phone because they didn’t meet your expectations the first time you opened the app? Was version 2.0 better? Who knows – they had their chance. How many new restaurants have you tried that were disappointing either in food or service and not returned? Did the menu evolve and new a manager show up to fix service? Who knows or cares – there are plenty of other options.

I’ve noticed it in a bad habit I have. My brain is often working too fast as I’m listening to people and I will often respond before I’ve listened to all the information they are trying to convey to me. I need to slow it down a bit so my first answer to them is the right answer and not something that I need to revise.

If you make things, do market research. If you write things, proofread them and put them aside to read them again in 5 minutes instead of hitting “send”. We all feel the time crunch and the need to get stuff done, but slow down a bit. Your results will be better and you’ll actually save time since you won’t need to do it all over again as more information changes your thinking. Make sense?

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Filed under Consulting, Helpful Hints, Reality checks, Thinking Aloud

Fixing The Food

This Foodie Friday, our subject is a bit more somber than usual. It’s a report put out by The Lancet, which is a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal. It is among the world’s oldest, most prestigious, and best known general medical journals, according to Wikipedia. The subject of the report is what healthy diets from sustainable food systems should look like. Unfortunately, where the world is at the moment is neither healthy nor sustainable.

If you’re so inclined, you can read the entire report here. It’s eye-opening. As the introduction says:

Civilization is in crisis. We can no longer feed our population a healthy diet while balancing planetary resources. For the first time in 200000 years of human history, we are severely out of synchronization with the planet and nature. This crisis is accelerating, stretching Earth to its limits, and threatening human and other species’ sustained existence.

Not good right? We can discuss the causes (are the excess carbon emissions generated from red meat production inherent in the process or just in having to move the meat such great distances?) but we really do need to acknowledge that there is a problem and something needs to change. And that’s really the business point for anyone engaged in business.

Not only do markets change but circumstances do as well. I’m sure that it didn’t start out this way and there is a lot of cultural history behind it, but the report says people in North America eat more than six times the recommended amount of red meat, while people in South Asia eat half of what they should. Of course, shipping red meat to South Asia causes carbon emissions as well as provides a product that might not be affordable. What’s the solution? That’s for people way smarter than me.

Another example of changing circumstances. We’ve all seen businesses fail or have to move because of a huge increase in rent. That’s not a changed market and the business might be selling every bit as much as it was before. But short of raising prices, thereby possibly killing sales and destroying a customer base, what’s the solution? Usually, it’s to move and hope your customers move with you.

We can’t ignore things beyond the market. People are hungry – nearly 1 billion people are going hungry while 2 billion people are eating too much. There is demand for food. It’s a healthy market. But ignoring the circumstances that the business of creating it is destroying humans’ long-term prospects is short-sighted, something none of us in business can afford to be, right?

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Filed under food, Reality checks, What's Going On

How Did We Get So Far Off Track?

I started working in the digital world in the mid-’90s. While I wasn’t exactly there for the dawn of the digital age, I was a relatively early member of the group of executives that began building businesses on the internet and on walled gardens like AOL used to be. A couple of things that have happened recently have me shaking my head, wondering how it’s all gone sideways.

First, I asked Twitter to send me something:

Keith Ritter, your advertiser list is ready! The list attached includes the advertisers that have included you in a tailored audience. These advertisers have included you in one or more tailored audiences. Tailored audiences are often built from email lists or browsing behaviors. They help advertisers reach prospective customers or people who have already expressed interest in their business.

I figured since I do a fair amount of cookie-blocking and other means to prevent tracking that I’d turn up in a handful of audiences and I was right. I appear in exactly 9 audiences. However, the rest of the 57-page document (not a typo) listed the similar audiences Twitter has decided I fit. They market me as a part of these audiences and I have no control over it. I can opt out and it will change the ads I see on Twitter. It won’t however, remove me from these audiences. I am included in over 1,000 of them, my data used and sold quite unwillingly.

Then there are the constantly apologizing folks at Facebook. This article in the NY Times is both frightening and disappointing. It talks about how Facebook “gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews.”  Their privacy track record is abominable and every week it seems there is another apology and a promise to do better. Fool me once…

It’s taken years for the marketers and publishers to push back on the rampant fraud and abuse of programmatic ads. Social media is rife with “influencers” who buy fake followers and regularly violate FTC regulations on advertising. It seems that everyone under 30 is either a ninja or a guru. Fake reviews for products that are complete rip-offs are everywhere (run a link to an Amazon review through Fakespot if you don’t believe me).

All of this leaves one question: what the hell happened? How did the digital business world get so screwed up? At some point, Facebook and many other digital businesses decided that making money is way more important than serving their users is, I think, the basic answer. I’m all for making money, as my business track record shows. There are limits, however, and I have a fundamental belief that making money can only happen over the long term when you respect the customer. As the great David Ogilvy once said, “The customer is not a moron. She’s your wife.” Because most of the people who use digital have no concept about how they are tracked and marketed, most businesses treat them as morons and therein lies the problem.

I could rant on but I’ll end it here with a plea. To any of you who are in the digital world, please resolve to get back on track. Way back when in 1995, all we wanted to do was to amuse a few people and keep them engaged. Yes, we sold ads but we also didn’t track people once they left our domain. We didn’t treat them as numbers or rubes. You shouldn’t either. I get that the tools are more sophisticated and more powerful and that the world has changed. Basic business principles and human decency haven’t, have they?

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Filed under Huh?, Reality checks, What's Going On