Have you seen the TED video of Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who had a massive hemorrhagic stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain?
Taylor is a neuroanatomist. This gave her unique insight into her stroke as it unfolded.
A hemorrhagic stroke is heavy duty trauma. In Taylor’s case it shut down her left cortical hemisphere, the side associated with speaking, reasoning and analytical activities. She was left with just the right hemisphere to view and interpret events coming within the reach of her consciousness. It rendered the world far differently from the one she experienced before the stroke. She lost all sense of any boundaries between where she began and ended. She felt part of a splendid whole that infused her with an eerie euphoria. At first it didn’t matter that the stroke had silenced the verbal centers of her left brain. As the stroke continued unfolding she became vividly aware that the right brain and left brain are of two different minds, neither of which is capable by itself of giving an accurate read on reality.
Dr. Taylor’s story bears an important metaphorical caveat for economists, investment analysts, marketers and others who try to foretell the future base on mathematical reductions of reality. It takes both sides of the brain to come up with an accurate picture of reality. The analytical left brain for all its powers of logic and reasoning cannot do it on its own. Einstein knew that. He famously observed, “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
Wall Street “quants” – those analysts who live by numbers – have come in for some sharp criticism in the wake of the 2008 Financial Crash. Macroeconomists have also taken in on the chin because none of any prominence saw the Crash coming. In fact, the party line well into 2008 is that the year would experience modest growth.
A dozen years ago I wrote an article for American Demographics about huge shortcomings in quantitative market research. It produced by far the largest number of reader responses in the magazine’s history. I don’t know how many ended up on the editor’s desk but I received over 400 emails, many expressing the thanks for letting them know why market research so often misses the mark.
Market research is a more than $6 billion industry. The fact that some 90 percent of new products and product line extensions fail suggests that much of that $6 billion dollars is needlessly wasted. At the core of the problem is the dearth of understanding of human behavior among researchers.
A number of prominent entrepreneurs have a deep distrust of statistically grounded research, particularly in consumer research. These include Phil Knight (Nike), Steve Jobs (Apple), Howard Schultz (Starbucks) and Scott Cook (Intuit). Scott Bedbury, who helped Phil Knight turn Nike into an international brand had this to say about traditional consumer market research:
The greatest problem with relying on traditional methodologies … is that they provide management with reams of statistical data, which may tempt those lacking in confidence to go against their common sense and gut intuition.. That, to put it mildly, is not the Nike way. In fact, prior to my first interview with Phil Knight, I had been specifically advised to avoid mentioning the words “marketing” or “research” in speaking with him. Apparently, he regarded both words as symbolic of what is wrong with most businesses.
After helping Knight turn Nike into one of the world’s best-known brands, Bedbury hired on with Howard Schultz to do much the same for Starbuck’s. Again, he found himself working for an entrepreneur with a strong bias against quantitative consumer research.
Intuit founder Scott Cook puts great faith in anthropological, aka ethnological research. Cook sent employees into stores to “pick up” customers who had just bought an Intuit product. They were to accompany customers home to see how they integrated their Intuit purchase into their lives. Cook wanted to give customers accounting products that reflected their way of doing business.
Cook’s choice of anecdotal research over statistical research played a major role in making Intuit the leader in domestic and small business accounting software. Unable to compete effectively, Bill Gates made a move to buy Intuit. However the SEC scotched the proposed marriage and Intuit went on to become even more dominant in its market niche.
I’ll close with another Einsteinian bit of wisdom: Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. All the entrepreneurs I just cited obviously buy into that wisdom. I wonder how many of my readers do.
P.S Be sure to watch Jill Bolte Taylor's incredible story.