Truth vs Belief

“What is true is more powerful than what you believe, because what is true will give you an edge.” – Bill James

I haven’t posted anything in more than six months. There’s no particular reason, really – just a combination of being generally busy, being too tired at the end of a workday to write something, and not having any especially strong ideas or concepts that I wanted to share.

But today I got nudged over the edge, and the topic is the difference between, and the importance of the difference between, what is true and what is belief.

I omitted two words from the opening quote; it actually begins, “In sports, …”

Bill James is a legendary figure in sports analytics, and the quote above is in reference to using detailed analysis to find the truth about what matters in sports, versus relying on long-held beliefs and consensus. By finding truths, you can gain an edge – and an edge in sports is everything.

But truth – and hopefully this fact is obvious – matters in every part of life.

A couple of things happened coincidentally recently that led to this post.

First, a friend and colleague asked for holiday reading recommendations, and I looked up my post about The Numbers Game – the book opened with the quote I’ve used above.

Last week, I spent a few days surrounded by a hundred of my international colleagues, as part of our annual sales conference. This conference is an unmatched opportunity for me to do primary research with a group of my stakeholders. It lets me get, unfiltered, their opinions on issues and answers to questions, face-to-face, and with some alcoholic lubrication to increase the honesty and frankness.

I probably had more direct conversations at this conference than in the entire year preceding. These conversations are a fantastic way to learn both what my stakeholders (our sales team) and our customers have to say. In other words, they provide the opportunity to learn some truths (their truths) that may or may not match up with my own beliefs, as my own beliefs are often formed in the relative isolation of our headquarters.

These conversations provide the opportunity to learn some truths (their truths) that may or may not match up with my own beliefs.

Then, this afternoon, I listened to the Malcolm Gladwell podcast Saigon – part of his (excellent) Revisionist History series. This episode talks about the Viet Cong Motivation and Morale study. I first learned about this study in The Pentagon’s Brain, and my book report includes this related quote: “…but the agency did not want to hear that the Vietcong could not be defeated. Seymour Deitchman took the position that Zasloff and Donnell had gone off the rails, same as Hickey and Donnell had done with the Strategic Hamlet Program report a few years before. According to other RAND officers, Deitchman perceived the POW report as unhelpful. RAND needed to send researchers into the field whose reports were better aligned with the conviction of the Pentagon that the Vietcong could and would be defeated.”

The gist of it is that the RAND Corporation conducted thousands of interviews with Viet Cong and civilians from North Vietnam to gain an understanding of the psychology of the North Vietnamese, so that an effective war strategy could be devised. An objective review of those interviews leads to the conclusion that the war – which was a war of persuasion and ideology – could not be won. That is, no amount of bombing would lead to a surrender. Unfortunately, as history shows, that wasn’t the answer that people wanted to hear…and this unwinnable, unjust war continued – based on belief rather than truth.

Unfortunately, this unwinnable, unjust war continued – based on belief rather than truth.

I’ve also been following, to my increasing dismay (and I’m pretty damn dismayed already), the events unfolding in the United States. A demagogue is the President-Elect, largely because people voted based on personal belief rather than objective and obvious truth.

People voted based on personal belief rather than objective and obvious truth.

We return, now, from events of historical magnitude to matters of paltry or trivial importance. With 2017 coming up, and with a vacation of a few weeks, I find myself with some time to think strategically about the future. What should I do differently in 2017? Professionally, what should I ask my team to do differently? What should I and we keep doing?

Professionally, this past year my team faced several important decisions for which we had relatively little or no information upon which to base the decision. It’s easy enough to spot these situations, because there’s a lot of “I think…” and, “Let’s assume…”, usually  – but not always, and it’s dangerous when you have a consensus in these scenarios, because it makes it harder to recognize that you’re flying blind – accompanied by a range of opinions.

So what did we do? Well, we went back to basics: we conducted extensive, open interviews with our customers (when possible) and with our salespeople (both to get their own opinions and to have them act as proxies between us and our customers/prospects). On a couple of occasions, our gut feelings – our beliefs – were shown to be on the right track; nevertheless, the feedback still led to better outcomes. On a couple of occasions, we learned something that caused us to change course, because the truth was different from our beliefs.

On a couple of occasions, our gut feelings – our beliefs – were shown to be on the right track; nevertheless, the feedback still led to better outcomes. On a couple of occasions, we learned something that caused us to change course, because the truth was different from our beliefs.

Turning back to 2017: what did we do well, and what should we do differently? I think we did quite well with our little research projects; I also think we should do things differently, by doing many more of them in 2017 than we did in 2016. For any matter of even moderate importance, I want to take the creativity out of it, so-to-speak, by basing the decision entirely – or as much as possible – on research.

From experience I can tell you that, in the moment, it can be hard to pursue the research-and-analyze approach – it’s a real challenge to set up conversation times with 30ish people with absurdly full calendars who are, quite literally, scattered around the world. You’re getting up early, you’re staying up late, you’re dealing with reschedulings, you need to ask open questions, you have to be interested – genuinely – in having your notions and beliefs challenged. But it’s oh-so worth it.

In marketing, and – much more importantly – in leadership (as well as in sports), what is true is more powerful than what you believe.

In marketing, and – much more importantly – in leadership (as well as in sports), what is true is more powerful than what you believe.

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Posted in Leadership, Marketing

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