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6 Popular Ideas That Fail

2011 June 1

“Nobody ever gets fired for buying IBM” was once a popular belief that seems quaint now.  It’s hard to imagine that people used to buy IBM products simply because they were so dominant.
We are all, however, chauvinists for our own age, caught up in our own moment.  We take refuge in the safety of numbers.  We don’t trust the short line at the store.  Quantity has a quality all of its own.
The following is a list of seven ideas that, like choosing IBM a few decades ago, won’t get anyone fired.  Nevertheless, they probably should.

1. Pay For Performance

One of the things you hear with metronomic regularity in the business world is the importance of performance pay.  However, as Daniel Pink reveals in his book Drive, there is an enormous gap between what science knows and what business does.

He draws on decades of studies that show that for problem solving and creative tasks (i.e. most of what professionals do today), incentive pay often decreases productivity.  He recommends that giving employees opportunity for autonomy, mastery and purpose is far more effective.

My experience suggests that he’s right.  Incentive pay is more likely to result in efforts to “game the system” than to create value and I have found that, even with salespeople, individual performance pay often backfires.  I’ve had better results with group bonuses, but even then you need to be careful with structure and not give them too much weight.

That doesn’t mean that that incentives have no place at all. They can signal priorities and help people keep track of how they are doing.  However, in general they’re overdone and more qualitative forms of feedback can be far more effective.  After all, if employees aren’t intrinsically motivated, you have bigger problems than compensation.

2. Brainstorming

Another standard practice that is taken on faith is brainstorming.  However, again there is little or no evidence that it works and a there is a vast body of evidence to the contrary.  This paper(pdf) suggest that brainstorming results in fewer and poorer ideas and cites studies dating back to 1958.

Others suggest that brainstorming results in more ideas, but is less likely to result in a viable solution (this is more consistent with my experience – 150 crappy ideas that are quickly forgotten).

Either way, the fact remains that brainstorming sessions rarely result in productive outcomes.  While in some circles the practice takes on a mystical significance, almost akin to a séance in which the spirits of brilliance will magically appear on white-boards, there are much better ways to unlock creativity.

3. SWOT Analysis

SWOT analysis, the identification of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats has become nearly universal in strategic discussions.  However, like brainstorming, there is little evidence that it works.  This article by  J. Scott Armstrong at the Wharton school cites research that shows that the method is more likely to do harm than good.

Nevertheless, whenever anybody wants to put on their strategic hat, you can expect some form of SWOT analysis to follow.  The result, at least in my experience, is some silly conclusion like “Our strengths are our weaknesses and our opportunities are our threats.”

In other words, a complete waste of time.

4. Marketing ROI

Okay, maybe this isn’t so ridiculous.  Marketing is an investment and some effort must be put forth to determine return.  However, ROI as normally practiced usually obscures more than it reveals.

Too often, the discussion about ROI revolves around myths rather than reality.  This is especially true when it comes to digital ROI, which invariably ignores the fact that the bulk of budgets remain offline.  

Worse, ROI is commonly used as a sales tool by media owners, who for some reason think that it’s helpful for clients to receive a dozen or more ROI estimates from as many salespeople. These usually employ incredibly convoluted calculations in the name of transparency, seemingly in an attempt to redefine the term “oxymoron.”

There are, of course, some sensible ways to approach ROI.  However, they entail having full access to marketing data. So if you’re not a marketer yourself or an agency with an ROI contract, it’s an exercise in futility.

5. Social Media Followers

An interesting offshoot of the ROI madness has been the extremely misguided use of metrics in social media marketing, particularly with respect to the number of followers.

As I wrote before, adding followers won’t build your community.  What’s really important is how engaged they are in their interactions with each other.  So rather than focusing on what numbers show up on your Twitter profile or Facebook page, try and give them something to talk about.

Be interesting, have a story and help them connect with each other.  It’s internal links that drive social networks rather than simply how many people you can get to link to your brand.

6. Experts and Experience

We all have to come to terms with our own ignorance.  No matter how hard we try, there will always be vast chasms of dark space in our knowledge.  So, it’s understandable that we’re constantly on the lookout for experts. However, their value is often overstated and can sometimes even be negative.

First of all, research suggests that people often get worse with experience, so the fact that someone has been doing something for a long time doesn’t necessarily make him good at it.  Second, innovative breakthroughs happen when people cross domains and usually not by through expertise in just one area.

Finally, as I wrote about in my post on elegant gurus, just because someone comes with impressive credentials doesn’t mean that they have their facts straight.  In actuality, some seem to think that having a gold-plated resume means that they no longer need to be diligent and rigorous.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Why is it that practices become so widespread with little or no evidence to support them?  Bertrand Russell had this to say:

“If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.”

In other words, we tend to search for information that supports what we already believe and disregard evidence to the contrary.  Brainstorming feels creative, therefore it must be.  We like having big numbers next to our names, therefore it feels good when we have a lot of followers.

When called on to make a choice between our beliefs and our well being, we have a strange tendency to choose our beliefs.

The foolishness, of course, doesn’t stop with the six examples cited above.  Stanford professors Jeffery Pfeffer and Bob Sutton have uncovered a wealth of popular yet mistaken management notions and advocated for what they call evidence based management.

The moral is clear:  Don’t believe everything you think.

– Greg

22 Responses leave one →
  1. Megha Sandesh permalink
    June 1, 2011

    Without sounding like flattery, I want to state that this is one of the more refreshing articles that I have read recently. As a person who rarely takes to the “mass route” or the “tried and trusted way” (which I can state with a certain faith which eludes the so called off-beat or “unique” legions), I would appreciate if you would oblige my offer to connect with you and exchange meaningful ideas (contrary to brainstorming).

  2. June 1, 2011

    Thanks Megha!

    – Greg

  3. June 1, 2011

    Greg, really good article… Thanks.
    I specially liked the phrase “Don’t Believe Everything You Think”.

    The only comment I have, is that, even it’s hard to messure, companies need to try to have a clue on their Marketing ROI… How? Well, that’s the real problem.

    Thanks again.

  4. June 1, 2011


    Yes. I agree (and said so in the article), but as it’s commonly practiced it’s a bad idea (unless you are a marketer yourself of an agency with full access to data).

    Thanks for your comment.

    – Greg

  5. June 1, 2011

    Greg, excellent thoughts. I particularly like number 6 on Experts and Experience. I’ve thought for a long time that far too much emphasis is placed on this, as if someone can actually reach a place where they know it all and thus have real value. However, my own experience tells me that the best work is done when continuing to learn as that keeps the interest level elevated. When you stop learning you stop growing.

  6. June 1, 2011

    Thanks Chris. Couldn’t agree more!

    – Greg

  7. Matt permalink
    June 1, 2011

    Like in everything, there are always right ways to implement things knowing that every situation is different from each other. For example, group incentives may be better than the personal ones but there are many studies in organizational physiology prove that this statement can be wrong most of the time if the implementation is correct.

    Similarly, there are also a lot of debates on how people get lost in meetings because they often forget the goal of the meeting. While ideas are flying around in the brainstorming, not checking the goal of the meeting very often is like getting into the car and driving without a map. In order to make the brainstorming efficient, the group should ask this question constantly: “What are we hoping to get at the end of this meeting?” It is not very easy to do but this is also why not everybody is successful with it. But again it doesn’t make the idea fail.

  8. June 1, 2011

    Thanks for your input Matt.

    – Greg

  9. June 1, 2011

    Number one and two actually go together, brainstorming is forced performance.

    Great post!

  10. June 1, 2011

    So is when my wife asks me “How do I look in this?”

    – Greg

  11. June 2, 2011

    As always Greg clear, grounded and rational thoughts.

    I actually think it is more of an implementation matter than saying the process/idea itself is bad. For example I have organised and been part of effective and bad brainstorming sessions, being incentivised for ‘certain’ things over others can produce great results, SM followers can be good if they are influenced listeners & well recommended experts who do good work over and over & have lots of experience can really help organisations without any expertise. So I think ideas that often fail can, if implemented correctly, be ideas that succeed ? Cheers

  12. June 2, 2011

    really this is amazing news… thanks for sharing ..

  13. June 2, 2011


    It’s a valid point. I think what it comes down to is this: divergent thinking vs. criteria based sessions.

    Brainstorming, as originally conceived, is a divergent thinking process that’s free-flowing. That’s what has been debunked by the bulk of the research. There’s an additionally issue stemming from the fact that one or two people tend to dominate, but that’s more of an issue with managing the sessions themselves.

    However, the term “brainstorming” is often used without following the strict form. Researchers have found that if clear criteria (i.e. financial criteria, operational constraints, etc.) for solutions are given, results tend to be much better and many workshops are indeed structured this way.

    So I think that the underlying point is that, while the idea of a free-flowing, no-holds-barred, judgement deferred process might sound new-age-hip and therefore cool, creativity is best catalyzed by defining the problem.

    As Einstein said, “If I had 20 days to solve a problem I would spend 19 days defining it”.

    – Greg

  14. June 2, 2011


  15. June 6, 2011

    You say “Nobody ever gets fired for buying IBM”. And when I was a salesman selling IBM PC-XTs then the upgraded AT (sorry, rambling!) I would actually quote this to clients…

    The reason that we found this so successful as a sales method was not because of their dominant position in the market, but because of the perception (and it was reality too at the time) that if something went wrong with your product the “sky would be dark with IBM engineers dropping in to fix the problem”.

    It was a genuine competitive advantage in the days when PCs needed constant attention and very rarely worked as expected – and often didn’t work at all!!

    but I do agree with your point – especially paying for performance. And I have seen proof of this in the sales teams that ran. Rarely did the sales plan and commission structure encourage more sales. But a strong team manager who worked to build a sales TEAM out performed every time.

    Great stuff Greg – thanks.

  16. June 6, 2011


    Good point. IBM became successful for good reasons and it’s not quite so clear why some of these ideas have except that they seem like they should work.

    – Greg

  17. June 6, 2011


    This is probably something that a psychologist could explain. I think it has to do with once enough people accept an idea, it become “fact” and beyond question. Another similar and great example of this (but not for debate here) is religion…


  18. June 6, 2011

    Thank you for your restraint. I would prefer not to open that particular can of worms:-)

    – Greg

  19. Robert H. permalink
    June 13, 2011

    Good post. Basic rationality shines through as well as pointing out the murk that is all too common.

    You may be interested, if you haven’t heard of them already, in a group that is, in their words, “…devoted to refining the art of human rationality – the art of thinking.” The community brings together what is known about the biases and faults of human rationality in order to do better.

    I’m not a member but I have found some of their materials on the known faults of human rationality interesting.

  20. June 13, 2011

    Thanks Robert! I’ll check it out.

    – Greg

  21. June 15, 2011

    Because these are generally pet peeves of mine, let me point out:

    1) That the research Daniel Pink relies on heavily in Drive (by Edmund Deci, et. al.) to come to sweeping conclusions about Pay for Performance is based almost entirely on experiments that last a few hours conducted with undergraduates or children.

    The idea that this research tells us something useful about the effect of annual performance bonuses on adults with 20 years of experience doing highly complex and difficult to quantify jobs is risible. Deci’s research is the subject of a great deal of debate within the academic circles from which it comes and by no means should be the basis of decisions in the real world.

    That is not to say that Pay for Performance works. It’s just to say that the oft-cited research that says it doesn’t is not trustworthy.

    2) Which leads to a second point about the citing of social science research and its use in practical application. The most important thing to know about any social science research is the methodology used (cf. Deci’s approach). However, given the well-known problems of confirmation bias and publication bias as well as data mining of results, no individual study should be used as the sole basis for justifying a point of view or a decision. Equally, the phrases “the research shows” or “research suggests” should always be warning signs to NOT believe what immediately follows them, especially if the research in question is not cited so that you can look at the methodology used and the literature review in the paper.

  22. June 15, 2011

    Thanks for sharing.

    Research is linked in, if you would like to look for yourself.

    – Greg

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