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Separating Fact from Fiction

Copyright 2005 Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

With the arrival of blogs and other forms of unstructured commentary on business topics, the issue for business owners and executives becomes how to separate meaningful commentary from much of what is simply opinion, with no value beyond that of the narrator's anecdotal experience.

Much like the investigators on the popular series CSI, the challenge is to separate fact from fiction, or reality from superficial perceptions.

As a consultant, I'm always looking for new information, viewpoints and a different take on any given situation. As Stephen Covey (the Seven Habits author) says - "sharpen the saw". However, much of what is advanced in blogs, online forums and sometimes published media is neither new nor useful - but merely offered by opinionated individuals as global truths.

Over the years, I've developed some rules of thumb that help to quickly evaluate commentary and determine if it appropriate to save, print, reference or bookmark. This quick checklist will help you parse down the commentary to that which is useful to you, in your given situation.

Is is replicateable?

What this means is - can the factors of the described success be replicated, or are they simply one off? Many experiences that are described are essentially unique to the circumstance of the narrator. It can be their background, environment, circumstances they find themselves in and a host of other factors. In other words - these circumstances are not replicatable to you or I. That being the case, the success story is just that - an individual story. For example - one might get the impression that Donald Trump got where he is by brazen dealmaking and taking large risks. Regardless of his talents (self-promotion being among them) what few realize was that he inherited a large portfolio of New York real estate from his father. Nice work if you can get it. So if you are inspired by "The Donald's" success - remember his starting point.

Another cross check on replicatable practices is whether it has been applied at least three different diverse situations - and basically found to work repeatedly. A number of commentators (and business book authors) have found one-off success, and anoint themselves as business philosophers and gurus. They may have some interesting opinions on issues - but years of breathing one's own exhaust can take its toll. Jack Welch comes to mind.

Is it scalable?

Much of the management practices that are offered as unique and contrarian to accepted practices are simply not scalable. Ben and Jerry's attempts at corporate management tend to fit this profile - such as when they pledged that no executive's salary would exceed seven times that of their lowest-paid worker. In other words, the technique or practice is not scalable beyond that unique environment and its culture, or that individual's span of control which is typically six direct management reports - a fairly small organization. One-off management solutions are the trademark of the classic entrepreneur - and part of what makes them so interesting - but also part of why they will forever be just a small operation. This is known as a lifestyle business. On the other hand, scalable solutions can be taught to others, don't require extreme talents or skills, lend themselves to codification or structure (key to expansion and performance evaluations) and overall - can be expanded to a larger organization.

Is it theoretical or experiential?

Some commentators like to cite various management theories as somehow validating their opinion or technique. Of course, theory and practice often differ, for some very good reasons. After a while, you develop a sense for this and also whether or not the narrator has actually done what they advocate, or has actually applied it to situations that are not their own.

Applying theory to practice requires a few skills that are not typically found. First of all, you have to have the time to think about issues, which is often not the case. A premium in business is placed on action and results. Diagnostic skills are also necessary, and then the ability to ‘build' a model that is appropriate to the circumstances (know what assumptions to make, theory to apply, and its application limits.) You then have to test the model. These tasks aren't all that difficult to do if you have had some training in it and perform them on a regular basis, but few in management has the time or inclination to indulge in theory application and model building.

Where the amateurs give themselves away is by skipping all these steps, and simply citing business theory as a ‘one-size-fits-all' application.

A typical example may be the current fondness for the theory of ‘positioning'. This is the marketing theory that the customer carries around a grid in their head with various values (quality, delivery, price) and your product or offering occupies a certain spot on that grid. The idea is to find the optimum spot and move your position to that spot. That implies all kinds of market research studies and the like. Much easier to ask the business owner: ‘Why do your customers buy from you?' and ‘Who are your best customers?' The answers to those two questions encapsulate positioning, competitive analysis and a host of other marketing issues, and are much easier both to answer and to act on.

On the other hand, some executives and managers have a wide range of experiences, and begin to see patterns in the problems they have solved, and coalesce these solutions into theories. These are experiential in nature, which may or may not conform to B-school theory. Depending on the narrator's ability to parse their unique circumstances and factors form this pattern recognition, they can yield some interesting insights. However, I would venture to say that less that 10% of commentary is in this category.

What is the commentator's credentials to back up their opinion?

This is the one of the factors as to why everyone on the Internet is an ‘expert'. There is no way to qualify their expertise, if it exists at all. I'm reminded of the comment I once read about why it's best to network for a job at parties - no one expects you to have a resume, and you can be whatever you want to be. Unfortunately, on the web that is often true. I seen some really flawed commentary that was offered as fact, and numerous ‘Phd's which may or may not be real, or from a school that anyone would recognize.

For some reason, many of these commentaries seem to be on the behavioral side of business - such as marketing, public relations, sales and hiring or personnel practices. They seem to occur less in finance, information technology or law. Perhaps because these areas have a fairly well-established body of knowledge that permits a cross check on claims, whereas behavioral-based business issues are considered fair game for anyone's opinion - whether well founded or not.

A downside of the information age is the sheer glut of information, especially when one is looking for advisories on business management or practices. Information forensics may be the latest technique necessary to separate mere appearances from the facts.

© 2005, Jeffrey Geibel, All Rights Reserved

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