How to Make More Sense—of Business and Life

August 18, 2017

How to Make More Sense—of Business and Life

Why is it that when testing out a concept for a new restaurant, people are willing to spend more money if the restaurant is named Studio 97 rather than Studio 17?

How is it that a tall person with a deep voice is perceived to be more capable than someone who is shorter with a higher voice?

How come the key to selling more Italian wine in a store is to have opera music in the background?

And why would people come up with wildly different estimates for the computation of 8x7x6x5x4x3x2x1 as compared to 1x2x3x4x5x6x7x8?

These  examples make little sense, except that they have been replicated over and over in scientific experiments. The reason: It seems that we are not as rational as we think we are. Our operating systems, apparently, are not in full control, and something else intervenes. It turns out that our brains, as they have been taught to do over the millennia, seek short cuts (heuristics) in a complex world overloaded with data and alternatives. The quick choices that we make based on our internal algorithms can unconsciously go astray.

Not surprisingly, this imperfection in our intellectual armor has attracted considerable attention. Amos Tversky and Nobel Prize winner Danny Kahneman are two psychologists who delved into this interesting, but anomalous behavior. As humans, we think fast and slow, and our two selves—fast-thinking survivalist and slower-thinking contemplator—often battle each other. Other scientists have contributed to the discussion of how judgments are made and the fact that unconscious bias often intercedes. The field of behavioral economics is in full bloom, and new professions are emerging to add to our understanding of how we are wired as people. (My favorite new job title is evolutionary psychologist.)

Given these apparent contradictions in rational order, let’s take a closer look at two categories of statements. There are statements that seem to be true, reflect conventional wisdom and would not seem to be worth the time to challenge, but perhaps should be. Then there are statements that are contradictions of themselves, but still grab our attention. My favorite example of these come from the great catcher and American philosopher Yogi Berra, who made ridiculous statements such as, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it,” or “We’re lost, but making good time.”

Let’s have some fun. Review the following eleven statements and be prepared to add your own.

1. Statements that make sense and seem logical; but may not be the best advice.

  • I am working on a tough problem so I need to stay longer at the office. Actually, the best course of action is to go home, engage in other activities and let your unconscious mind go to work. Our unconscious mind is much better at thinking through complex problems; too much intentional focus freezes thought and stifles creativity. It turns out that the old adage—let me sleep on it—is good advice.


  • Build credibility for an initiative by emphasizing its benefits and strengths. Actually, not. Everyone expects a sales pitch and that projects and proposals will be put in the best possible light; but interestingly, trust and credibility are gained by doing exactly the opposite. For example, the next time you make a presentation seeking support for a project, include not only the barriers or downsides, but also why stakeholders should not support the plan. This can lead to a very different discussion and exchange, much more honest and substantive than reactions to a typical, one-sided marketing pitch.


  • I feel like I am not doing my job (and earning my salary) if I don’t work long hours and stay electronically connected. Many people feel this way but they need to pay attention to science. Don’t confuse busyness with productivity. People are not productive working long, interrupted hours. Our thought processes decline after 90 minutes of intense focus and we need periods of renewal, such as taking a 20-minute walk with a colleague. If we get less than 6 hours of sleep, the effect is similar to being intoxicated at work the next day. And being tied to mobile devices is literally addictive; and leads to shallow work as opposed to making real substantive contributions. On average people check e-mail and mobile devices 150 times per day and lose 21 percent of productive time. Experiment with moving away from antiquated social norms that impede rather than promote productivity.


  • People are most engaged when they relax. Ah, the mental image of the hammock and a glass of lemonade … but no, we are most engaged when we are challenged. This is best articulated by the concept of flow and the satisfaction we get from assignments that stretch our physical and mental capabilities. This is the Learning Zone in which we feel alive, challenged, and energized. Angela Duckworth (Grit, 2016) talks about the Hard Thing rule that each family member must choose. You can’t quit until the end of the commitment, and then you must pick the next gritty thing, whether it be playing the violin, developing a new skill or hobby, or extending your capabilities in some way.


  • Hire candidates who are the strongest cultural fit. Southwest Airlines is famous for articulating their hiring philosophy: hire for values and train for the rest. For more complex jobs, technical skills and job proficiency are clearly important considerations as well. But cultural fit is very important, as more people leave their jobs because of a cultural mismatch than technical skills issues. However, as philosophers taught us a long time ago, excess of virtue can lead to vice. In the case of cultural fit, group think and homogeneous organizations can emerge if everyone is the same. It is essential to have people who think differently, challenge prevailing thought and even have competing perspectives on issues. Disney was a pioneer in computer animated graphics technology but felt it threatened its traditional business; Polaroid was an early leader in digital cameras, and Phillips had the inside track on the iPod. They all passed, rather expensively. Rather than hire for narrow cultural fit, hire for cultural contribution.


2. Statements that are seeming contradictions.


  • It takes longer to prepare for a shorter presentation. Yep, it does. It takes time to make thoughtful choices, and know what not to say. I like to tell the story of Mark Twain who was asked to come speak at a community function, and replied something to the effect of, “How long is my talk? Because if you want me to speak for an hour I can come tomorrow. If it’s 30 minutes, I’ll be ready next week. If it’s 10minutes, it will be a month.”


  • Less is more. Technically less can’t be more, but in the workplace, it usually is. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple, he asked his leadership team to identify new initiatives that could make a huge impact. The list quickly became extensive; and then he said: ok, pick three because this is all we can do well. Another data point is the capacity of short term memory, which ranges from 4 to 7 new pieces of information….anything else doesn’t register. Long lists of bullet points or complex slides are simply wastes of time.


  • Failures can lead to more successes. Some failures are just that: crummy execution and results. But other failures can be stepping stones to excellence. Great companies understand that failures, especially when pushing the envelope and creating new products and processes, lead to success. Innovation involves risk; and without risk, there are no breakthroughs. Failure is seen, not as a personal shortcoming, but a learning and growth opportunity. If innovation is valued at your organization, failures should be celebrated and recognized, not punished or ignored.


  • I can influence others best by saying nothing. Conventional thinking argues that if presenters are compelling enough, then people will be persuaded to do what we want them to do. But this conventional thinking is wrong. The key is asking the right questions to engage people and get them to experience things themselves. Personal experiences are the best teacher and motivator, not what someone else says you should do. Plus, by asking good questions and demonstrating real interest in the other person, trust is extended; and it is virtually impossible to influence people without establishing the foundation of trust.


  • Is it the tortoise or the hare? It depends. For children, the lesson that slow and steady (the tortoise) wins the day makes perfect sense. Perseverance, follow-through and “stick-to-it-ness” are wonderful traits in business and life. But when we look at the fable differently, the hare has advantages. In business, slow and steady may not be the best model, although there continues to be debate about being a pioneer or settler. The hare is also a metaphor for how we function best as human beings. People work most effectively in bursts punctuated by periods of renewal or rest. It is like interval training for swimmers, track athletes (or rabbits): periods of intense activity (usually 90 minute of deep work) followed by recovery. Or it is like an intense, months-long business project followed by a sabbatical or time to recharge and renew. As people, there is a cycle and rhythm to our physical and mental exertion, and we need to recognize that these are renewal resources that must be replenished, or they will be lost.


  • Failure to prepare is preparing to fail. John Wooden, enough said.

So what additions do you have? These juxtapositions help us pause and reflect,and they also remind us how little we really understand ourselves. Perhaps we should ask some evolutionary psychologists?

The Authors: 

David Forman is president of Sage Learning Systems and former chief learning officer at the Human Capital Institute. The courses he has developed and taught for HCI have been taken by thousands of HR professionals around the world. Dave has spent more than 25 years in the training industry, working with large global organizations to improve the knowledge, skills, and performance of their people. Major clients include FedEx, IBM, DuPont, Microsoft, SAP, American Express, PwC, Ford, Prudential, Apple, Scripps Healthcare, and Allstate. He has written more than 40 articles on talent management, analytics, strategic human resources, learning systems, high-performance cultures, and leadership. He has also spoken at a variety of national and global tale and leadership conferences. David is the author of Fearless HR: Driving Business Results. He can be reached at