so what

so what

Monday, September 12, 2016

Guest Post: Margaret J. King on Echolalia - or telling you what you want to believe

Ecolalia:  Stating the Obvious by Echoing the Words of Others

The following was written by my Director, Dr. Margaret King.  We were discussing something disturbing that we had both encountered on separate occasions with different clients. This is the result. It's from her blog which you can find at: Cultural Intelligence

I'm re-posting it because I think it is important.

Two things I should mention. The first is that our styles are different.  She has a Ph.D. and comes from a strong White Anglo-Saxon Protestant background so she writes in much more depth and far more eruditely than I ever could. She, for instance, would never describe a brief mental lapse as a "brain fart."

And there is one factual error in the paragraph in which she described the meeting with the Disney executive. She did not personally tell him that his interpretation of the research was wrong. She lets me do that. She once told me a client asked if my job description included "sticking pins in other people's balloons."

As a matter of fact, it does.

Ecolalia:  Stating the Obvious by Echoing the Words of Others

Margaret J. King, Ph.D., Director
The Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis

Those of us who provide business intelligence services get paid significant money to produce two key outcomes:   The first is to understand the core nature of the client’s business in order to frame their problems in useful and actionable ways.  The second is to bring new intelligence and solutions to resolve and turn those problems around, leading to profits and growth.

But over the past few years we’ve seen a disturbing trend in market research, particularly when it comes to identifying your brand.

I call it Echolalia.

In medicine, Echolalia is a mental disorder; it compels the patient to repeat the last words other people speak.  The name comes from the ancient Greek myth of Echo, the nymph who was condemned by Hera to do just that for frolicking with her husband, the great god Zeus.

In market “research” (or pseudo-research), Echolalia is the practice of asking the client what they think their brand is, then handing in a report echoing what they told you.  As research goes, this isn’t.
This practice appears to have begun with the financial crash of 2008, and the malaise of uncertainty in the ensuing recession.  Human beings normally don’t have a problem taking calculated risks, but that changes when high levels of uncertainty are involved. Our brain is hard-wired to avoid uncertainty. The science on this is clear. We would rather do nothing than to make a decision in shaky or murky circumstances.

We saw this with our own clients. Critical decisions were suddenly delayed for months, in some instances years. Projects were abandoned. Negotiations dried up. Venture capital stopped flowing.  We started hearing the phrase; “We’re not ready to make a decision on that at this time.” We heard that a lot.

And these were not small, struggling businesses. These were Fortune 500 companies. They retrenched, maintained, but were reluctant to move forward. My in-box started filling up with résumés from colleagues whose bigger, cooler, consulting firms had cut them loose – or closed their doors entirely.

My theory is that the business environment was so gloomy, and the future so shuttered, that everyone began to second-guess their ideas and decisions. They started to rely more and more on consensus and groupthink to validate their decisions, to feel safer about anything they were doing or might do.
And that’s when we began to see a new sort of consultancy emerge. They called themselves Branding Agencies but what many of them delivered was carbon-copy “Echolalia.”

Now we know clients sometimes have difficulty understanding what their customers are telling them. more than a decade ago a senior Disney executive leaned back in his chair, smiled, and said "You know, we survey all the time, and the most common word that comes up when we ask what they like abut the Parks is "magic." I had to tell him that they were just repeating back their advertising to him.  Disney's ad campaign at the time was "Feel the Magic."

My point was people could tell him what they liked, but they couldn't tell him why they liked it. So they grabbed the word "Magic" from their ads and fed it back to him. It's not only a convenient word, it's a telling one. The whole idea of magic is you can't explain it.

But this is different.

There has always been a certain amount of echoing and even pandering to the client in the market research that we are asked to review, but this went beyond keeping the client in a good mood. I saw this for the first time in an exercise – a mock branding competition during which one of the teams simply copied, word for word, what the client said he wanted and pasted it up into a PowerPoint presentation, preceded by the words “We Will Provide….” 

Our teams were working in an auditorium with maybe 200 seasoned marketing professionals. Our first thought was “They’ll never fall for that.”  We were so wrong.
This was amusing at first – it surely had to be a parody – a one-off. However, after encountering it again and again across industries, it had become a new blunt instrument in the consultant’s toolbox.

Boards of Directors tend to be conformist groups.  Creative problem-solving researchers and consultants should not be.

This “re-verb” trend is built around posing the input from clients as processed findings or insight. Delivering ideas that simply confirm your client’s opinions of--or hopes for--their brand’s position and equity now manages to pass for research, apparently.  This means it’s now on the client to be sure they are getting their money’s worth, which they are not.

There is no analysis, no insight, no building on ideas, or folding in real knowledge toward a goal. Repeating the client’s words does not equal research, and certainly can’t be considered analysis.

For over two decades I’ve reviewed plenty of consumer research at our client’s request. I’ve seen the obvious touted as deep insight. I’ve seen research laced with superlatives in an attempt to cover up nothing of value to report. I’ve seen the wrong methodologies applied to the wrong problems, senseless questions in surveys and focus groups for null-value results. I’ve seen the right questions asked but to the wrong subjects. I’ve even seen reports that make it obvious the highly-paid consultant had no real idea of whet his client actually does.

That’s nothing new. We have all seen poorly executed research. But this is something added--an outright con.

It’s literally based on an old con-man tactic: the simplest way to convince someone that you are smart is to tell them something they already believe.  Even better if it’s flattering.

And this is downright dangerous. It’s the equivalent of your doctor asking if you have cancer. When you reply in the negative his diagnosis is, “Well, the good news is, you don’t have cancer!” Which, while unprofessional, seems harmless enough – unless you have cancer.

Reconfigured but not transformed. This is a form of idea flattery that consultants know very well how to execute; they’ve been doing it forever under the cover of “research.” But I have started to advise my clients, who regularly ask us about the value of their consultant reports, to be very careful and circumspect about this particular form of flattery. It’s an expensive luxury that won’t help solve your problems, move you forward, or otherwise improve your bottom line.  At best, It validates that you have a problem you recognize, as defined (correctly or not) by you.

Here’s a simple test for the client.  Looking at the report, how much of this information is actually news to you? How much challenges your beliefs and opinions? And how much is just your own ideas cut and pasted, without an ounce of value added? Do some simple math.

The consultant’s art needs to do much more:  analyze that “felt need,” the client problem statement, to see if that is really the core problem.  In our experience, it seldom is, rather, it’s a symptom (in sales, money, reputation, branding outcomes) of a much deeper underlying misdirection in purpose and resources.   Unless companies understand the deeper cultural value of what they do, they will never know how to plan, communicate, or allocate their money and time.

How does Echolalia operate on the ground?  Here are a few examples. 
If you tell your rehab architect that your kitchen is too dark, he needs to do more than tell you “Your kitchen is too dark, isn’t it?” You might hear Rogerian psychotherapy in this response.  He actually needs to do some work on your statement, for example, apply creative intelligence, a status study, strategy, and tactics to the problem.

This involves at least framing the problem as presented into a solvable proposition. This involves asking the question “OK, WHY is your kitchen too dark? What does “too dark” mean to you? And what can be done about it, from various thought bases?” 

Perhaps the solution is opening up the walls or even the ceiling to the sun. Artificial lighting is an answer, but what kinds are feasible, available, and affordable? Perhaps the entire room can be broken out and extended by new building or adapting adjacent spaces.

Maybe you need a fresh concept of what a kitchen is—this can include dining, conference, living room, and den spaces What is the desired overall effect in terms of design, use, and aesthetics? A whole range of questions can be provoked by the concept of “too dark” or solving for more light. And creative design firms know that their client’s version of the problem rarely points directly to one obvious solution, otherwise clients would readily solve the problem themselves at Home Depot.

Alan Turing developed an artificial intelligence technique to make a computer almost human by programming the computer response to human dictation.  In his 1951 paper “The Imitation Game,” he devised tests to make computers indistinguishable from human subjects as a test of intelligence.

You may remember the Turing Test from the days of early personal computers. There were programs that would initiate a conversation. The program would ask “How do you feel?”  You would respond “I feel fine.” Or “I feel sad.” And the program would respond “I’m happy to hear that.” Or “I’m sorry to hear that,” whichever was more appropriate. When in doubt, the computer would fall back on generalities; “Why do you say that?” Or “I sometimes feel that way, too.” The whole point of the Turing Test was to see how far the user could go into the program before realizing they were talking to a machine.

I’d extend Turing’s concept to propose the Echo Test. It works like this: Are you getting your money’s worth by picking professional brains? How much of this do I agree with wholeheartedly? Are you sure? How do you know it’s valid, other than the feedback sounds just as bright as you are (and remember, you are the one who can’t solve the problem)? 

When my company went looking for a public relations firm, we interviewed several national outfits. They were great listeners, enthusiastic and attentive (and nice dressers), and seemed to have what it took to talk about us to the press. However, we soon discovered their secret weapon; they were skilled at feedback but not at moving ideas around or handling new concepts to produce new knowledge. We read their proposals with some amusement as we realized everything we had talked about with them was indeed in evidence--just not in any digested form.

There was nothing there we hadn’t told them; nothing new; no actual work had been done on our ideas to carry them forward--no assimilation or transformation of information (i.e., learning).  Just a clever reposting job posing as news.
In the past year we’ve been called in to rescue two clients who thought they had commissioned a branding study and ended up with very expensive case of Echolalia.

One was a university. The branding company interviewed the faculty and administrators and gave them a “Creative Brief and Research Summary” defining their brand, which would have been great, if their brand was Harvard instead of a fourth-tier liberal arts college. It was unadulterated magical thinking. What it did was describe the school the faculty wanted to teach at in their dreams, replete with buzzwords like “rigor” and “excellence.”

We addressed that little problem by parking ourselves in the school cafeteria with a couple of the more engaged faculty members to whom we gave one simple instruction: “Snag us your best students – the ones who are thriving here.”

From these students we put together a new brand profile or value proposition: a student-centered environment, freedom to explore, easy access to faculty, caring faculty, helpful staff, etc. These were not just the best students, they were precisely the type they wanted and needed more of. It was that brand profile – how the students – the school’s “customers”-- recognized value -- that was then used to recruit the largest freshman class in the school’s history.

And, even better: the school didn’t have to change much – they were already delivering that value – they just weren’t marketing it correctly.  Because they didn’t know what it was.

You can’t solve a problem at the level at which it was created. That’s why companies have hierarchies – problems you can’t solve get passed up to people who can. But fundamental cultural issues – such as what your brand means to the customer - can’t be handled from the inside. Your own corporate culture and assumptions get in the way of your analysis. This is when you go to the outside - that’s the core value of consultancy.

Your brand is who your customers think you are, not who you think you are.

Our other major involvement with Echolalia was an established company in an evolving competitive market. The “Brand Statement” came back reading like their brochure. Again, it was the inside view of who they were and what they stood for.  No one interviewed their customers. No one interviewed their competitor’s customers. Many in the company are happy with that because the report validates what they already believe. Of course it does – the report is simply feeding back what the consultant heard and read.

In the meantime, the marketplace is evolving rapidly. New players and products are being introduced on a regular basis. It’s only a matter of time until one of them comes up with The Big Idea. That’s how the marketplace works.
Fortunately, not all the executives drank the Kool-Aid, so there we were, searching out their value – their Brand - where it actually lives: in the minds of their customers. We were not just looking for what they asked for, we were searching out what they needed to know in order to position themselves effectively.

Enormous sums are expended on echoing client ideas back. This brings nothing to the table. In fact it sets everyone back and makes us all cynical. The advice to “Keep doing what you’re doing, only better/faster/more” is the same as saying keep doing what you’re doing and hope for different results.

We all know how well that works; it’s one of the clinical definitions of insanity.

Next time you commission work or just a blue-sky session for a wickedly persistent problem, ask yourself this question:  what’s new here that I didn’t already know or say to the brain I’m paying to pick? If the answer is very little, then you are either dealing with an amateur or a favorite consultant you didn’t choose and whose work you can’t use.

You have our sympathies. I never wanted to be a firefighter, but when the phone rings, it’s often because someone’s carefully crafted marketing plan just went up in flames - because it was built on echoes.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Speaking of Thrill-Seeking

Great news for those of you who can't get enough of my going on and on and on about this stuff!
Margaret and I will be live on the Joy Cardin Show on Wisconsin Public Radio tomorrow morning, Thursday, August 25th, from 9AM -10AM (Eastern), 8AM - 9AM (Central), and Way Too Early (Pacific) talking and answering caller's questions about the culture of thrill-seeking and its influence on modern-day society.
You can also catch it at

You can also read our comments on the same subject in this month's Atlantic Magazine online at:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Why Employees Hate Meetings

Campfires and Waterholes: The Urban Primate’s Guide to The Corporate Jungle

Or: Why Employees Hate Meetings

It was a simple question from a client that made no sense.

“Why do people hate meetings?”

It didn’t make sense because meetings around here at The Center are kind of fun. Most are standup affairs – someone stands in your doorway, poses the problem, and you both bat it around for ten minutes until you reach some mutually-agreed conclusion.  Or at least frame the problem—which is actually harder.

We have lunch meetings and break room meetings over coffee, which are usually interesting and – here’s that word again – fun.  Our business is analyzing how groups make decisions at a subconscious level. We do this by tracking consistent patterns of behavior over time and, frankly, there’s nothing more entertaining than human nature.

The only all-hands-on-deck meeting we hold is the periodic review of our analysis before it goes into final form for the client.  That’s when we all sit around the big table and try to pick holes in our own work.  If we made a false assumption, if we missed a variable, if there is more than one way to read the data – that’s where we ferret it out. Absurdly huge amounts of money may be allocated based on our research and analysis, so if it is going to fail, it will be at that table and not once it’s in the hands of the client.  Or up and running in France, or China, or even in Space (NASA was the client.)

Those meetings can be pretty stressful, but you walk out of them with a feeling of certainty about your results, which you don’t get in a lot of other occupations. Humans instinctively avoid uncertainty. One of the purposes of a meeting is to remove uncertainty.  As much as possible.

I’ll get back to that.

If people hate – and avoid – meetings, then we’re doing them wrong. And I don’t mean wrong in the sense of failure to follow the rules in the dozens of books on meetings to be found in the business section of any bookstore.

They’re all pretty much the same: focused on the organization and process of how to run better meetings.  But scarcely any fundamental thinking about why people feel the need to meet in the first place, what social function they serve, and what their goals should be. 

Which we find surprising, because meetings were invented – and I would argue, perfected -- in prehistoric times.

By apes.

This isn’t one of those “people share 99% of their DNA with chimpanzees” posts. Those are written by someone who didn’t really comprehend high school science. All mammals share most of the same genes because we share the same biochemical and physiological functions – like breathing. That doesn’t make us chimpanzees any more than sharing genes with a banana makes us a fruit.

But humans did split from the ape tree somewhere around four to six million years ago. And we did inherit an array of attributes and behaviors from our ape progenitors.

Humans, like apes, are social primates – that means we need to be with others of our type. That means we are also a hierarchical species. Put a group of strangers in a room and within minutes they’ll sort themselves into a hierarchy. Humans and apes both understand reciprocity - trading goods and services to form alliances or have the favor returned – literally an example of “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

Both species are born with the ability to understand basic economics – that value is not fixed but determined by how scarce it is and how much the other person wants it. We both punish members of our group who cheat – even if it means a loss for ourselves. We both use reciprocity to form alliances within the group and, ultimately, move up in the hierarchy.  It’s not that animals are “just like us.” That’s getting it backwards. They were here first. We inherited some evolutionary behaviors from them.

On top of this we layer our human traits. We’re storytellers. We can’t deal with unrelated facts. We are driven to establish relationships between fragments of information even when none exist. So we weave them into stories. Then we need to have those stories validated by other people. 

Hello, Facebook.

It is as a collective species that humans are truly unique. The key aspect that so distinguishes us from other animals and allows us to create large complex social organizations—is that we can create, hold, and share beliefs about things that do not exist or cannot be empirically demonstrated. Apes don’t do that. They will trade a token for a piece of fruit, but you can never convince an ape to give you the token now under a promise of unlimited fruit in the future.

But we can do that with people. We have the storytelling skills to convince others to believe in our visions of things that don’t actually exist yet. And we can convince them that we can, and should, develop whatever it takes to bring those visions into being.

All this adds up to one thing: human beings were, literally, born to hold meetings.

We’ve been doing it since before recorded time. Over forty thousand years ago, our earliest human ancestors combined cave painting, music, the animation effect of flickering firelight, sound effects, and a storyteller to create the first multi-media presentation in the caves of Lascaux.

Yes, our ancient ancestors developed the first PowerPoint presentation. And it wasn’t much different from the way we present today – someone points to words and pictures on the wall and explains what they mean.

It’s not much different because it doesn’t have to be. Our technology evolves, but the way we perceive and process information does not. Our tools may be more sophisticated – we project our pictures rather than paint them - but the principle behind them remains the same. We still use multi-media presentations for the same reason our Ice Age ancestors did, because they transmit complex information efficiently by engaging all the senses —the same way our brain processes information in the “real” world.

There have been no evolutionary physical changes in human beings for at least 120,000 years, but the environment in which we live and work has changed dramatically. So we’re working at the dawn of the 21st century with a brain that processes information in the same way as those of our distant ancestors.

When we say, “It’s a jungle out there,” we’re speaking a literal truth. We maneuver our way through the modern corporation using mental models that evolved on the savannas and jungles of ancient Africa. And we do a pretty good job of it - if we don’t overthink it.

Which is the problem with many business meetings today, and the problem with the books written about how to conduct a meeting. They are all about business, without understanding that all meetings are – first and foremost – social events for the purpose of creating and validating a shared future vision and bringing it into being.

It's not that hard. Throughout recorded history, human beings only gather together in two clearly defined sets of circumstances.

The first is the Campfire:

The campfire is probably humanity’s oldest information-sharing environment. It was a place of security where members of the tribe could come together, turn their backs on the darkness, and share food and stories about who they were, how they got there, and what was expected of them.  Campfires were, and are still, a place of shared values, mutual reinforcement, and nourishment—both for the body and soul.  Omens, news, inventions, discoveries, and significant events were shared and interpreted in terms that could be understood by the group.

You can recognize campfire sites around your workplace either by food – people instinctively bring food to a campfire – or by signs warning “No Food or Drink Allowed.” The signs are there because people were bringing food intuitively – that’s what you do for a social gathering. They didn’t think it was a party. They discussed business. But they discussed it as a social group trying to understand and solve a common problem. Campfires are high-trust environments. Which means that, regardless of the structure of the organization, at that moment, in that environment, the hierarchy is essentially flat.  

The “No Food or Drink” signage is prompted by the same sort of thinking that limits the personal items in your cubicle because it doesn’t look “businesslike.” People are social beings. What some people consider “small talk” is, in fact, monitoring the social environment for changes or dysfunctions in in the system. It is building alliances. It is about discovering shared values. It is about mutual reassurance. It is the platform for  cooperation without which business cannot be conducted.  

The lure of the campfire exerts a strong attraction even today.  When communication requires a strong element of trust, we instinctively seek out the key cultural markers of a campfire environment: light, warmth, drink, and food.  The family dinner table, the first date in a nice restaurant, the groups of retirees who gather at McDonald’s to discuss the news every morning, the coffee bars full of young professionals—all these are classic campfire environments. And they are all doing the same thing – managing change, making sense of the world around them in a way that minimizes uncertainty, and reaffirms their role in the hierarchy. Once they have agreed on “what it all means,” they can go about their business with stability--some assurance that they know where they stand.

Campfire meetings create the social foundation that makes getting the work done possible.

Here’s one example. I know of a medium-sized manufacturing company with three research engineers. They worked in a corner of an open-plan office. Their desks were set facing the walls in an “L” shape – one engineer on one side and two on the other. The walls became bulletin boards. They set up a round table behind them where they could lay out their work and meet whenever need be. That was their entire engineering department.

And they talked all day long – they were only feet from each other. They discussed what they were doing, they helped each other, one or another would roll their chairs over to a colleagues’ desk and search his computer together. They joked, laughed, commented, and talked about their families. There was always something going on in that corner.

Until their supervisor decided to break them up because – and this is a quote – “you guys are having too much fun back here.”

Production plummeted. One engineer found another job. A couple of months later a second joined him. The manager had broken up an extremely productive high-functioning social unit because it didn’t fit the profile of what he thought a “business” environment should look like. To monitor their progress, he now had to summon “proper” meetings in his office – and these formal meetings were lengthy because the engineers were no longer in constant communication with each other, so they had to bring each other up to date before they could address the issues of the meeting.

All because the manager didn’t realize that, in their old configuration, engineering had been conducting a real-time campfire meeting all day, every day.

That meant there was no reason to call a meeting to be certain that everyone was “on the same page.” They were writing the "page” together as they worked. All he would have needed to do to find out the status of any project would be to walk over to their corner and ask “How are you guys doing?”

Better yet, he should have moved his desk over and joined them.  

The second traditional meeting place is the Waterhole:

Human beings are drawn to campfire environments because they signal security.  We are driven to waterholes by necessity. As a result, waterholes are high-stress environments.

This is where hierarchy rules. The dreaded Monday morning meeting – with the boss at the head of the table and the written agenda – is a classic waterhole scenario. We dread them because we must operate under the eyes of creatures much higher on the corporate food chain – creatures that have the power to affect our lives. They are rife with uncertainty – which humans are intuitively programmed to avoid.

How stressful are waterhole meetings? They are so stressful that the only thing worse than sitting through them is not being asked to attend.  It’s taken as a sign that the other predators have deemed you unnecessary and your career is now dead.  

Survival at a waterhole depends entirely on understanding your own particular jungle hierarchy. In the natural jungle, animals change position on the waterline every time a superior species arrives - leopards move for lions, lions and leopards move for buffalo, buffalo and the big cats move for elephants, and antelope and gazelles move for everybody. In the corporate jungle, priorities shift depending on who is speaking, and everyone shifts if it is the CEO. Hierarchy rules. In the natural jungle, the waterhole is usually littered with the bones of the unwary, the slow, the unprepared, and the brash. In the human jungle, often we don’t even leave the bones.

Every meeting can’t be a campfire; every meeting shouldn’t be a waterhole. There are specific ways we can use the social dynamic to our advantage without turning our meetings into a party, but we won’t find them in any of the books about how to conduct a meeting. At least I haven’t so far.

The first thing to realize is that the social dynamics of meetings are millennia-old. They have continued in an unbroken cycle since we first became human. Business bestsellers notwithstanding, anything people have been doing over millennia isn’t going to change tomorrow. You have to adapt to these embedded patterns.

A simple rule of thumb for determining which type of meeting will work best in your office environment: When trust is high, precision can be low. When trust is low, precision must be high.

  • When trust is high, precision can be low.  Campfires are high-trust environments. Participants share values, motivations, and goals. They know each other’s capabilities. No one thinks twice about asking for help or advice. They set clear expectations of what should be accomplished, and the confidence to allow others the freedom to determine how it might actually get accomplished.  

  • When trust is low, precision must be high. That’s why waterholes have printed agendas and strict hierarchies. They’re low-trust environments. There are multiple levels of power in the room as well as multiple agendas – such as those of management and other departments - that may conflict with yours. That itself causes uncertainty, which people intuitively avoid. One unintended outcome: people are hesitant to ask questions or ask for help – in that environment it’s a sign of weakness.

If your company has too many waterhole meetings, you might want to cast a fresh eye on your work environment. Companies with the highest-performing employees manage to strike a balance between these extremes by removing as much uncertainty as possible. Set clear goals and guidelines, but allow reasonable individual autonomy in how the goals can be met. That’s when the campfires kick in.