Marketing Science is Great in Theory…

Lately I’ve been struck several times by the huge gap between what we might call management science, and the reality of what really happens in the world of management.

  • Corporate training people plan multi-stage programs for the maximal developmental impact; the programs more often than not get cut off in mid-program.
  • CEOs pronounce intentions; the tea leaves are read, rightly or wrongly, and the reactions are very often deep cynicism or blind faith—not much in the rational middle area.

This runs deeper than just events overtaking plans. This pattern of the irrelevance of theory in the real world of practice is rooted far more deeply—in the human psyche.

Consider the latest on Barnard Madoff and Susan Boyle.

Madoff Less Sociopath, More Common Crook?

Fortune Magazine  tells How Bernie Did It. Many things are astonishing about Madoff. One I figured out ahead of the crowd—the fact that his “investments” were pure vaporware.

But I mistook the scale of his crime for the scale of his mental bentness. I was hardly alone in thinking him a sociopath. Now, I think, he’s just more of a common crook.

In a recorded phone call Madoff made to Fairfield Greenwich’s representatives just before an SEC visit, Madoff began with these words: “Obviously, first of all, this conversation never took place…okay?”

These are Tony Soprano lines—not mentally ill or deluded, just garden variety sleazy crook talk. This fosters distrust based not on mental stability, but on the much more familiar grounds of low integrity.

Madoff went on to remind Fairfield of their cover story, that Madoff only executed strategies formulated by Fairfield. He then essentially told Fairfield he would send Fairfield’s revised strategy on to them, contradicting himself in an almost Kafkaesque way.

Madoff successfully threatened Fairfield with taking away their golden goose–and Fairfield groveled and apologized for daring to let their customers withdraw funds! Finally, it appears Fairfield left their own money in too.

And so–Fairfield claims they were bamboozled along with all the rest. And they appear to mean it.

How is it that can you be complicit with a crook, take massive ill-gotten gains, grovel to a blackmailer, then get ripped off–and then feel righteously indignant about it?

This is the same mindset that says ‘no convict is guilty,’ at least according to the inmates. Which begs the question: What’s the difference between Fairfield Greenwhich and the Craigslist Killer’s fiance’?  (answer–the fiance is less into denial).

The best logic of the best court system can’t lay a finger on the self-judgment of those being judged. Our ability to rationalize overwhelms our capacity to be rational.

Susan Boyle: Irrational Reactions

The NYTimes today has the last (please) word on the Susan Boyle phenomenon, and it is again about how “rational thought” is an oxymoron. Let’s look at what we all thought. We thought:

-she’s a frump; no, wait, she’s an angel
-Simon Cowell judged a book by its cover; me, I just changed my mind based on new data
-people use stereotypes all the time, except for me of course

Susan Boyle proves people are prejudiced. But people won’t change. “Proof” is pitifully weak when up against assumptions.

In business, I often think of Indiana Jones’ encounter with the intricately practiced Arabian master of the sword, threatening to bring years of skill and practice to bear on Indiana in the form of whirling cold steel.  Jones responds with a disgusted eye-roll—and a point blank shot from his .45.

Theory is the sword—so often outclassed by the blunt force of emotion, a far more powerful driver of human behavior.

Management theories that don’t take human reality into account are so much whistling in the wind.