Knowingness vs. Analysis
When you’re involved in making an important decision, do you rely on knowingness, analysis, or both?
I’ve been catching up with season four of the hit TV series Mad Men. One scene captured the difference between knowingness and analysis really well. In it, Don Draper, the creative veteran, is in an argument with a Dr. Faye Miller, a psychologist who specializes in researching why people make the decisions they do.
Dr. Miller has just conducted a focus group of young, single women to gather research on a skin care cream. As the women talk candidly, the conversation quickly turns to men and relationships. Dr. Miller’s conclusion is that the product should be positioned as a way to help young women find husbands. Her method is proven, scientific, and verifiable.
But Don Draper isn’t convinced at all. He argues that analysis can only capture what’s been known before. He tells her, “How do you know that’s the truth? A new idea is something they don’t know yet, so of course it’s not going to come up as an option. Put my campaign on TV for a year, then hold your focus group again, and then it will show up in the results.” Throughout the series, Don has proven himself to be a “knower.” When he gets an intuitive hit that the campaign is right, it usually is.
Although Mad Men is set fifty years in the past, I think it’s safe to say that an analysis-based, by-the-numbers approach has grown to permeate much of our culture. It’s prevalent in the standardized testing of our children, in the MBA programs of business schools, and in how we allocate dollars to everything from a new TV pilot (if the TV pilot doesn’t “test” well, it won’t get funded) to, like Mad Men, deciding on new product positioning and advertising.
The problem with an analysis-only approach is that it actually prevents discovery of something new. I recently heard an NPR interview with Malcolm Gladwell where he talks about an interesting psychological study that shows what happens when people have to justify a decision. (And yes, I’m relying on an analytical approach to convince you that relying on an analytical approach is a bad idea).