Question everything

Question everything

A few months back I was having a conversation with someone far smarter than myself, and we got onto the topic of wisdom.  Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m not short of opinions, and with a couple of glasses of wine inside me, I loudly & proudly announced that I was the dumbest I’ve ever been, and have slowly but surely been going downhill ever since I left childhood behind.

At which point I received a sympathetic look, and a quick change of subject.

But what did I mean by this?  You see, it wasn’t just an off the cuff comment, I honestly believe it to be true, and I base it on two factors.

Firstly, specialisation has a lot to answer for. Back in my primary school days, education was everything. With an informal and often spontaneous lesson structure, my days were spent absorbing knowledge on subjects as diverse and far reaching as ancient Scandinavian mythology to local wetland biodiversity (or as we called it back in those days, pond studies).

Then, with the move to “big” school, the breadth of my education took a hit, with lessons becoming compartmentalised and structured into 10 separate subjects.  This culling continued through to A-Levels, where I downgraded to just four areas of study, and finally on to University, where I specialised in just a single niche topic.

And finally onto life as I now know it today, where I understand a huge amount about Digital Marketing Communications, but absolutely nothing about the quantity and quality of flora and fauna in my local pond, more’s the shame.

Whilst I understand that this culling of general knowledge is a necessary sacrifice in the pursuit of specialist excellence, my second line of reasoning makes no such apologies.

You see, as we get older, we stop questioning, and for this, there should be no excuse. 

As children, we question everything (as any parent will tell you should they ever get a break from the constant barrage of “Why, why, whys?”).  But as we get older, we have this innate ability taken from us. We are taught to accept what we are told by teachers and authority figures, and too much questioning is frowned upon. As we enter our teens, with our fragile egos developing, we fear asking questions for the risk of looking foolish before our peers, for what is a question if not the admission of a lack of knowledge?

As we enter adulthood, we take this insecurity with us. Bluff and bluster replaces honest questioning in many of today’s professions – but this is a dangerous way to run a business, as has been ably demonstrated by the frequent fall of corporate giants spearheaded by those too wise and too knowledgeable to question their own actions.

Fortunately, lessons can be learnt from the word of digital, where questioning is seen as key to survival. A/B testing, multivariate testing, hypothesis suggestion and rejection – these bread and butter digital techniques suggest an approach to questioning that can be adopted beyond the world of website testing.

You see, successful digital businesses proudly adopt methodologies borrowed from the world of science, where no answer is considered too self-evident to be beyond questioning. Take the example of Facebook recently, who got into hot water for running an experiment on users to see if their moods could be altered by manipulating their exposure to optimistic or pessimistic status updates – a process they termed “emotional contagion”. Now, ethical considerations aside, you might suggest that this experiment was clearly redundant. Of course exposing people to negative sentiments online makes people more negative, you might argue.

But one thing I have learnt from my own experiments, and those of behavioral economics Professors such as Dan Ariely or Robert Cialdini, is that humans rarely react the way you expect them to.  You simply cannot make assumptions without data to back up your answers – your gut instinct, that nagging sensation that tells you that you don’t need to test, is probably wrong. Just look at the evidence.

You HAVE to question everything, and interrogate your data to provide answers to your questions.

So, how does this relate to your business? Simply put, digital methodologies translate into offline success.

As a business owner or influencer, it’s your job to integrate tools into your business that monitor and measure KPI’s. Your CRM is a great starting place, but what about your EPOS, your employee engagement questionnaire, or Net Promoter Score?  I loosely term these tools “Human analytics”, and all of them provide valuable data which can be used to test your assumptions. Conduct scientifically valid experiments within your business and you will see a return on your time and investment.

It’s not always going to be easy.  Telling your boss that you’re going to take their latest “guaranteed to succeed” initiative, scale it down, and test it in a controlled environment before taking it to market (or not), might not earn you brownie points on day one, but over the long term, as your business flourishes and costly mistakes are mitigated, they’ll come on board.

Don’t believe me?  Test it!