Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Book: Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Little, Brown and Company, 2005)

Why: In business as in life, snap judgments can get you where you need to go in less time and with less hassle.  Just make sure they’re based on the right factors.

I cannot tell you how many times during my now-distant youth I was lectured by someone older and presumably wiser about the power of the first impression.  This seemed a bit superficial to me, especially since I was a product of the late 1960s ethos that encouraged me at every turn not to judge a book by its cover.  The “p” word—prejudice—was the dark underbelly of American society that served as the focus of the lesson plan for many a young social studies teacher, not to mention the situation comedies we consumed on a daily basis, circa 1971.

I’m not saying this emphasis on social awareness was bad, or indeed that racial or other social prejudice is a problem that has now been (or can ever be) entirely eradicated, but there is a bit of a paradox here: how can we trust our first impressions while acknowledging that those impressions may lead us astray?

Enter Malcolm Gladwell, whose work I have previously praised here and here.   In Blink, Gladwell examines the power of the first impression, what he calls “thin-slicing”—the ability to make judgments by “filtering very few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.” A decision made this way—the proverbial “first impression”—can indeed be a solid basis on which to act.  As Gladwell tells us, “there can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis.”  (Hence the name of the book.)

But there’s a qualification here (a pretty big one, actually): you have to make sure you’re focusing on the correct few factors.  And it’s here that Gladwell goes into how snap judgments, to be useful, can be (and should be) educated and controlled.  This, in fact, is the way out of the paradox.  Decisions based purely on uninformed prejudice turn on factors that won’t necessarily lead to the best result.  In other words, taking a quick look at the table of contents will lead to a better judgment than relying on the appearance of the book’s cover.

As you may have come to expect, there is an entrepreneurial lesson lurking here, best illustrated by Gladwell’s case study of Coca-Cola’s doomed introduction of New Coke in 1985.  Coke’s ill-fated reformulation was a direct result of Pepsi’s “taste-test” marketing ploy, in which ads showed consumers tasting two unidentified colas and invariably choosing Pepsi over Coke.  Pepsi’s market share began to climb.  Coke did its own tests—with the same results.  Coke panicked and introduced New Coke, which was an unmitigated disaster.

Turns out that people only preferred Pepsi’s lighter and sweeter taste if they were consuming just a sip.  People who drank an entire can often found the sweetness cloying and, more often than not, preferred Coke.  Coke’s advertising machine also added to the allure of the classic drink.  At the end of the day, Coke executives learned that they were basing their judgment on the wrong factors.  In Gladwell’s words, they learned that, “in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca Cola blind.”

The lesson here is clear, although not necessarily easy to implement: snap judgments can be extremely valuable, so long as they are based on the right factors.  Determining what those right factors are is the challenge.

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