Strategic stupidity, insanity and ignorance

The fact of life is that no matter how hard we all try, from time to time shit hits the fan. As Frank once wisely said That’s Life!

But, THE BIGGEST frustration is when anointed leaders, their humble followers and hopeful innovators are just outright stupid through insanity, ignorance or too often BOTH. And, the shit they (or even worse ‘we’) are standing in could have been easily avoided.

Just when everything is going to plan strategies in business and government can go to crap. Even with the best efforts, skills and discipline. The world is uncertain and impermanent. Shit happens!

The best you can do is to manage the controllable. One thing we can all influence is how we minimise strategic stupidity, even if just our own.

Two forms of strategic stupidity …

  1. Insanity
  2. Ignorance

Insanity comes from making the same mistakes again, and again, and again (and again) – and failing to learn. Ignorance comes from using moronically stupid lines like “Steve Jobs and Henry Ford didn’t do market research, so why should I?” Or, being unintentionally ignorant, which is perhaps even dumber-er. Ahhh, I feel stupider-er just thinking about such morons!

Please allow me to unpack these …


As Albert Einstein once said …

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Even with the best efforts and intentions, things can go wrong and we fail. However, those clever enough learn, and evolve.

“Failing REALLY sucks if you truly fail. Massive ramifications — personally and professionally. You don’t want to repeat that. So, one learns and succeeds (hopefully). Failing is only OK if one learns, re-calibrates and ultimately succeeds.” (from my previous post Random Thoughts)

In my 22 years experience dealing with leaders and entrepreneurs, my observation is the biggest ‘fail’ for corporate and government is inaction, then wrong action. The biggest failure of SMEs is cashflow, then revenue growth.

Evolution is typically very slow or stagnant in business and government, even with the innovation rhetoric. Smaller businesses often get stuck in a rut, become punch drunk from ducking, weaving and getting constantly *** smacked down ***, unable to change their business model, their revenue streams and evolve. Death is imminent and inevitable without evolution.

Resistance to change can be for a variety of reasons, including the cost and time to implement strategies, and fears of potential risk. There can be complexities in providing a clear guarantee of success. With such limitation can come delays in implementation of changes or often making no change.

In accepting ‘it’s ok to fail’ strategic agility is critical : 1) Fail fast — and move on; 2) Learn quickly — and evolve.

So, shit can happen, and if handled with care, it can train people as ninja fighting machines able to tackle future shit head on. However, insanity means that human default is to fail to learn.

Frameworks such as design thinking and agile strategy are well cemented for some business and government, yet rare and/or often more talk than action. Sometimes the comfort of old ways are better the devil you know.

The design thinking process is about overcoming fear and being courageous in implementing changes that will have an impact. Design thinking generally places an emphasis on rapid building of a larger number of smaller ideas, rather than a smaller number of big, slow and costly to implement ideas typically the case in traditional strategic planning.

Research is a critical foundation of design thinking, throughout the entire process. And, agility is the key, and this comes from being clear about filtering ideas as to their strategic value (e.g. potential ROI, positioning for the future etc) and ease of implementation (e.g. cost, time, resources etc). (More in my previous post here Design Thinking and Overcoming Strategic Inaction)

While thinking strategically, is likely a better path to growth than aimless wandering, perhaps we need to think differently to avoid tragic strategies that waste time, are risk avoiding, lack action, goals are absent, individuals are unclear of what they need to do and poor communications.

“I ponder that perhaps we need to stop being so obsessed with thinking strategically as this too often ends up tragically. Perhaps more focus on being agile, ever and authentically listening to customers and fixing what needs to be fixed quickly and efficiently would be best.” (More in my previous post here Why thinking strategic is often tragic)

Which brings me to the second manifestation of stupidity …


So much of the world’s problems, and avoidable failings, come from ignorance. This may be intentional ignorance to push forward irrespective of reality. Or, unintentionally relying on little and/or poor quality evidence and research.

Much to my distain Henry Ford is often quoted as saying “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” as an argument for not doing market research. Steve Jobs has also been raised as an example of innovators anti-research.

Exploring the history books, there is no evidence that Henry Ford ever said such a line. Also, Ford was more obsessed with building the production line from 1908 (10,000 vehicles) to 1920 (933,720 vehicles), rather than having a customer focus. Understanding that there would be strong demand for vehicles to replace horses is somewhat logical, as was the cost efficiencies of mass production.

Many argue that Ford’s obsession with mass production over researching changing customer and market needs, was his ultimate failing. On the arrival of General Motors in the 1920’s and their innovation to offer cars for distinct market segments (finance, used car trade ins, annual model changes etc), Ford’s slow to innovate model built on “any color … so long as it is black” started to lose ground.

“ In 1921, the Ford Motor Company sold about 2/3 of all the cars built in the U.S. By 1926, this share had fallen to approximately 1/3. And in 1927, when Ford belatedly responded (at tremendous financial cost and internal strife) to changes in the market’s tastes and competitive innovation by shutting down production temporarily to re-tool his factories and bring the Model A to the market, that percentage fell to about 15%.” HBR Henry Ford, Innovation, and That “Faster Horse” Quote

The simple fact remains that those quoting Ford or Jobs are not Henry Ford nor Steve Jobs. Also, likely they do not have either’s unique deep strategic intuitiveness that allowed them to achieve such huge success. Such deep, deep intuitive insight was built over many years from much exploration, thinking, research and obsessive deliberate practice to gain such knowledge.

Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak and Ron Wayne incorporated Apple in 1976. The first iPhone launched in 2007 (31 years later). It is also worth noting that Apple’s rebuilding towards the growth we have seen over the past decade, started on Job’s return to Apple as interim CEO in 1997, after his 12 year exile from the company — time to think, research and likely ponder.

And, unlike Henry Ford, Steve Jobs was highly customer focused.

“Our customers want to know who is Apple, and what is it we stand for, where do we fit in this world? And what we’re about isn’t making boxes for people to get their jobs done (although we do that well, we do that better than almost anybody in some cases). But Apple is about something more than that.” (In his Think Different Campaign talk from 1997)

And, hear from Steve’s own mouth below the role market research played at Apple. (I was also lucky to meet one of Apple’s market research / consumer insight directors a few years back at a Australian Market and Social Research Society Conference who backed up the quote and the critical role of research in Apple’s innovations from the iPod and beyond).

“Well, you know I think in the early days it was very easy because you’d go to a Homebrew Computer Club meeting and there was a whole market and you could find out what they thought. In fact, you could show them your product and see what they thought, and because the products were much simpler then, within a few months you could change it all around and show them a new one. But, as the market got more sophisticated, it was less easy to do that, and the problem is, that market research can tell you what your customer think of something you show them, or it can tell you what your customers want as an incremental improvement on what you have. But very rarely can your customers predict something that they don’t even quite know they want yet. As an example, no market research could have led to the development of the Macintosh or the personal computer in the first place. So, there are these non-incremental jumps that need to take place, where it is very difficult for market research to really contribute much in the early phases of thinking about what should be. However, once you have made that jump, possibly before that product is on the market, or even after, is a great time to check your instincts with the marketplace and verify that you’re on the right track. Usually when you show people somethin they’ll say ‘Oh my God, that’s fantastic” or give you some feedback along those lines.” Watch Steve Jobs talking from the grave here

In my 22 years as a market researcher, such input can also play a critical role in understanding the market, gaps in the path to purchase, pain points and where there may be opportunity for incremental or more disruptive change, be this in banking, new products or other corporate and government innovation. While research can indicate and measure opportunity for unexpected yet valued disruption, and the best path to market, it can also highlight the incremental change. Most of the world’s juggernauts were fundamental about incremental change — doing it better than others before. The next big idea is likely to actually be quite small.

I’ve been lucky over many years to have seen many great and many more somewhat ignorant strategies — with poor empathy for real people, being largely irrelevant and ignored by the market. Too often arrogant self proclaimed creative genuines fail to show any empathy to real people. They are typically not the target market, and their gut feel is more a tummy upset.

Unintentional ignorance (an epidemic form of strategic stupidity) can come from a desire to be evidence based but the data and analytics lacks the required rigour and reliability to allow any true representation of real people, the market, potential et cetera. Big data is an overused trendy term, generally not providing strategically robust data, even the pirates starting to enter the market. And, DIY research from talking to positively biased staff and family, messy unprofessional and skewed workshops or sloppy use of free tools allowing any monkey to do a survey create more peanut findings than reliable strategic insights.

Confirmation bias of their own observations just skews thinking towards affirming existing perceptions, rather than critiquing hypothesis or looking for alternatives. Consistently the assumption is made that strategies make a BIG BANG, worthy of HIGH-5s for all, but reality is often a squeak at best, nothing more than a fizz in a forest (did anyone hear that?) or like a small drop in an infinite ocean.

Stupidity from intentional or unintentional ignorance tends to result in sloppy design and creative, and crap products, marketing and other strategies. Add to this the oh too common strategic insanity of repeating the same mistakes again and again (and again, and again), no wonder business and government too often finds itself unnecessarily standing in shit that could have been easily avoided (again and again).

PLEASE, let us all try our very best to stop being strategically stupid. :-P

If you (or someone you know) needs help overcoming strategic stupidity, you are not alone. There are millions of people just like you. Confidential and non-judgemental support is available. Please call the Stupidity Helpline today 1800 038 257. An Australia-wide free call number. We care. This has been a community service announcement. The Stupidity Helpline is proudly supported by Square Holes.