William Goldman was an optimist

One of my favorite quotes is from one of my favorite screenwriters. William Goldman, who wrote such brilliant scripts as “The Princess Bride”, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, and “All the President’s Men”, among others, once summed up his opinion about the state of affairs in the film business by saying:

Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess—and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.

He was talking about Hollywood’s ability (or inability) to predict which movies would be hits and which bombs. His wisdom has proven accurate over the years.* Supposedly sure things with well known commodities as subject matter and bankable stars have soiled the proverbial bed. (Think “Jungle Cruise”, for just one instance.) There are several every year, just as there are several surprise hits. All this in spite of the focus groups, market research, and billions spent on advertising.

Let me suggest that Mr. Goldman, as much as I respect him and his acerbic opinions, was an optimist by limiting his comments to the film industry. Here are a few more fields where his insight applies just as well:

  • Medicine
  • Sports
  • Politics
  • Economics
  • Publishing
  • Weather forecasting
  • Religion
  • The list goes on and on…

Go ahead. Check “predictions” about what college quarterback will be a star. (Tom Brady? No way! That’s why he was drafted in the sixth round.) Ask ten economists how to solve some financial crisis and you’ll get a dozen plans. You can’t even get doctors to agree on whether a patient has multiple sclerosis, never mind how it will progress. (They don’t even know what it is.)

Even a field such as technology where there a lot of smart people (although I spent my professional career in high-tech, I wasn’t one of them) has had its share of gaffes. Check out this curiously entertaining list. The folks making those predictions were no slouches but they still got it wrong.

This is why as a child of the 60’s (okay, Boomer) I still abide by the motto, “Question Authority”. Especially in medicine. Especially in neurology. Especially in multiple sclerosis.

Your mileage may vary.

But probably not.

*With the possible exception of the pre-Disney Pixar, which produced hit after hit after hit… etc.

[Goldman photo by Bernard Gotfryd, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

Lies we believe #5

[What? #5??? Where the heck did 1-4 go? I’ve had a running series of “Lies we believe” posts in my other blog, Limping in the Light. (This one, for example. You should read them all. Now.) It just seemed more appropriate to continue that series on this side of the blog wall.]

measureWe believe a lot of lies and, to paraphrase Cole from “The Sixth Sense”, we don’t even know we believe them. Yet they rule our lives in many ways. Does that make any sense (sixth or otherwise) at all? It’s not so much that we’re gullible as we fail to take the time to think about the assumptions on which we base our decisions. I’m very big on thinking. Some say I’m too big on it. I’ve already waxed eloquently on the topic a few times, including here.

Here’s one that drives me crazy:

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.

This is the gospel according to bean counters. The truth is, if you can’t measure it… you can’t measure it. Nothing more can be inferred from the former conditional clause. Business lives and, more often, dies by this pseudo-maxim. Everything has to be measured, even if it can’t be. Some unmeasurables that come to mind:

  • Customer satisfaction
  • Employee satisfaction
  • Future results
  • Productivity (in some cases)

There are dozens more, but I have other stuff to do today.

So when business executives realize they can’t measure something, out of fear of not being able to control it – and control is everything to these posers – they make up a measurement and pretend it applies. My favorite example follows.

My last employer decided that customer satisfaction could be measured objectively and precisely by counting the number of unfixed (i.e. “open”) defects currently reported against a given product. Now this is blatant nonsense. I’m sure even IBM execs (oops! I mentioned the employer name) didn’t really believe the figure meant anything. They just winked at each other and agreed to the lie.

Since customer sat was bad at the time, they surmised that lowering the count of those defects would improve the situation. So they gave me the task of closing as many of those defects as possible. Not fixing them, mind you, just getting rid of them, usually by saying they had no plans to address the problems. After a few months, about half those defects had simply gone away and thus, magically, our customer sat numbers doubled.

The suits were happy, the bean counters were happy, and Wall Street was happy. The only people who weren’t happy were the ones this whole pointless exercise was intended for in the first place: the customers. It wasn’t just a lie, it was a counterproductive lie. Though there’s no way to know for sure (reread above), I’m willing to bet those customers were less satisfied than before.

By the way, Forbes agrees with me on this one.

So next time you hear an accepted truth, think about it. Take it from a child of the ’60’s: Question Authority.