Why You Can’t Prove Your Methodology Will Work


Saturday, 9.12pm

Sheffield, U.K.

If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life. – Henry David Thoreau

Imagine you run a marketing agency.

What do you do when you have to go and see a client?

You create a Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps a really nice, flashy one – or perhaps a simple one with diagrams.

Which probably look something like the images on the left.

That’s just what people do in business – mainly because other people do that and we need to keep up.

But, as Robert Pirsig writes in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, something happens when you stop looking at the image as a way of saying something and more as a thing in itself.

What you see are perfect shapes – ellipses drawn by a machine, arrows straight and true, text generated by computer.

It’s perfect isn’t it?

And I suppose we hope that the people listening will see all that perfection and realise what we say is true.

And this is important to us because we can’t prove it’s true – not for any activity that involves human activity anyway.

For example, let’s say you have enough money to do a seminar by someone like Tony Robbins – a world-famous coach.

You’ll see words like a proven method in the literature.

Now, to be fair to them, what they mean by proven is tried and tested.

They don’t mean proven in the sense of it has a proof – or evidence of truth.

It’s a technical argument, but bear with me.

If someone says “I’ve tried Tony Robbin’s method and it works” – it’s fair for you to ask “How do you know it wouldn’t have worked if you tried any other way?”

If they say “I’ve tried it and it doesn’t work” it’s equally fair to say “How do you know that you failed because you didn’t do it right?”

There is no answer to either of these questions – and so no way of proving them one way or the other.

In other words the words we use – like proven – and the pictures we use – of perfection – are really a way to convince people to believe what we say is true.

So then look at the picture on the right.

That’s hand-drawn – clearly not symmetrical and clearly not perfect.

It looks like something that is a work in progress – something that you could mark on yourself with a pencil.

And that’s important when trying to actually work on a complex real world problem.

For example, every time I present a perfect presentation like the one on the left to a client I’m painfully aware that this makes me look much more certain than I am.

The reality is that there’s no approach that can just be applied to a company picked at random and be expected to work.

Take content marketing, for example.

Ten years ago some smart people and companies created blogs and content.

Like Seth Godin.

Now there are probably half a billion.

Given that level of competition will that approach still work for companies as a marketing tool?

The only honest answer is that we don’t know – we’ll have to try it and see, with the will to stick it out for ten years.

Why is any of this useful or relevant?

My bet is that we’ll get better and better at doing the perfect stuff with machines.

Just look at how Wix and Canva are killing things like logo design and brand identity.

What humans need to do is work together – and collaborating means being open about we don’t know and sharing work in progress so we can all contribute.

What the left hand picture says is This is what you should do.

The right, I think, says This is what we could try – what do you think?

If I were a marketing consultant selling to you, which approach would you rather I take?


Karthik Suresh

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