“The plural of anecdote is not data.” That was the main message of an introductory textbook of research methodology when I was in graduate school. It insisted that scientific conclusions must be based on empirical study, not casual observation. To underscore this point, the textbook listed several pairs of common proverbs.
Too many cooks spoil the broth. / Many hands make light work.
He who hesitates is lost. / Look before you leap.
Birds of a feather flock together. / Opposites attract.
You’re never too old to learn. / You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
Silence is golden. / The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Although all the proverbs are true, they contradict each other. How can that be possible? According to the textbook, each proverb is correct only under certain defined circumstances. The purpose of empirical research is to determine those circumstances. OK, point taken.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I’ve been hanging around Silicon Valley, legendary home to engineers, VCs and MBAs. These are numbers people. Left brain. Scientific. (Even the MBAs claim to make decisions based on empirical evidence!) They celebrate a corporate culture of entrepreneurship, meritocracy and leadership. And they dismiss gut feelings and intuition as the domain of liberal arts majors. Business is based on data, not anecdote.
Or is it?
One of the most common refrains in the corporate world is “Give 110 percent.” You can even find posters of it plastered to the walls inside tilt-ups across Silicon Valley. And it fits the Valley’s culture of workaholism: late nights, take-out food, a sleeping bag under your desk. So why do so many leadership gurus, business consultants, TED talk types and CEOs also tell us to “Work smarter, not harder?” Isn’t that the opposite of “Give 110 percent?”
To be fair, we can’t make a judgment based on one example. The sample size is too small. It would be basing our finding on anecdote rather than data. So let’s continue.
“Think outside the box.” This has been a clarion call in Silicon Valley and beyond for the past couple of decades. It’s the mantra of creative types in every corporate department from engineering and manufacturing to marketing and finance. The standard operating procedure. The routine. The customary. The way it’s always been done. These are the “box.” The truly great manager, executive or entrepreneur will think of a new and better way to do things. And once again, ubiquitous corporate posters, as well as CEO speeches and business pundit presentations, encourage us to lose the box in our thinking. So why do so many leadership gurus, business consultants, TED talk types and CEOs say “Let’s not reinvent the wheel?” Isn’t that the exact opposite of “Think outside the box?”
Alright, two examples won’t move us out of the realm of anecdote. So let’s continue.
“There is no I in team.” This is a favorite of human resource departments, leadership gurus and top executives. It has always been important in the modern workplace, which places a high value on “fitting in” and “getting along.” And it has gained even more weight as companies emphasize collaboration. So why do so many leadership gurus, business consultants, TED talk types and CEOs advise you to “Take responsibility?” Isn’t that the exact opposite of “There is no I in team?”
“Failing to plan is planning to fail.” Yes, it’s a catchy phrase. Perhaps that’s why it permeates the world of work. Is there anyone who hasn’t seen it in a PowerPoint display, heard it from a manager or read it in a company newsletter? Probably not. The only way you can miss it in a corporate training — on any topic — is by not showing up! So why do so many leadership gurus, business consultants, TED talk types and CEOs tell you to “Just do it?” Isn’t that the exact opposite of “Failing to plan is planning to fail?”
And the list goes on.
Do more with less. / Put your money where your mouth is.
Content is king. / It’s not what you say; it’s how you say it.
If you change nothing, nothing will change. / If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Our people are our most important asset. / If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
I’m sensing a pattern here. These corporate proverbs or sayings or platitudes with attitudes are just like common proverbs — they’re all true and they contradict each other. Yet giant companies issue these opposing directives all the time. Is this really good for business? I don’t think so. It allows any action to be justified. That may explain the endless management fads of the past few decades.
Do you remember any of these?
- Searching for excellence
- Management by walking around
- One minute management
- Matrix management
- Business process reengineering
- Management by objectives
- Total quality management
- Knowledge management
If you do, you’re probably trying to forget them. They all sounded good at the time and went bust. Why were they ever popular? They were common sense. Each was supported by a corporate proverb. (Of course, the management consultants who sold the fads never said that each one was also contradicted by a corporate proverb.)
So what can we learn from this?
First, corporate proverbs are like common proverbs. They’re useless without empirical observation showing the exact circumstances in which they operate. Otherwise they’re simply conflicting anecdotes. And business should be run on data not anecdotes.
Second, there is one exception to this rule — the corporate motivation business. If you sell these proverbs on T-shirts, caps, plaques and posters, contradicting proverbs mean you have twice as many to sell. So here’s a tip. A new corporate proverb now making the rounds is “Lean in.” An opposite proverb hasn’t emerged yet. So you can create one. My suggestion: “Lean out.” Or “Lean out and shake it all about.” It will look great on a hat.
And most important, the next time someone tells you “Failure is not an option,” you can reply … drumroll please … “It is what it is.”
Malcolm Kushner, “America’s Favorite Humor Consultant,” is the author of “The Little Book of Humorous Quotes” and “Presentations For Dummies.” An acclaimed expert on humor and communication, he co-created a humor exhibit appearing at The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. He was profiled in TIME, USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post and appeared on CNN, NPR, CNBC, “Voice of America” and “The Larry King Show.” He has spoken everywhere from the Smithsonian Institution to the Inc. 500 Conference. Visit www.kushnergroup.com or www.museumofhumor.com; contact him at email@example.com.