Why we do what we do: Not everything is a nail – Maslow’s Hammer

At any given time you will often hear me quoting many famous quotes about anything and everything; that is how I relate to new experiences by trying to tie them to some bit of knowledge that I had already picked up. Probably my most common refrain lately is the famous Mike Tyson quote, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” It’s true that everyone talks doing the right thing and everyone wants things to succeed, but as soon as there is some challenge to the prevailing world view or as soon as a small bump in the road exists, people often revert back to what they know best and turn back in on themselves. Unfortunately this is especially problematic in the business world as the only way to move forward is to change behaviors and tackle existing problems in new ways. Even more distressing is that as people fall back to what they are most comfortable with they turn towards their own disciplines and their own previous experience, limiting the ability for people of disparate talents and backgrounds to work together.

One of the things that defines people is the concept of viewing the world through their own experiences, and the most powerful experiences that we have in the modern world is our professions. Be it marketing, or engineering, management or data, we all view the world through the lens of the things we do and the challenges that we face day to day. We view the challenge of improving numbers by looking to “dialogue with our customers” or “increase efficiency through data analysis” or by “building better tools and a better user experience”. All of these in isolation seem like and often are very good ideas except when they cloud our ability to prioritize and to focus on a single outcome. Each day in the business world is really a Sisyphean climb to the top and each time that boulder rolls back on us we run back to that which we are most comfortable with. This is especially dangerous when we do not even have true accountability for the tie between those concepts and the functional bottom line outcome that we need to generate.

Abraham Maslow is famous for many things, from his hierarchy of needs to his many contributions to modern psychology. What he is often not associated with is a quote that almost everyone is familiar with, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” We are all carrying hammers in the form of our world views and our professional disciplines. The key is to accept that there are many things outside of what we accept as “true” about the way to do things and about how to tackle problems. Even more when we do get evidence that does not directly correlate with our existing world view we can not dismiss it or try to understand it through that same tired lens.

Optimization at its core is the act of adding accountability to these world views and about challenging assumptions. It is about taking the existing practices of the entire organization and standing them on their end, shaking them, and finding all the holes and least effective parts. It does this not maliciously but as a mutual benefit to everyone to add a different point of view on the functions and actions that they are taking. This is why the discipline of testing is about everything but test ideas. It is about building rational rules of action and building out alternative hypothesis. This is why you focus on efficiency and multiple options and not just on what won and not about what won elsewhere or about some great idea someone had. It is why it is about patterns and not about some artificial reasoning why something won. You serve the organization a great discipline when all you do is regurgitate the nail back to someone so that they can then hit it with the same tired hammer. Optimization is the act of putting any idea and discipline through a system that allows for it to get better and for everyone to learn and to get better results.

At the same time, it is important to understand that everyone else is viewing the world through a very different lens. They are trying to tie their past experiences with new actions and new results. A marketer has always thought in terms of a dialogue with a certain user or a certain persona. That mental model has gotten where they are today. When you come in and show that there might be more effective ways to look at those same users or the the concept of personalization most likely will not work the way they envision, you are creating a very powerful form of cognitive dissonance and you are forcing people outside of that hammer that they so readily wield. Too much and you will cause major push back and possibly form an ongoing barrier to success. Too little push and you are just confirming their biases and not providing any assistance.

The key in this and in all actions is to be firm on discipline but flexible on tactics. Work with the concepts and push them past their existing barriers. This is why it is so vital to not focus on test ideas when building out a successful test. Talk about what people were already focusing on and how best you can test out that concept against many others. You want to do personalization, great, here is how we take what you were doing and serve that and other concepts to everyone. If you are right, we get to see that and if you are wrong then we found something that is better. In reality there is no downside to performance when we tackle a problem that way. It is about reaching the ends, not about the means that get you there.

Another key to this is to get people to vote on what they think will win for each test. If you do this enough and with enough varied options and you will be amazed at just how bad people are at guessing the right answer. In the last 9 tests that I have done we have averaged 8 options for each test, with some variants coming from the team, some from myself, but a large many simply expressions of the various directions that are feasible. I have asked a large team to pick there favorite and second favorite. In those 9 tests, we have had exactly 1 second place vote for all of the winners combined, and the only reason that the option got that vote was because my very talented designer picked up on the pattern and voted her least favorite. The shock of where we are versus where people thought we would be and the impact to the bottom line (over 200% improvement) has helped open doors to new ways of tackling problems, and it has done so organically.

In both tactics you are giving people the chance to tie their world view in with the results and letting them have a stake in the outcome. You are welcoming that hammer they wield but helping them see that there are many different nails to hit.

Keep in mind however that you are just as guilty as they are. Spend too much time in the world of optimization and you will start to feel like no one has any idea what they are doing and that all ideas are going to fail. It is even more important for you to challenge yourself and for you to go beyond your comfort zone in where you let testing going. Make sure you include ideas from others as much as possible, even if you are sure they are not going to work. Make sure you tie optimization in on actions that you feel might not comfortable or worth your time. Remember that the smarter someone is, the more likely they are to be impacted by biases and that you serve no good to the organization or yourself if you are not more vigilant against your own biases then you are against others.


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