Tuesday 8 May 2012

Beware of One-Size Solutions

A "Procrustean Solution" in statistics is where you draw the trend line you want and then pick only the data that fits the line. This may have even influenced the famous quote "Lies, damned lies, and statistics", which is attributed to, amongst others, William Gladstone, Mark Twain and Alfred Marshall. The back story of Procrustes comes from Greek mythology. On his way to claim his birth-right in Athens, the young Theseus stopped at the house of Procrustes for bed and board. Procrustes was not the sort of Greek hotelier you'd wish to meet. He invited his guests to stay in his special bed, which he claimed was so extraordinary that it's length would exactly match the person who slept on it. What he failed to mention was that if you were too tall for the bed, he'd cut your feet off, and if you were too short, he'd stretch you. Nobody ever appeared to fit the bed at first, because secretly Procrustes had two beds of different sizes. Happily Theseus saw through the deception, slew the villain, and went forth to deal with the Minotaur.

There's no win-win with a Procrustean Solution, it's a form of deception where one set of interests are forwarded at the expense of others. A statistician would obviously be aware of what they were doing if they were cherry-picking the data to fit the curve, but the person looking at the analysis would assume that it was "kosher".

When you are looking at solutions to problems, and especially when someone is suggesting a solution to you, it's easy to be persuaded by the sales patter particularly when there's some compelling evidence to back it up. In Innovation Management, it is important to realise that one size does not fit all. Processes have increased in complexity, and there are now an increasing number of practices which are largely unproven and where the contribution to the bottom line is unclear. A trial and error approach to innovation processes can be expensive and success rarely comes quickly. Since companies need to change fast in a world of accelerating change, they should learn from others' successes and failures as well as their own.

Remember Procrustes, and don't assume that there is an extraordinary solution that will perfectly adapt to organisations of all shapes and sizes. If someone tells you they have a bed that fits everyone, talk to someone who has slept in the bed first!

1 comment:

  1. Great analogy! In my experience, it is increasingly the case that marketers understand the benefits of a bespoke solution to brand ideation and innovation - because it works. We need to keep spreading the message!