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The Perks of Being An ‘Outsider’

We all have some sense of self-awareness — that capacity of introspection and being separate of the environment. We become self-conscious as objective evaluators of ourselves. But a deeper question is: how objective are we really?

Being human means that we all consist of consciousness, emotions, rationality, irrationality and the like. The way we remember things are influenced by past experiences, perceptions and expectations. It is a well-known fact that economists tend to disagree on the same facts, which led George Bernard Shaw to joke “if all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.” This means that much of what someone tells us or that we experience ourselves are open to interpretation. There is no absolute right or wrong.

To emphasise this point, take the story of Bata shoe manufacturing company. In the late 19th century when markets for shoes started to appear in colonial Africa, sales representatives from various companies travelled all over Africa to establish a first-mover advantage over competitors. However, to their dismay, they soon realised that nobody wore shoes! “There’s no market for shoes in Africa”, they all exclaimed when they got back to England. But the representative from Bata exclaimed: “Nobody in Africa wears shoes … there is a huge market for shoes!”. 

We cannot look at anything objectively (without bias)

The neurologist Robert A. Burton’s book, which I recommended in a previous post about your unconscious behaviour, talks about ‘partial objectivity’. We cannot look at anything objectively (without bias). The way we remember things are often clouded with previous experiences, influences and the like. It is therefore quite difficult to see something objectively. It is as if once we are immersed in a task we cannot think objectively about it. I am reminded of the endowment effect in psychology. It states that what we own is of more value than what we do not own. You might take ownership of something that, over time, causes you to like that item more than an identical item that you do not own. This shows that, for some reason, we lose perspective on what we have. Reading this post, you might spot mistakes the writer couldn’t…


Marketing Implications

In business objectivity is also a hindrance. In Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine – How Creativity Works he describes what he calls “outsiders” as “someone who knows enough to understand the question [that needs solving] but not enough to run into the exact same stumbling blocks [as the expert]…” I have a passion for consulting with people and businesses on the neuroscience/psychology/marketing topics. But I have realised that often it is much easier to see what is wrong in other companies (and only then to fix it in my own entity) than to, in the first place, look at my entity and fix what’s wrong. I do not know if I am the only one with this predicament, but I sure do not suspect so. It is kind of paradoxical: by standing close enough to your business to spot the management ‘mistakes’, you are also standing too close. It is these problems that outsiders can spot with ease.

It is for this reason that I suggest that businesses who want to improve processes and procedures, however basic, get independent advisors/consultants to assess the functioning of the organisation. Even sharing problems across departments will provide a wealth of creativity, insight and solutions. An employee from sales might know just enough about marketing to see that what marketing is doing is counter to what their goals are. Whenever you feel like an outsider, rejoice in the fact that you can see things someone else can’t.

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Werner van Zyl
Phone: +27 84 810 22 74
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