Somewhat frustrated by their linear thinking, I tried to challenge them with the notion that as we approached the end of the millennium, ideas would gain ascendancy over technology. Linear thinking would be outmoded, reason dethroned and a growing spiritual awareness would grip people and lead to discontinuous and unforeseen change.
"Bullshit!" responded one guy from the back of the room, "If that's what you're telling your clients, they deserve their money back." "The future", he continued aggressively, "will continue to be shaped by technology, not by artzy fartzy ideas. As for reason being dethroned, what will we be left with, irrationality, craziness, confusion?"
Well, as it turns out, yes, that's exactly what we're left with. Since that conversation a number of books and articles by sane, well regarded business writers, academics and researchers have provided me with a measure of vindication.
Charles Handy, professor at the London Business School, for example, takes the view that we live in a time when reason no longer works and cannot guide us to the future. He also writes about the need for corporations to recognize the spiritual dimensions of their employees. (The Age of Unreason and The Hungry Spirit.)
More recently, Jim Taylor and Watts Wacker in their book, The 500 Year Delta, posit the end of the age of reason and the rise of intuition. Imagine a river , they say, that has been flowing for five centuries from the early Renaissance. This represents the age of reason. Along the shores stand great minds, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Locke and others. As the river nears its end, it accelerates. The shore becomes a blur and we find ourselves in a delta of swirling silt and debris. "This", conclude the authors, "is the world we have arrived at today: one in which the principles driving change are no longer reason but chaos, no longer causal relationships but disharmonious conjunctions."
If these writers are correct, there are serious implications for marketing, planning and research. It means that the techniques and norms of the past are no longer valid in planning for the future. Think of how many strategic development meetings you've attended where the underlying assumptions were that the world is a reasonable place where consumers make rational decisions, attitudes can be quantified and outcomes predicted.
In the latest edition of Imprints, the magazine published by PMRS (Professional Marketing Research Society), David B. Wolfe, head of the Wolfe Research Group in Reston Virginia, challenges the traditional notions of market research and says it's time to rewrite the rules. He says, "New discoveries in brain science are radically revising our understanding of how human beings think and make decisions, and these new models of cognition are rewriting the conventional wisdom about consumer behavior."
Popular wisdom says that the brain processes information logically and analytically, that thinking is a rational process. "Researchers assume", says Wolfe, "that people make buying decisions to satisfy their self-interest, and that they use reason to determine which product best serves that end. Brain researchers see reason playing a much weaker role in personal decisions, however." In their book, Marketing Revolution, Kevin Clancy and Robert Schulman put it this way, "Because consumers don't choose rationally, any research that forces rational answers has to be flawed."
Wolfe gives several examples of non-rational behaviour that sabotaged carefully crafted strategies built on reason alone. Among them the re-formulation of Coca-Cola. You know the story. Extensive research indicated that consumers preferred New Coke to Old Coke. Overlooked totally was the intense emotional attachment to the concept of Old Coke by consumers, who regarded it as an important cultural icon. They were bereft when told that Old Coke would be retired in favour of New Coke. Concludes Wolfe, "This subtle value proved to be far more influential than taste in determining consumer response."
The truth is the most important decisions in life are made emotionally, from choosing a mate to selecting drapes for the living room. Only after the decision has been made do people resort to reason to rationalize their choice.
University of Iowa neurologist, Antonio Damasio, reports that his research shows that different brain sites and different mental processes are involved in different kinds of decision making. We use one set of tools when we consider hypothetical matters and another when we make personal decisions. Presented with hypothetical issues, Damasio's patients had no difficulties coming to a decision. But when the matter directly involved them, problem solving became much more difficult. We all know how easy it is to give advice to others. But when it comes to following that advice ourselves, it's an entirely different matter.
The point of all this is that we must constantly question the methods and techniques we use to determine consumer motivations and behaviour. Asking consumers directly such questions as, "Would you buy this product?" and then assigning numerical value to their answers can lead us woefully astray.
Guy Claxton, British professor of psychology and author of recently published, Hare Brain Tortoise Mind says, "The brain thinks not by adding two and two to make four, but like a sheet of wet paper on which drops of watercolour paints are being splashed."
It's an eerily startling notion that should make us all stop and think.