Who needs data, when you have a vision? "Ship it!," they tell you. Don't wait for permission--beg for forgiveness! Go with your instincts, and they'll never fail you. We see these sorts of platitudes daily. It's hard to make a populist argument against "go with your gut" or "lead from the heart" or other romantic notions of leadership.
But survivors get to write history, as I've often said in this space, and for every bold, swashbuckling CEO who ignores the naysayers and succeeds, there are scores of CEO's who ignore the naysayers...and don't.
Stephanie Clifford's marvelous article on ousted J.C. Penney CEO Ronald Johnson highlights one such example. Johnson was formerly the Senior Vice President of Retail Operations for Apple, and a man who "liked to tell employees that there were two kinds of people: believers and skeptics, and at Apple, there were only believers."
There is, of course, a BIG difference between a skeptic and a cynic. I'm no cynic. But a little healthy skepticism is good. Skepticism is often what reveals a key piece of data that either prevents an awful decision, or facilitates a better one. According to Clifford's article, some of that key data was available, but was ignored in favor of Johnson's instinct:
[Johnson] ignored a study Penney had just completed on customer preferences, and gave merchants a one-sheet grid explaining what prices they could use.
“Ron’s response at the time was, just like at Apple, customers don’t always know what they want,” said an executive who advocated testing. “We’re not going to test it — we’re going to roll it out.”
Now, my intent here is not necessarily to roll my eyes and issue the self-righteous "I told you so" of the professional market researcher. OK, maybe a little. But this attitude--that customers don't know what they want--is a dangerous one. Henry Ford was famously dismissive of market research, claiming that "if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." Maybe so, but that's because Ford was a car man, and not a market researcher. I can assure you that if a competent practitioner in my field asked Ford's customers what they wanted, the answer would have been "to get places faster." Just so.
We all love a good story, and the received wisdom we learn from the outliers--those truly visionary CEO's who make markets--provides fodder for some good ones. But the corollary tale--the tale of the competent CEO who seeks the data, listens to the advice, and changes their mind to make what turned out to be a better decision? These don't show up on most people's Kindles. Those CEO's are every bit as brave, though the best-seller lists rarely celebrate that kind of courage. But there's nothing more brave than recognizing that your personal instinct is wrong, and changing course to make a better decision for shareholders and stakeholders.
Here's the one truth I've come to after two decades as a professional qualitative and quantitative researcher: if you can't get a customer to tell you what they want, you asked the wrong question.