Our love of the status quo is not simply cerebral laziness, but deeply seated psychological traits. We strive to be consistent because it is highly valued in our culture. Those who are inconsistent are distrusted at best. So important is it to exhibit consistent behaviour that we will sometimes put common sense aside in order to maintain it. Robert Cialdini points out in his book “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, our desire for consistency works in an unholy partnership with our easy ability to enter into commitment. Once we have committed to a course of action, however minor that initial commitment might be, our sense of commitment can ratchet up until we are quite unable to relinquish it. Our desire to appear consistent is right there beside it explaining how there is no way we can back down now. After all, as Cialdini points out “internal consistency is a hallmark of logic and intellectual strength”.
Cialdini’s book is all about the power of persuasive techniques used by others to convince us to enter into agreements we might otherwise avoid. A helpful section in each chapter explains how to counter these techniques, and often includes recognizing that things were not as you first thought. So, for example, that attractive young person, engaging you in conversation, showing you personal attention is not, in fact, as you first thought when you gave your first tentative agreement to discuss world poverty, attracted to you at all, but merely wants your money.
“It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end” Leonardo Da Vinci
What is interesting for technology entrepreneurs and product managers is that it takes a huge amount of commitment and consistency to bring a new product to market. This commitment and consistency must be maintained over a long period of time and in the face of numerous difficulties if the product is ever to reach the market. We have to convince large numbers of intelligent and influential people that not only do we have a great idea, but that we have the ability to deliver it.
So what happens if the market changes in the meantime?
Most of us just keep running, running like lemmings. Challenging our internal models, allowing even the possibility of being inconsistent against our very publically exhibited commitment, is just too tough.
You don’t believe things can change that quickly? Well last month, I wrote a fun piece about how Product Management was like surfing. Over the next few days I made it the centre of my monthly newsletter, honing and polishing the content. Finally, I set the newsletter to go out later on the next day when I would be working in London. In the morning I heard the terrible news of the earthquake and resulting tsunami in Northern Japan. I didn’t realize but my newsletter went from fun and informative to sick and insulting (at least in the eyes of one reader). I could really have done with someone to have pointed out to me that at that moment commitment and consistency were the opposite of what I needed. (Apologies to any so insulted).
“Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago” Bernard Berenson
What we need at moments like that are two things. Firstly someone to point out the blindingly obvious thing (Tsunami) which we have failed to connect to our work (newsletter) due to our commitment. It might be a change in the market, a change in technology, a political shift, or just new information we had not paid attention to before. Secondly we need someone to explain to us how this changes the rules under which we first made our commitment. In fact it changes the rules so much that it would not be inconsistent for us to relinquish our commitment and change our position.
And kapow! With one magical redefinition of your market segmentation you are free!
More seriously, this is hard to do. When to challenge the certainty that as an entrepreneur or product manager you must carry with you every day? When to admit that there might be just a chink in the armour of that presentation you gave the VC? How to turn around to your engineering team and say “actually guys, I think we’re building the wrong product”?
What you’ll need for such a task is an iconoclast, a creative rule breaker a Professor of Bubble-Bursting.
In the meantime “Don’t panic and carry on”…