Cutting Through the Fluff

Sometimes, the world of technology is not much better than reading a tabloid; a lot of wasted enthusiasm and energy, but zero substance. In a world where every vendor needs to be the “global leader”, every startup a “disruptor” and every product “revolutionary”, it’s useful to have a set of quick techniques for performing elementary reality checks.

Luckily, there are two exceedingly simple tools/techniques that I’ve found invaluable; from performing due diligence to dissecting news articles to debunking outrageous analyst forecasts, they provide a quick and easy “first-pass” filter for most claims, technology-related or not.

1) Ask Why

The Five Whys is one of many variations of root cause analysis which can be used for much more than just troubleshooting. Asking why is incredibly powerful, because it forces the other party to justify the claims made in a logical manner – which strikingly often appears to be impossible for them. Granted, sometimes it can also be hazardous to one’s health – in a typical corporate environment, people are often ready to assault you by the third why 😉

A simple “Why” can quickly uncover basic, fundamental problems with an offering or activity. And if you prepare to answer such questions yourself, you’ll be forced to develop a much more compelling, logical story that is better based on data.

2) Do The Math

This is something so many companies, journalists, analysts and others fail to do that it’s not funny. We’re not talking about complex climate model-type of math either, but really basic fundamental reality checks. It’s more about answering some simple questions about any of presented numbers:
– do they make sense?
– are they realistic?
– are they backed up by some evidence/data?

Let’s take Cisco’s “IOT is a $19 trillion market“-spiel as an example that still gets repeated, completely uncritically, ad nauseam. For that to happen, it would require the global GDP growth to double, starting last year. Unless, of course, they think IOT is a zero-sum game and all the “opportunity” is someone else’s loss – which would in turn mean a rebalancing to the tune of 25% of global GDP. Unsurprisingly, Cisco isn’t keen to talk about such ‘details’.

Of course, it’s not about outrageously big numbers either; many more mundane claims can be debunked by basic math, realistic adoption curve modeling etc.

First-pass filter rate…resembles Sturgeon’s Law

Frankly, I find it alternatingly sad, infuriating and depressing that the vast majority of … everything, really … fail even such elementary tests. It is another proof point for Sturgeon’s Law (“90% of everything is crap”).

Speaking of laws, there’s another law that I see someone falling prey to on a daily basis – Amara’s Law; “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” That’s something to think about before you pitch your next revolutionary overnight-world-domination idea.

But, but… I have to exaggerate!

This is a common retort to the above criticism; that one simply has to exaggerate and make ludicrously unrealistic claims to get any airtime these days. And there would be some truth to that – it is indeed difficult to be noticed by the media, VCs or whoever if you’re a realist. Extreme messages sell.

I might be naive in that way, but I don’t accept that one would somehow be essentially forced to lie. It reminds me of a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti, which is a good place to wrap this rant up;

It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

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