Sunday, June 13, 2010

Strategic Planning Analogy #332: Why?

There’s a comedian who goes by the name of Professor Irwin Corey. Although still alive and sometimes performing (he’s in his 90s), his prime comedy years were in the 1960s and 1970s.

Professor Irwin Corey always dressed in a frumpy, wrinkled suit with tennis shoes. One time, back in his prime, Irwin Corey was appearing on a TV talk show. The host of the show asked Prof. Irwin Corey, “Why do you wear tennis shoes?”

Prof. Irwin Corey replied, “Actually, that is two questions. The first is ‘Why?’ This is a question that philosophers have been pondering for centuries. As for the second question, ‘Do you wear tennis shoes,’ the answer is yes.”

It’s hard to argue with logic like that.

Professor Irwin Corey was hesitant to answer the question “Why?” After all, the great thinkers and philosophers since the beginning of time were unable to answer such a question. Why then, would one think that Irwin Corey could answer the question?

Instead, he stuck to simple questions, like “Do you wear tennis shoes?” Yes, easy to answer, but not very insightful.

I think a lot of business people are like Irwin Corey. They avoid the tough question of “Why” and focus on the easy to answer questions which provide very little strategic insight.

In reality, the best place is in the middle, asking a more focused series of “why” questions, like “Why do you wear tennis shoes?”—easier to answer than “why” and more insightful than “Do you wear tennis shoes?”

The principle here is that merely observing surface behavior (like whether or not you are wearing tennis shoes) will not lead to great strategic insight. If you want to influence customer behavior to your advantage, you need to look deeper into the motivations behind that behavior. You need to ask why.

The traditional technique for doing this is called “The 5 Whys.” The idea is that you ask a person why they do something. Then you take their answer and ask why they said that. If you continue doing this five times, you will have dug down to the true motivation behind the behavior.

It takes multiple layers of asking why to get to the truth, because often consumers themselves do not truly understand their deeper motivations. They cannot truthfully tell you their deepest motivations at the first, because they do not know the truth. You have to dig deeper, one level at a time, because that is all the customer can handle. You are helping them with their own sense of self-discovery on why they do things.

If you stop the process too soon, you will only get a surface response which does not get to the real heart of the matter. As a result, you will miss the true strategic insight.

Discount Store Example
For example, one time I was working on a project to find out why people shop particular discount stores. When customers were asked why they shopped discount stores, nearly all of them said “To save money”, regardless of which store they shopped. Well, that didn’t provide much insight. Worse yet, it gave me no clue as to why some customers preferred saving money at discount store “A” while others preferred saving money at discount store “B”.

Had I stopped there, I would have concluded that everyone sees discount shopping the same and that all discount stores are about the same—places where you can save money. But that would have been the wrong conclusion.

I used the 5 Why approach to dig deeper. What I discovered was that people had different reasons for why they wanted to save money. And, depending on their reason for saving money, people preferred a different discount store.

For example, one group wanted to save money in order to feel like they were doing more to take care of the needs of their family. This group tended to shop discount store “A”. Another group liked to save money because they loved to shop—the more they saved, the more things they could buy. This group seemed to prefer discount store “B”. A third group loved to buy expensive status items. However, they knew that the only way they could afford to buy the status brands at the status stores was by saving money on things that were less important to them at discount stores. This group tended to prefer discount store “C”.

Now I had meaningful information around which one could design a strategy. I could segment customers based on this deeper motivation and take actions to strengthen the value on the deeper dimensions associated with the chosen segment. I would have never discovered this insight if I had stopped at the first level of observation.

The Concept of Self Worth
After having done enough of these 5 Why studies over the years, I have noticed a pattern in the types of deep motivations you discover. In general, people like to feel good about themselves as individuals. Rarely do people take pride in being a bad person. Instead, they want to see themselves in a favorable light. Therefore, if given a choice, people tend to act in ways that will make them feel better about whom they are as a person.

I call this the concept of Self Worth. The idea is that if you know what makes a person feel better about their worth as person, then you can predict how they will act—in a direction which increases that self worth. Then you can increase your profits by helping them achieve that self worth.

What makes all of this really interesting is the fact that there are a variety of ways in which people define self worth. Therefore, you can strategically segment a market based on self worth. You can choose a self worth segment and build an offering which is the best at reinforcing the self worth of a particular segment.

Most self-worth segments seem to fall into one of three broad categories, which I call “The Internal Compass,” “The External Status Seeker,” or “The Accomplisher.”

The Internal Compass people tend to be driven primarily by an internal sense of what is morally right and wrong. They feel better about their self worth when they are doing the things they define as being morally right. This is the internal compass directing their actions. People like this tend to be more religious or are more concerned about large societal issues, like preserving the planet.

To win over these people, you need to convince them that patronizing your business reinforces those moral issues they believe in. For example, people buy Tom’s shoes because they know that for every shoe they buy, Tom’s donates a pair of shoes to a poor person. Their moral compass says that helping the poor is right and those that help the poor are better people. Therefore, buying Tom’s shoes makes you a better person.

The External Status Seekers use more of an external compass. They tend to feel best about their sense of self worth when they think that people in their peer group find them more acceptable. In other words, this group lets others define their worth. They more THEY like you, the more you like yourself. This is about fitting into society. Even more so, it is about having special status within your peer group—being one of the more highly esteemed within the peer group. This is the primary segment for teens and is also very important for a large percentage of adults.

External status seekers learn what the rules are for status in their group and then act to attain them. It could be by owning the right status brands. It could be by belonging to the right social groups. It could be by being seen in the right places with the right people. To win this group, you need to understand the rules of that portion of society and then help them achieve status with their peers via playing those rules. For example, if you convince this group that your brand of automobile is the highest level of status among their peer group, then that group will buy more of your brand of automobile.

The third group is The Accomplisher. These people measure their sense of self worth based on how much they have personally accomplished in their life. The more activities they have done, the more they like themselves as a person. It’s almost like a check list. The more things that are checked off, the higher their self worth. The key here is to find out what types of activities they find meaningful and then help them accomplish them.

By using the 5 Why approach, you can figure out which self worth sub-groups are most relevant. Then you can develop the appropriate strategy.

Observing surface behavior is usually not going to lead to great strategic insight. Insight comes from understanding the motivations behind that behavior. If you understand the motivation, then you can increase the behavior in a direction which is more mutually beneficial. A way to get at the deeper motivation is through the 5 Why approach. This will usually help you to see what creates a sense of self worth in people. Then you can build a strategy which reinforces that sense of self worth.

Don’t be like Professor Irwin Corey, who avoids the tough questions. Take the time to learn the deeper motivations.

Also, this was another blog based on a suggestion of a reader. If you have any topics you'd like me to tackle, let me know.


  1. Gerald, Why did you write this post?

  2. I write it for several reasons:

    1) To keep my mind sharp.
    2) To elevate the discussion of strategy.
    3) To help others.
    4) To get my name out there and improve my reputation, which could lead to future opportunities.
    5) It's one of my hobbies.

    My only regret is that it is hard to build up a large following in such a narrow industry.


  3. Gerald, but those who follow you are the elite 20%. It is not just numbers; it is also quality

  4. Yes, and it is an honor to be associated with them.

  5. Gerald,

    Great insights!

    I agree with a statement that “Insight comes from understanding the motivations behind that behavior”. However, I would perhaps augment your conclusion by - Insight also comes from understanding the context in which the behavior was exhibited and then empathizing with the behavior yourself. To be little more specific, there are plenty of wisdom and insights available within the scriptures of west and east- most notable one being Bible. For example while interpreting metaphors like “go the extra mile” from the sermon on mount- it is important to understand both the motivation and context. More specifically - let us develop insight and strategy from this incident through our process -

    MOTIVATION: Overcoming evil with goodness and kindness.

    CONTEXT: In those days, the law allowed a soldier to make a people to carry his back pack for a mile, or a thousand paces. People never liked being forced to carry anything any distance. Jesus said if they asked you to carry it a mile, then carry it two miles. That is how we get the phrase, "go the extra mile." It means we should go beyond what is expected of us in helping others. Developing insights from these teachings are difficult without knowing the context. This is exactly again Paul talks about it in Romans 12.21. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good. If a bully tries to pick on you and hits you, instead of getting into the fight, walk away from it. Do not try to get even.

    INSIGHT: Do not seek revenge when we are harmed, rather go beyond what is expected of us. In other words, if we have a chance to help someone in need, we can be generous and give more than is expected of us.

    STRATEGY: Augment profit focused strategies with purpose agenda- to the win the good will and loyalty of the customers - which will pay off huge in the long run.