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Elegant Gurus Beating Straw Men

2011 April 13
by Greg Satell

Beware of consultants bearing gifts.

A while back, I wrote a post about false gurus, those with loud voices and negligible expertise who babble on about things they don’t begin to understand.  They are sometimes nefarious, sometimes well meaning, but always a waste of time.

Yet just as bad (and sometimes worse) are the elegant gurus.  They work with gold-plated advisories and consult for blue chip clients.  They have real acumen and even true insights to offer, but then chose to deal in hyperbole and sophistry rather than sound analysis.

The Decline of Western Civilization and the $30 Hamburger

I recently read two very popular books that describe new trends afoot in the world of business today:  The Power of Pull by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown, and Lang Davison of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and The New Capitalist Manifesto by Umair Haque of the Havas Media Media Lab.

Both books offer easy-to-read guides about real and important trends afoot in the world of business today.  Both are written by authors who work for prestigious institutions and write for Harvard Business Review.  Pretty heady stuff.  Certainly, those are credentials that make people take notice!

However, offering advice isn’t enough.  For some reason, they feel the need to invoke a crises as well (as if we don’t have enough of those!).  In the former case, they posit a 45 year business decline and in the latter, we are told that even the simple hamburgers that we eat are driving society to the poorhouse with nearly $30 of hidden costs.

In both cases, the evidence is either very weak or simply doesn’t exist at all.  In both cases, the specious premise is repeated and emphasized to such an extent that it becomes a core part of the overall argument.

The False Crises of Return on Assets

In the case of The Power of Pull, the authors utilize data gathered over more than four decades and chronicled in the Shift Index report (pdf) that they publish regularly.  In it, they show a consistent decline in firms’ return on assets (ROA).

A nearly half-century of decline in business performance?  Oh my!

It seems like a real problem, but is it?  Since the 1960’s management consultants have been encouraging companies to leverage more debt against stockholders equity in order to lower their cost of capital.  This has resulted in lower financing costs and a requisite increase in assets that company owners have under their control.

It was foreseeable that a widespread increase in leverage and a decrease in capital costs would lower overall return on assets, so it’s not surprising that the metric is falling.  What is surprising is that now management consultants are holding falling ROA up as evidence of an overall decline in business operations.

Seems like they get ya comin’ and goin,’ doesn’t it?

The Importance of Equity

Return on total assets is a red herring.  What concerns shareholders is the return on the capital that they’ve invested. To be fair, the authors include return on equity data (ROE) in their Shift Index report (albeit misleadingly labeled and not included in their book).

Here, as the authors admit, the trend is considerably less visible.  However, I would argue that it doesn’t exist at all.  ROE as shown is subject to considerably large swings and those points of volatility affect the broad trend.  In order to smooth the graph, they could have either eliminated the outliers or simply taken a moving average.

They didn’t and I’m curious as to why.

Moreover, the period of 1965 to 2009 seems a bit arbitrary.  If they would have started in 1970 and ended before the crises (2008 and 2009 are certainly not good data points to establish a long term trend), they would have shown a dramatic increase in ROE.

If a trend is real, it shouldn’t depend on what years you choose.

Externalities and the $30 Hamburger

Economists have long known about externalities, costs and benefits incurred by society at large and not the specific economic actor responsible for them.  For instance, when you drive your car, you emit both noise and pollution.  These don’t show up in your bank account, but can be readily seen in the difference between houses that rest near highways and those on cul-de-sacs.

So I was very much intrigued when Mr Haque insisted in his book that a $3 hamburger actually costs $30.  Wow!  I’m a big, gluttonous guy who loves hamburgers and can scarf down a handful in one sitting along with a few pitchers of beer.  Am I bankrupting society with my questionable culinary habits?

My curiosity aroused, I went to study the matter further.  Haque stated that his assertion was a “back-of-the envelope analysis,” but he did supply an endnote that led me to this article in which an agrarian economist insists that a pound of ground beef would cost $35 without subsidies.  However, no support is given (there’s that envelope again!).

Nevertheless, the mysterious $30 hamburger assertion is repeated throughout the book.  Anytime his argument gets a little flimsy, he brings up the $30 hamburger.  Disagree with him? The $30 hamburger.  Worried that his advice might kill your business?  The $30 hamburger.  And on it goes…

Pardon me if I seem barbaric and obtuse, but for now I’ll enjoy my lunch in peace.

Bowing to GAFA

In ancient Rome, sophists arguing their case in the Forum would often point to one of the various temples situated there in order to lend credence to their rhetoric.  Totems were powerful devices in the ancient world.

Alas, it seems as if we haven’t progressed very much since then.  Today’s high priests of business (speaking generally now and not specifically about the aforementioned gurus), can always be relied on to conjure up the modern day pantheon of GAFA: the combined wisdom of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

Those are truly formidable deities and far be it from me to disparage their amazing feats of heroism.  I admire those companies as much as the next guy (and probably a bit more).  They are not only profitable, but each has something to teach us all.

But what, pray tell, besides being enormously successful and somehow related to the Internet, do these companies have in common?  They vary in their management styles, business practices, core competencies and financial structures.  Invoking them is not an argument, it’s a diversion.

It seems that, “Yo Google!” has replaced “Yo’ Mudda!” as the mindless rejoinder of choice in today’s discourse.  I’m not sure it’s an improvement.

Manifestos Should Not Be Written on Split Hairs

I don’t disparage these men out of malice.  I’m sure, in practice, that they not only mean well but deliver real value and sound advice for their clients.  However, in seeking to sensationalize business trends by citing and then continually reiterating false premises, they do us all a disservice.

They are not, after all, simply opining, but heralding a need for revolutionary change.  That should require standards that are higher, not lower.

Ideas matter.  As John Steen of the Innovation Leadership Network blog wrote, great business scandals begin with false notions.  They are believed in so fervently that when the cracks start to show, chicanery begins.  Assured that they will ultimately be proved right, executives help the facts out a bit along the way.

We all know how that ends.

Good advice doesn’t need to be dressed up.  Sound arguments can succeed on their merits. Serious professionals shouldn’t feel the need to emulate hucksters.

– Greg

 
Update: Umair Haque commented on Twitter to say that “as long as the true cost of a burger’s >~$6, my argument holds.”  That may be true, but it would be nice if he could point to some empirical evidence or to at least explain his reasoning for the $30 (or $6 or whatever) assertion.  I offered to make a correction if he could point out evidence he cited.  No answer so far…

Many people who aren’t famous have to substantiate what they say all the time.  I’m not sure why he feels that he doesn’t.

Note: Special thanks to Wim Rampen and Mark Mulholland of the Mathew 25 Fund for helping me smooth out some rough edges. Any mistakes are, of course, my own.

12 Responses leave one →
  1. April 13, 2011

    Although I don’t know the specifics of these two works, your comments ring so very true for so many other situations I know.

    What you describe is the extension of a problem that media explosion problem causes everywhere in modern society: Media now makes it easy to propagate broad declamations. Unfortunately, it’s now SO easy to spread these claims that there is little opportunity for anyone to offer balancing thoughts.

    Perhaps it’s no all that new. Mark Twain observed that a lie is halfway around the world before the truth even puts on its shoes. Modern media seems to put this reality on steroids.

    As to their being “gold plated”… I seem to remember a Ralph Bunch quote that “nothing succeeds like the APPEARANCE of success”. It’s all part of getting your claims to spread quickly without competition.

    Thanks for a great read.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Ralph!

    One point I would like to clarify: These guys aren’t “gold plated” just because of their affiliations. They are seriously smart guys who have a lot to offer. Moreover, there are some solid ideas in their books. Unfortunately, much of it is overshadowed by the overhyped bullcrap.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. April 13, 2011

    Hello Greg,

    Thought you might be interested to know that both John Hagel and Umair Haque will be speakers at the intimate setting of Business Innovation Factory’s Summit #7 or #BIF7. Looks like an opportunity for some great discussions! http://businessinnovationfactory.com/bif-7.

    Cheers!

    Angela Dunn
    @blogbrevity

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Angela,

    Looks like fun! Unfortunately, it’s a bit far away for me. Let me know how it goes…

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. April 14, 2011

    AHA – it is YOU who is responsible for our current economic condition with your “questionable culinary habits”! LOL – I want to know how many hamburgers you can actually eat in one sitting! You are sure on a roll on this one. I did Google “GAFA” to see if this was an acronym I wasn’t aware of or a creation of yours – it appears to be yours? It yes, you got me laughing out loud on that one. The icing on the cake was ““Yo Google!”.

    “However, in seeking to sensationalize business trends by citing and then continually reiterating false premises, they do us all a disservice.” – Bingo! Sensationalism sells period! It is a shame that substantiated facts has taken the back burner to what the public wants to hear. Case in point, Charlie Sheen – need I say more?

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Julie,

    As for my questionable culinary habits, let’s just say that more than once I’ve had a waitress start walking away after I ordered because she thought I was ordering for the table. (Really!)

    Yes, GAFA is mine, for better or for worse. I think it’s kind of catchy. Feel free to spread the meme!

    On a more serious note, I’m not sure sensationalism sells, although it does get plenty of attention. I would venture to guess that others who are extremely rigorous like Jim Collins and Clayton Christensen sell exponentially more and they certainly stand the test of time.

    Thanks for a really fun comment.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  4. Gary Johnston-Webber permalink
    April 24, 2011

    Hi

    It has been delightful reading your article and all the comments which I true ascribe to, however, may I throw a tiny spanner in the gears.

    I do have a bit of a niggling problem these days as to what exactly are substantiated facts? I find you can read great dissertations by many highly professional people but then later to get your head around the matter at hand one finds so much conflict between these illustrious writers. So it does niggle a bit as we have contradictions no matter who you read these days, and especially in the medical field for the normal people and as an example I quote the old Red Vienna that was so popular for hot dogs etc and then some years back was banned as the colour was bad for your health but suddenly new discoveries say they are OK now, it is the same for sugar and potatoes and we could continue.

    So my point is that with the world economy being shaped by a hand ful changing the goal posts all the time and conjuring up new laws and regulations as they so see fit and this is wide spread across many countries and the EU and USA these days that it is not surprising that one cannot get a straight answer in these days of so call excellence.

    In the old days when calculators were first available it took people some time to master them but they did but then they changed again so more learning and then of course the computer where I don’t believe any one individual has mastered at all.

    Now we see all this gathering of data through the various fancy mobile wireless phones and all the assertions many highly intelligent experts can determine about the individuals, so this is now the new track. I am afraid that the stage is here in most cases where the mere mortal has no chance at all in trying to assimilate all this jargon and conceptual mystery.

    So back to my contention as to really what are substantiated facts barring that we do get up in the morning and we do eat and sleep, but I run ahead of myself here since there is now the concepts that it is all imaginary.

    So where to from here forwards?? Maybe back to the game of chance for the mere mortal.

    Regards

    Gary

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Gary,

    It’s a very good point (and I have an upcoming post along the same lines). I don’t think there really is an answer, except that you need to do the best you can. If we acted only on knowledge that we had first hand, we could hardly act at all.

    As David Hume said, even our faith that the sun will rise tomorrow is a matter of convenience and expedience. Nevertheless, we go on assuming that the sun will rise simply because that’s what’s most practical.

    My point in this post was that when people reach a position of prominence and authority, they need to be more careful, not less.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  5. September 5, 2011

    Hi Greg,

    Somehow I missed this article and came to it only now via your latest article on thin/thick values. But never is late.

    I have been following both Umair Haque and John Hagel in their discussions, and Umair Haque on his Twitter stream as well and had occassional twitt exchanges.

    I had a similar feeling but you put it into words. They both have great ideas btu there is too much snsitionalism – as you put it- in all of them. Much rhetoric, over-repetition and nothing specific. Most of Umair’s recent blog posts started sounding to me – perhaps it is only me – like manifestos of a sort.

    And there is, as you said, that sense that he just repeats things over and over. I get easily bored and have not read his articles recently but am sure I didn’t miss much as by now I got to know underlying premises of his claims.

    On a general front, almost modern thought “leaders” – whether self-appointed or publically acknowledged – ahev the same tendency of repeating themselves. You can read 2-3 articles and rest assured that the rest is variation in wording and style.

    Sensationalization sells, in my view. How? It is like branding – its effects are more long- than short-term. It enforces mental attitudes, ideas and stereotypes. Sensationalization is also the founding rock of all 20th century mass media, which plays on the fact that sensational stories – even the most stupid sounding or mondaine- attract large masses.

    So sensationalization is founded, I think, on a double edge of “idea/thought branding” and mass-media psychology and teh realization that many can much easier appeal to menifesto-like rhetorics than agree to analyse and identify with tedious details/calculations.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Yes. It’s a shame. They both have so much more to offer…

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  6. September 26, 2011

    I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. That was a great article. Please keep writing because I love your style.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Ben.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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