Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point) is up to his old tricks again—gathering pseudo-scientific concepts from psychology and sociology and mapping their eye-opening implications to business and other areas of everyday life. His descriptions of these phenomena leave you feeling like you’ve been let in on a small secret of the universe.
His latest article in the New Yorker, Open Secrets, uses the Enron scandal as a launching point to discuss the difference between puzzles and mysteries (as defined by national-security expert Gregory Treverton):
Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.
The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.
You need more information to solve a puzzle, but once you have it, there is a clear, definitive answer. The Watergate scandal was a puzzle; Woodward and Bernstein needed to dig up more clues to uncover the truth.
In contrast, Gladwell argues that the Enron scandal is a mystery. Information about the energy company’s financial engineering was largely available—if you had the patience and expertise to dig through SEC filings. The clues were available, decoding their meaning was the challenge.
All of which left me with this riddle: Business are constantly trying to gain a clearer picture of their customers. Should this effort be approached as a puzzle or as a mystery?
Let’s break it down:
1. Where is the data? In my experience, the data to understand customers often already exists somewhere within the enterprise—granted, it is spread out about amongst various transactional and customers databases, surveys results, focus groups reports, and the collective wisdom of customer-facing employees. But like the Enron case, the challenge is largely one of collection and analysis, not of gathering new data.
2. What will the answer look like? I’ll tell you what it doesn’t look like: MicroStrategy’s Customer Analysis Module:
Customer understanding is not a dashboard tool reporting on a mountain of customer data—despite MicroStrategy’s claim that it "provides deep insight into customer behavior" with "more than 65 performance metrics and 40 key reports." That’s puzzle thinking, i.e. if we have access to more data, we’ll necessarily arrive at an answer.
Customer understanding requires synthesis of data, not just reporting. It requires multiple perspectives balanced against each other through the mind of experienced analysts. It requires a recognition that segmentation models and demographic profiles are simplifications of a more complex whole.
3. What does it take to get to the answer? Solving puzzles and mysteries take different skills sets. Puzzles "require the application of energy and persistence, which are the virtues of youth. Mysteries demand experience and insight." In essence, it requires more of the deep and challenging analytics that you’d rather be doing and less of the data gathering and reporting that you are doing.