Drawing the Bull’s-Eye around the Arrow
On their websites, hotels present themselves in the very best light. They carefully select each photo, and only beautiful, majestic images make the cut. Unflattering angles, dripping pipes, and drab breakfast rooms are swept under the tattered carpet. Of course, you know this is true. When you are confronted by the shabby lobby for the first time, you simply shrug your shoulders and head to the registration desk.
What the hotel did is called cherry picking: selecting and showcasing the most attractive features and hiding the rest. As with the hotel experience, you approach other things with the same muted expectations: brochures for cars, real estate, or law firms. You know how they work, and you don’t fall for them.
However, you respond differently to the annual reports of companies, foundations, and government organizations. Here, you tend to expect objective depictions. You are mistaken. These bodies also cherry-pick: If goals are achieved, they are talked up; if they falter, they are not even mentioned.
Suppose you are the head of a department. The board invites you to present your team’s state of play. How do you tackle this? You devote most of your PowerPoint slides to elaborate on the team’s triumphs and throw in a token few to identify “challenges.” Any other unmet achievements you conveniently forget.
Anecdotes are a particularly tricky sort of cherry picking. Imagine you are the managing director of a company that manufactures some kind of technical device. A survey has revealed that the vast majority of customers cannot operate your gadget. It’s too complicated. Now the HR manager gives his two cents, proclaiming: “My father-in-law picked it up yesterday and figured out how to work it right away.” How much weight would you attach to this particular cherry? Right: close to zero. To rebuff an anecdote is difficult because it is a mini-story, and we know how vulnerable our brains are to those. To prevent this, cunning leaders train themselves throughout their careers to be hypersensitive to such anecdotes and to shoot them down as soon as they are uttered.
The more elevated or elite a field is, the more we fall for cherry picking. In Antifragile, Taleb describes how all areas of research—from philosophy to medicine to economics—brag about their results: “Like politicians, academia is well equipped to tell us what it did for us, not what it did not—hence it shows how indispensable her methods are.” Pure cherry picking. But our respect for academics is far too great for us to notice this.
Or consider the medical profession: To tell people that they should not smoke is the greatest medical contribution of the past sixty years—superior to all the research and medical advances since the end of the Second World War. Physician Druin Burch confirms this in his book Taking the Medicine. A few cherries—antibiotics, for instance—distract us, and so drug researchers are celebrated while antismoking activists are not.
Administrative departments in large companies glorify themselves like hoteliers do. They are masters at showcasing all they have done, but they never communicate what they haven’t achieved for the company. What should you do? If you sit on the supervisory board of such an organization, ask about the “leftover cherries,” the failed projects and missed goals. You learn a lot more from this than from the successes. It is amazing how seldom such questions are asked. Second: Instead of employing a horde of financial controllers to calculate costs to the nearest cent, double-check targets. You will be amazed to find that, over time, the original goals have faded. These have been replaced, quietly and secretly, with self-set goals that are always attainable. If you hear of such targets, alarm bells should sound. It is the equivalent of shooting an arrow and drawing a bull’s-eye around where it lands.