the “gold fish” effect: knowledge and the corporation

Ani II.jpg

This weekend I had lunch with Stewart Owens. Stewart was the Vice Chairman and Chief Strategic Officer of Young and Rubicam. He is now a principal at mcgarrybowen.

We agreed that marketing has become more demanding at the very moment that research practitioners are, some of them, working to an ever lower standard. This means that data coming into the corporation is, some of it, compromised from the very beginning. It doesn’t matter how smart the analysis post hoc. Garbage “in” must mean garbage “up.” (GIGU is the corporate version of GIGO.)

Stewart and I remarked that a lot of the qualitative work is accomplished by people who appear to be suffering a terrible case of amnesia. People can have spent 20 years doing focus groups but they appear to have learned almost nothing in the process. They have developed no depths of knowledge. They have listen to people talk about themselves and their culture twice an evening for thousands of evenings, and nothing stuck. It’s was in one ear and out the other.

Following Ani DiFranco, we might call this the “gold fish” effect. In a song called “Little Plastic Castles,” DiFranco lays it out

They say goldfish have no memory
I guess their lives are much like mine
And the little plastic castle
Is a surprise every time.


DiFranco, Ani. 1998. Little Plastic Castles on the album of the same name. Copyright Righteous Babe Records. The link for this CD here

The mcgarrybowen website here

3 thoughts on “the “gold fish” effect: knowledge and the corporation

  1. steve

    I believe the old saying is “You don’t have 20 years’ experience–you have one year’s experience 20 times.”

  2. Tom Guarriello

    Proving once again that you need some kind of framework to put experience into or it simply remains noise. If you don’t develop a framework by internalizing and integrating the rules of practice, you remain a “one year, 20 time” practitioner. This is how Dreyfus described the process of moving from novice to expert in any complex cognitive domain.

  3. Grant

    Steve and Tom, Beauty! and frameworks are generally speaking not part of the HBS view of things. Still there is something to be said about the adaptive abilities of very smart people who are very observant and entirely versatile. No dead hand of competence here. No prisoners of the paradigm. Sometimes a low level empiricism demands the least intellectual “overhead” and causes the least conceptual friction! Best, Grant

Comments are closed.