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Wishful Thinking: Letting Our Imaginations Get The Best Of Us

Relying on assumptions rather than analyzing the challenge at hand and coming up with a plan.

One day, I received a phone message from Chick Corea’s manager saying that there was a problem. For those who don’t know Chick Corea, he’s one of the world’s preeminent keyboard players, alongside Herbie Hancock. and was one of Radial Engineering’s most prestigious endorsers.

For the next couple of hours, I stewed over the situation, wondering if we’d done something wrong or if he wanted to shut down his endorsement agreement. I finally gathered the courage to call him, and after being on hold for what seemed like an eternity, his manager finally came on the phone.

I held my breath as he informed me that the photos we were using on our website and in our ads were old and that he wanted to send us newer, updated ones. Here I was stewing for hours thinking of the absolute worst-case scenarios… when in fact, there was nothing wrong. My imagination had gotten the best of me.

The Bad… And The Good

This got me thinking: Why do humans often assume the worst? As I write this, we just arrived in Manzanillo, Mexico to escape the cold, gray and dreary Vancouver winter rains. For weeks before leaving, my wife Carla was getting increasingly anxious about the trip. What started out as concern about the coronavirus ended up with thoughts of a plane crash! She was ruminating about the bad stuff, not the good.

You know what happened? Nothing. Let me repeat: Absolutely nothing. At every stage along the way, our temperature was being checked as we got on and off planes, mandatory masks were everywhere, and all our friends and their families in Mexico have been virus-free. Go figure. Suffice to say, the plane landed safely.

Humans don’t always only see the bad, we also conjure up images of good. One day while driving home from work, I was listening to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corp) on the radio. It was an interview with a woman whose boat had capsized off the coast of Africa in what she described as “shark-infested waters.” She said that as she and her colleagues were swimming back towards shore, a pod of dolphins surrounded them, creating a protective barrier from the sharks.

Heartwarming. Alas, this romantic image was not what was actually happened but rather was merely wishful thinking. I called the radio station to explain: Fish congregate in schools and when a predator comes in for the kill, they scatter, leaving the slower fish in the middle as fish bait.

Having done plenty of scuba diving around the world, I’ve witnessed this first-hand. On one dive with a friend in Australia, while traversing the hull of a sunken ship, we were clobbered by a school of fish. One hit me on the shoulder, another bumped into my dive-buddy, dislodging his mask.
I looked up and hovering above us was a 2-meter-long (7-foot) black tip reef shark. We immediately crouched down on the ship’s surface and watched. The shark eventually decided to move along to find a better-looking cheeseburger!

Fish aren’t the only ones that use this life-saving strategy… Coots, a breed of small duck-like birds, are the primary food for bald eagles. Yes, bald eagles eat salmon, but only when they’re an easy catch during migration.

When the eagles fly above, the coots bunch together and splash the water with their wings to disorient the eagle. When the eagle swoops down into the middle of the group, the hapless one that does not get out of the way becomes eagle meat. Wishful thinking will not prevent the eagle from a tasty meal.

Defying Logic

In business, all too often we rely on wishful thinking instead of analyzing the challenge at hand and coming up with a plan. You can put a restaurant in the desert that serves the best pizza around, yet if no one drives by, you won’t sell much pizza!

No matter how logical this seems, we fall into this trap all the time. A product may be super successful at $99, so we figure that if we add a couple of features and put in on the market for $129, it will rock.

Perfect example: I noticed a competitor’s direct box on the market that had a mute switch to allow silent tuning. I thought the idea was innovative and useful, so in response, we made a similar model yet it absolutely bombed. Why? Maybe too much noise in the market? A feature that people did not really need because their tuner can mute the signal? Who knows?

When forecasting the launch of a new product, a better approach is to contemplate the best-case, worst-case and most-probable-case. This same philosophy can be applied to almost everything you do. How many widgets will we sell? How long will it take to build?

Consider a new hire and ask yourself what the possible outcomes can be; for instance, will this person fit the role? Will this person stay with the company? Will she/he succeed? And if not, what’s the best, worst and most probably outcome?

This morning, when I suggested to Carla that she could have contemplated the hazards of flying using this philosophy, it turned on a lightbulb. Best-case: the stop-over in Mexico City would be cancelled due to weather and the plane would be diverted directly to Manzanillo, eliminating a stopover (not likely). Worst-case: we would hit the Sierra Madres head-on (even less likely). Most-probable-case: It would be just like one of a hundred other flights she has boarded where nothing happened (most likely).

So much of what we do depends on how we filter information and whether we give ourselves the chance to consider how things will play out. Our preconceived ideas prejudice our thoughts.

Stuck In Our Ways

I’ll leave you with one more example: Why do we put loudspeakers on each side of the stage? Answer: Because the Beatles did! We have this belief that amplifying a vocal – left and right – will make a difference. Some stereo effects may well work, but likely will only be heard by the few that are siting in the middle of the room.

Anyway… one day, our band arrived at this particular club and realized that the right-hand side of the stage was abutted directly against the wall, making it impossible to create the prerequisite left-right PA stacks. So instead, I ganged all of the PA in one clump on the left side of the stage. That week, we discovered that the sound was better than anything we had ever experienced, with less feedback and a more solid bass thump.

After we packed up and unloaded at the next venue, we went right back to splitting the system just like John, Paul, George and Ringo did. It never occurred to us that a point-source system does not exhibit the same phase anomalies of two stacks that are divided by time and space. We simply followed our preconceived ideas, even after we had experienced something new and better. I suppose it was wishful thinking!

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