Matt Perryman

How to make sense when it don’t add up

By Matt Perryman

Earlier this month I read two books by the same author, which isn’t itself unusual, besides the fact that I blew through both of them in under a week.

Why the rush?

When you resonate with somebody’s ideas, the hurry is no hurry at all. You gladly throw yourself into the torrent and let it flood over you.

That’s how it goes when things make sense. Which is a nice segue into the topic.

The business world is in love with quantitative data. Demographics, averages, quantities purchased, quarterly growth of sales, statistics of all kinds.

That’s fine and all, and numbers have their place in business. But you ought to notice that one key element is missing.

The people who buy from you.

Numbers aren’t people. Numbers at their best give you some idea of how people have behaved in the past.

But you don’t understand them, what they want, and why they do what they do — which includes buying your stuff (or not).

Even the staunchest git-er-done capitalist marching through the business world can benefit from methods inspired by the humanities and the human sciences.

Why yes, philosophy can indeed be a practical discipline. Many of the biggest corporations in the world right now use obscure methods of phenomenology and hermeneutics as part of their marketing research and product design.

I didn’t even know that myself. These two books set my noggin churning.

The clue is in the phrase “business world”. What does that mean? How is that different from the world of theater, the world of Hollywood film-making, or the worlds of science?

That’s a question for phenomenology, a now-obscure philosophical method. Data-driven thinking starts with problems and looks for solutions.

Phenomenology reframes aproblem into a phenomenon.

A phenomenon is an appearance. How do things appear? Who do they appear to? What is it like to experience that situation?

Starting with the phenomenon transforms how we understand people. Human persons are not the independent individuals we sometimes believe we are.

We’re all embedded in a social context, which brings its own rules, laws, norms, values, systems of belief, acceptable goals and desires, and much more.

The MBA in the corner office sees spreadsheet models without context. Real live human beings live and act in a vast system of overlapping worlds that don’t translate into hard numbers.

Numbers strip away context. For human beings in human worlds the context is everything.

Using phenomenology to understand people means getting into their worlds and experiencing goals and frustrations from their perspective.

It’s a kind of strategic empathy (though I avoid that word as people believe empathy requires an emotional connection).

Phenomenology is a method of making sense out of human intentions and behaviors.

Try as they might, data geeks working with data-driven models tend to be reliably wrong about everything. The major take-away is that they’re wrong in their most basic assumptions about human beings.

It isn’t all about business, either (though I suspect anyone savvy enough to take this on board could do well from it).

Any situation that involves understanding why people do what they do, or don’t do what they “should”, could benefit from a sensemaking approach.

What’s the “world” of transforming your physique, or dropping 100 pounds of fat? What’s the “world” of becoming the best in your hobby, or career, or sport?

Food for thought.

I never would have guessed that Martin Heidegger could be the ultimate “business guru”.

Matt Perryman 

You know what?

This article was sent to my faithful readers as an artisanal hand-crafted email. If you enjoyed this article and want more like it, you should sign up for this newsletter.