By Chris Day
I had the distinct honor of taking a Philosophy class from the legendary Professor Willard O. Eddy in 1992 at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO. I lament the fact that Psychology and Philosophy aren’t more prominent in business school curricula today. Professor Eddy officially “retired” in 1974 but continued to periodically teach until his death in 1993, and he was a man of thought. He liked to walk to the campus when he could because it kept him active and mentally focused. He was someone who appreciated perspective and regardless of his own, he was always interested in yours. He was one of the most intriguing people I’d ever heard speak.
One of the most memorable lectures Dr. Eddy gave during that intellectually taxing course was one which began simply with a request. He asked each of us to “describe for me, what is a chair?” That simple question began an ongoing dialogue which questioned not only the function of a chair but also how many legs does it have. Is a back required to be called a chair or is a stool a chair as well? If we sit on a box, does that make it a chair or is it still a box that simply is providing a similar function? Is sitting really the primary function of a chair and if so, why do we buy so many chairs when indeed we can only sit in one of them at a time? The real answer is that there is no singular absolute definition of a chair that will satisfy everyone’s perspective but most of us through life experience can tell you unquestioningly when we are looking at a chair versus a box.
The lesson of the chair was not meant to create some diabolical overthrow of the chair making industry and replace them with cushions on plastic egg cartons to rest our behinds upon. It was simply meant to illustrate that no matter how much you believe to know without a doubt what something is; it is likely there are others with a different perspective, description, and purpose for something.
In marketing, I’ve worked with innumerable clients who are completely convinced they know exactly what their customers want or like when it comes to their products. And yet, I have never conducted a marketing research study where the client didn’t learn at least a couple of new and actionable items that they didn’t know about their customers before. The company becomes so focused on the trees, they don’t even bother to try to see the forest. Their perspective is so constrained by what is immediately in front of them that they can’t see a world of opportunity.
The lesson of course, is that both in life and in our businesses, it is crucial that we stay focused on the present but also always take time to look around for those things that we are missing. And when it’s hard, find those advisors that can help you to break down your mental constraints and see more broadly.