Beware Of The Last Guy You Spoke To


Acting on an afterthought is a formula for disaster


A guy I know likes to answer the question, "So, what do you know?" with: "Whatever the last guy I spoke to told me."

Busy people are like that. Rushing around, e-mailing, text messaging, talking, etc., and not retaining a thing, save for whatever the last guy they spoke to told them. They remember that. You can tell because in a meeting, they always say, "Well, I just met a guy who told me..."

Unfortunately, whatever comes out next is often the basis for a decision that may be of vital importance to an organization's operations. But because it's the one thing first and foremost in the minds of busy people, it gets all the attention. Everyone rallies around it. Often, executives take it into account when making important decisions. That's no way to run a business, but a lot of executives seem to be doing things that way.

Someone told Dell that it had better bolster its profits with products that had higher margins than commodity PCs, so it went headfirst into big-screen TVs and MP3 players. Dell, of all companies. Well, we all know how that turned out: flop city.

The funny thing about the last guy we speak to--at an event, a conference or a big meeting--is that many times we don't even know that person. He or she approaches after we leave the stage, when we have a drink in our hands at a reception or, worse, when we are trapped in an elevator. We are, of course, vulnerable, trying our best to appear accommodating, social and open to new ideas. But we're generally not open to new ideas at times like that. Oh, our ears might listen because our mouths may have been running off, but our analytical minds are often at rest at moments like that.

Still, it happens. Someone says something that captures our imagination. That startling revelation or sympathetic observation or can't-forget complaint sends us thinking. We smile and roll our heads back in amusement, or cock them forward in rapt attention. Then it's, "Thank you very much," and we are out the door with that last thought pinging around our heads like a coin stuck in the brush of a vacuum cleaner.

No sooner than when that last thought does finally get sucked up by our brains does it get put into action, if, for no other reason than because we remember it vividly. And why? Because it came from the last guy we spoke to.

Cisco takes steps to avoid listening too closely to the last guy it chats with. At advisory meetings, partners vote on which issues are of utmost importance to them, ensuring that Cisco executives get everything in proper perspective. Elsewhere, Bob Moffat, senior vice president of IBM's integrated supply chain, once told me that a boss of his banned the use of anecdotes at meetings. "Everyone has a brother-in-law in Kansas City who did it this way once," he said. "Can't run a business that way."

I'm convinced the reason that some do is because our memories work on the LIFO accounting system--as in "Last-In, First-Out." That's counter to the processing parts of our brains, which work on the FIFO systems--as in "First-In, First-Out." Think about it: When we go somewhere or plan our day, we usually schedule our most important agenda items first thing in the morning. Keynote speeches are usually in the morning. Big interviews, staff briefings, sales presentations, too. People get promoted at breakfast. Contracts are signed shortly thereafter. First thing, bright and early. Got something important? The processing part of the brain says do it first. And it expects those things will be the first things afterward that get acted on. Our memories, however, work differently. They would prefer we did important things last, preferably after a glass of Pinot Grigio to wash away any other thoughts that may be competing for attention. Got something vital to ponder, discuss or act on? Do it last, our memories say, after all the rest of the day's rituals and perfunctory dealings are complete. We'll remember, promise.

This column should help whenever the boss suggests acting on something in an early-morning meeting that he or she heard about the night before. Acting foremost on an afterthought is a formula for disaster. Business history is replete with bad ideas that were hatched the morning after a long night of brainstorming. Think AOL and Time Warner, Coca-Cola's new Coke or that unforgettable "wardrobe malfunction." The inverse is probably a smarter way to go. That's doing things that were important enough to schedule first after some deliberation and thoughtful consideration. It's called saving your best for last. If you do it late enough, it's sure to be remembered by most.

T.C. Doyle is senior executive editor at VARBusiness. You can reach him at tcdoyle@cmp.com.