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The "True But Useless" Problem

Posted by on January 18, 2011

In the social business world we hear about a lot of truths that practitioners, analysts, vendors, and consultants throw out into the air.  In fact listening to the discussions around social business today is a bit like walking into a flea market where everyone is screaming at you trying to get you to come to their table.  The problem with truth is that by itself it isn’t always very helpful.  As an example you can take any discussion around social business (such as social CRM) and see that when you start to dissect the conversations and concepts of what a social business really is you find yourself down a never ending rabbit hole.  Social CRM is supposed to be all about connecting with your customers in meaningful and mutually beneficial way right?  However, these discussions usually go something like this:

Client:  I’m interested in building better relationships with my customers

Practitioner: Ok great but before we do that we need to look at how your company collaborates internally

Client:  Ok

Practitioner:  We also need to look at your legacy systems to see what type of data collect and how it’s integrated with new social tools

Client:  …Ok

Practitioner:  Then we need to take a look at your corporate culture and make sure it’s aligned across the company

Client:  …&%$!?

Practitioner:  Oh, and then we need to make sure we look at all of your current customer initiatives to see what’s going on there.  We’re also going to need to improve how your sales, marketing, and support teams work together.

Client:  …$%^$^&!?!?

Practitioner:  Now we need to look at adoption strategies and plans for how your company collaborates and then we can finally explore how to properly engage your customers in a meaningful way, but of course not before we deal with all the change management issues you are going to be overwhelmed with.

Client:  …&^!#$%^&()*&&(!(?!!?!?!?

Did I go in the exact order and cover everything in any particular order?  No, the point here is to illustrate that when a client asks for something sometimes we are very quick to point out everything else that is wrong and what else needs to be fixed.  Now, are all those things above true?  Absolutely, but are all those things useful to the client?  Chances are no.

The problem is that we are focusing too much on things that are “true but useless,” meaning that if a client comes to you asking how to make an omelette and you tell them that need to first make a chicken, then you’re pointing out something that while true, isn’t really going to help anyone, again, true but useless.

At the NRF conference in New York, Dan Heath (author of Switch) was talking about a doctor (whose name I can’t remember) who went to a town in Vietnam (I believe) to help solve the problem of mal-nourishment amongst children.  This was in an impoverished place that suffered from poor sanitation, lack of running water, disease, poor education, and probably dozens of other problems.  So did that mean that in order to solve mal-nourishment all of these other problems needed be solve first?  No.  The fact that those problems existed was true, but at the time useless.  Instead what the doctor did is look at the few children that were healthy and examined their daily diet and activity to find out if what they ate or did kept them healthy.  It turned out that the diet the healthy kids had was different and just needed to replicated for the mal-nourished kids.  The problems of poor sanitation, lack of education, and no running water did not have to be solved first.

Now before anyone starts yelling at me or calling me crazy, I’m not stating that social business is easy and I’m not stating that the things above aren’t important.  I’m simply stating that we need to shift from “true but useless,” to “true but useful.”

  • It always bad to mess up the client with problems, instead try to solve some and then let him know about it, so that you can get a appreciation, with it comes some reference too.

  • Anna @ Copybreak

    Reading this article reminded me of this joke, which really does epitomise the whole “true but useless” notion:

    A helicopter was flying around above Seattle yesterday when an
    electrical malfunction disabled all of the aircraft's electronic
    navigation and communication equipment. Due to the clouds and haze
    the pilot could not determine his position or course to steer to the
    airport. The pilot saw a tall building, flew toward it, circled, drew
    a handwritten sign and held it in the helicopter's window. The sign
    said “WHERE AM I ?” in large letters.

    People in the tall building quickly responded to the aircraft, drew a
    large sign and held it in a building window. Their sign said, “YOU
    ARE IN A HELICOPTER.” The pilot smiled, waved, looked at his map and
    determine the course to steer to SEATAC (Seattle/Tacoma) airport and
    landed safely.

    After they were on the ground, the co-pilot asked the pilot how the
    “YOU ARE IN A HELICOPTER” sign helped determine their position. The
    pilot responded, “I knew that had to be the MICROSOFT building
    because they gave me a technically correct but completely useless

    • jacobmorgan

      that's actually a great story and definitely made me chuckle, I may have to use that story in some presentations!

  • Great reminder, Jacob! I shared these insights with my team.

    • jacobmorgan

      Great, tell them I say hello!

  • SueProulx

    Thank you for reminding us to stick with what's “true but useful.” I've been on both sides of this situation and it's not just a time waster, but a great way to lose clients.

    • jacobmorgan

      thanks for stopping by and of course i agree with you 🙂

  • “…when you start to dissect the conversations and concepts of what a social business really is you find yourself down a never ending rabbit hole.”


    People may understand what social CRM is and what needs to be done, but not how.

    The “omelette and chicken” metaphor is awesome.

    Good job, Jacob, thank you.

  • Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article with us.