Be Smarter Than The Bean

Apr 18, 2017


Picture this: it is 2010, and my business partner and Elicit co-founder, Mason, and I are sitting in our cheap warehouse office space at our cheap glass-and-aluminum desks enjoying lunch—Chipotle burritos, natch. Drake, Mason’s chocolate lab (and hunting dog) is lying under Mason’s desk, vigilant for any nibbles that might fall his way. Inevitably, a single black bean tumbles out of Mason’s burrito, bounces off his shirt, lands on the floor, and rolls away—just beyond the lower edge of his desk. Remember, it’s glass and aluminum. Drake can see the bean, Drake can smell the bean, but Drake is blocked from getting to it by the frame that goes almost to the floor, and the glass at the back of the desk. He starts nuzzling at the space between the desk frame and the floor, trying to stretch his tongue out far enough to reach it. But it’s fruitless. He just can’t get that bean.

As we both watch with amusement, Mason says, “Drake, be smarter than the bean.”

What Drake’s dog brain can’t quite grasp is that he simply needs to get out from under the desk and go around to the back of it where the bean is just waiting to be gobbled up.

I’ve always thought that was a funny line: “Be smarter than the bean.” But of late, it’s been coming back to me in a different context as we work to infuse customer thinking and insight into how businesses operate. This is hard work, and often changes that, on the surface, appear to be obvious and simple, in practice seem almost impossible to achieve. “Just use the clear and proven results of this predictive model to version your welcome campaigns.” But there are 20 reasons why it isn’t this simple: the model isn’t productionized, there’s not a data feed to the Email Service Provider, our existing email workflow can’t accommodate three versions of a triggered campaign, our creative team doesn’t have capacity to build all of these versions, we can’t get the data to accurately measure response by version, etc., etc.

Sometimes, even when it’s visible and within reach, we just can’t get that bean.

We probably all know what a “paradigm shift” is. And we’ve likely all heard the phrase, “When you’re a fish, you’re unaware of the water.” But this is more than a paradigm shift challenge. Businesses run on systems, processes, habits, cultures, and beliefs. In fact, businesses have self-defense mechanisms built into them. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Altering how we operate is the hardest part of becoming customer-centric. It means effecting real change. And when we’re making transformational change, it means doing something we haven’t done before. This is why it’s harder than a paradigm shift, which only requires us to see differently. It’s more like a leap of faith. It demands action.

Transformation isn’t about one big “aha!” moment. It’s about doing hundreds of small things differently which, together, result in a new operating model. Many of those small things are like Drake’s bean: we can see what’s needed, but we have to force ourselves to take a new approach, put a new mental model into practice, or abandon an old way that just isn’t working.

We have to be smarter than the bean.

As for Drake, well, he eventually got that bean. After he struggled for a minute or so, Mason guided him out from under the desk, and about halfway out it dawned on him: go around to the outside to get the bean. Good dog.

Dedicated to Drake, 2004-2016. RIP, old friend.