1, 2, Many, Lots

Today I want to talk about donuts and something called the density bias, with thanks to Ted Riolo for starting the discussion.

Human brains are hard-wired to perceive the world and process information a certain way. Because of this, there are countless ways to trick your brain. A good example of that is brain freeze. When the roof of your mouth drops below a certain temperature, your brain assumes that you’re freezing to death, and opens up as many blood vessels as possible. That extra pressure is what makes your head hurt. Part of the reason that people seem more attractive when you're drunk is that alcohol blocks your brain's ability to determine a lack of facial symmetry - one of the key factors in human sex appeal.

There are ways to trick your brain to behave a certain way even without freezing it or drowning it in alcohol. As you may have heard, one of Motorcars' new business ventures is Daylight Donuts & Coffee, and there’s an aspect of the donut business that illustrates an interesting fact about how our brains work.

The retina of our eyes is actually part of our brain. Because of that, our brains - and the brains of all primates - are hard-wired to perceive quantity in a certain way. It works like this:

We can instantly recognize up to 4 of something at a glance, but our brain automatically estimates any number of items greater more than that. It’s not that we can’t count higher than 4 – of course we can – but we tend to make errors of judgement when confronted with quantities beyond that number. There’s even a joke about this that’s actually true for apes, and is one of the things that sets us apart from them: For a chimpanzee, numbers go ‘1, 2, many, lots’. Their brain can only discern quantities up to about 3 of something, so at least we’re one step up from that.

And in a roundabout way, that brings us to donuts. All primates are hard-wired with a bias toward quantity over surface volume. What this means is that you will spend more money to buy 5 or more donut holes than to buy the same net weight of donuts, because your brain is convinces you that the number of food items is more important than their size.

Brain manipulation happens all the time, and we’re completely unaware of it. As you might have guessed, grocery stores - with their tiny profit margins - are among the best at it. For an example, check this out the next time you’re at the grocery store – especially if you shop at a higher-end store:

You may notice that the size of the floor tiles change from one part of the store to another. If they do, I bet that the tiles are much smaller in the parts of the store where the store makes the most profit per item – the deli, the meat counter, and the wine rack. The reason for this is that we subconsciously hear the sound of our cart’s wheels click when they roll over each tile, and making the tiles smaller makes us slow down. The more we slow down, the more likely we are to browse and buy items that make the store more money.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how to price donuts – or anything else - by volume, I’ve included a link that explains the difference between all unit and incremental pricing: https://www.cleverbridge.com/corporate/volume-pricing-strategies-digital-goods/

The Culture of No

Today I want to talk about the Culture of No.

The Culture of No comes into play when we explain to a Customer why we can’t help them.

We are almost always polite when we tell a Customer no. We speak in calm, measured tones, with a sympathetic look on our faces, and sometimes a shrug that says “Whaddayagonnado?”

You know what? Customers don’t give a damn why we can’t do something. All they see is that we are an obstacle to getting what they need or want. And what do you do with an obstacle?

You go around it. If they have more aggressive personalities, they might ask to talk to your manager. If they think that you weren’t really listening, or you’re the second or third person that they’ve told their story to, they might even ask to talk to your department head... or, later, your corporate attorney.

Most people don’t have that kind of personality, though. Most people hang up. Then they go somewhere else. Forever. And they tell everyone on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and on and on to do the same.

The Culture of No is a trap – for a business, a fatal trap. There’s only one way out: Find a way to say yes.

The Culture of Yes takes more work. You have to offer alternatives – would you prefer this, or this?, Or teach yourself to say “We probably can’t do that, but we can do this – does this work for you?”

The Culture of Yes takes creativity, and flexibility. Which is a good thing, because an inflexible person is often a corpse, and an inflexible business almost always becomes one.

Everybody Knows

Tell me if you've heard this one before: Millennials are self-entitled.

How about this one: Trump supporters are racist.

Or this one: Religious fundamentalists are poorly educated.

Depending upon your own generational, political, or religious bent, you probably feel that 'everybody knows' at least one of these statements. If not, I'm certain that we can find one that resonates, because one of the things that our hyper-pattern-aware species is terrific at is categorization. We evolved to think that when caveman Erg died after eating red berries, all red berries from that point on were suspect, and that when a patch of tall grass rustled right before Erg's wife, Yrt, got dragged off by a saber-tooth, rustling of any kind meant spears up and put the kids in the center of the circle.

'Everybody Knows', besides being one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs, is useful when you have little or no control over your environment, or when you simply lack data. The problem with it as an ongoing practice for a species that has Google, tasers, and cookbooks is the same thing that was always the problem: It only applies a certain percentage of the time, and that percentage shrinks as the data set grows. When you're talking about data sets the size of half of the U.S. electorate, a generation that is now almost 50% of the population, or a major religion, the stereotypes 'everybody knows' don't apply to literally millions of people in each of those groups.

As uncomfortable as data-mining makes some people, one of its biggest advantages is that it finally makes it possible to treat each person - each Customer - as an individual. Rather than communicating offers that a given Customer may or may not be interested in via shotgun snail mail coupons, we can gather enough information - in most cases, at little or no cost - to determine exactly what will appeal to each Customer, when, and at what price point. All that it takes is effort... and a complete change to how most organizations approach marketing.

To be heard in an age when our competitors are already probably ahead of us, even how we communicate our messages has to be individualized. How many mailbox ads do you even read before you put them in the trash? Some Customers want to be told things in person, some via email, some by phone, others by text. Deciding to communicate with all Customers in just one way is just as ineffective as making no change: a large percentage will not hear you at all.

Why waste all that time and money? That's like spending all of your money on local television, newspaper, or radio ads to reach Customers who get most of their information and entertainment online.

Remember the 3 fundamentals of keeping Customers:

  • Timeliness
  • Perfection
  • Individualized experience
Customers love to tell us what they want, like us when we listen, and stay when we offer what they need.


In nearly every company that I have been privileged to work for, it has amazed me how little forethought is given to the ripples caused by major decisions - something that I take for granted. At first, I thought that it must be a cultural thing - the best leaders are the most decisive ones, right? But over the years it's become clear that few business people have any idea how to think beyond the immediate consequences of an action. In fact, many find the idea so alien that it makes them physically uncomfortable. In short, they squirm like a worm under a magnifying glass.

Doesn't anyone play chess any more? Or Monopoly?

The formal process of the 5 Why's was developed by Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota Motor Corporation, to find the root cause of product defects. A shortened version (the 3 Why's) was later all the rage for goal-setting and so on, but then seemed to disappear, even though the root idea is the foundation of any successful organization: constant self-examination.

However many you choose, the Why's lead you to the underlying truth of any process, issue, person, goal, and on and on. They require nothing more than a commitment to acting like the average 3-year-old. Here's an example:

  • We need a new CRM program.
  • Why?
  • Because our old CRM program doesn't help us close enough sales.
  • Why?
  • Because our sales reps don't use it.
  • Why?
  • Because we don't hold them accountable for using it.
  • Why?
  • Because we're afraid that, if we hold them accountable, they might leave.
  • Why?
  • Because we don't know how to lead them properly, and it's hard to do, and we're afraid they'll stop liking us if we do.

The wonderful thing about the question 'Why?' is that it can and always should be asked until it meets bone, because doing anything else is throwing up your hands and admitting that you aren't ready to play at the pro level, and probably never will be. 'Why?' forces you to think as much about the Law of Unintended Consequences as it does about motivation (or the lack thereof).

Here's another:

  • We're going to change this process.
  • Why?
  • Because the old process is inefficient.
  • Why?
  • Because no one has time to do it that way any more.
  • Why?
  • Because they are already spending too much time on another process that we recently changed, but which doesn't seem to be working as well as we'd hoped.
  • Why?
  • Probably because we didn't ask ourselves 'Why?' enough times before making that decision.

Besides telling you the truth, another nice thing about 'Why' is that it's inherently private; no one has to hear you talk yourself out of a bad idea. In fact, if you do it right, you're laying the ground work for rejecting other people's bad ideas by figuring out what's wrong with them (and what the real issue is) in advance.

Don't get me wrong - 'Why?' is not about finding excuses to shoot something down. Any change that is truly needed easily stands up to the scrutiny of 'Why?', plus builds its own framework on the way, no matter how departmentally locked-in things start out:

  • We're going to create and launch an expensive new marketing campaign.
  • Why?
  • Because we have a new product.
  • Why?
  • Because our research indicates that there is room and a need for it in the market.
  • Why?
  • Because it will decrease the amount of time that people have to spend cleaning up pet poop.
  • Why?
  • Because our new product instantly turns any pet poop into biodegradable fertilizer.

Really? Spend away! We're all going to be millionaires!

Remember: Business is not a game. There are sharks everywhere, always, and if you don't learn how to see around the next 3 to 5 corners in advance, you end up as fish food.

Shameless Hucksterism

'Work Iz War', the blog, has given birth to 'Work Iz War', the book, now available on Amazon.