The Rashomon Effect in Change Management (and How to Overcome It)
“When dealing in crisis, you’ve got to get creative, and you’ve just got to make decisions, and make them fast. Probably the biggest key though is you MUST operate with a command-and-control mentality. Crises are no time for management by consensus, or for large project teams ideating together. Leaders need to keep their ears to the ground for ideas, decide quickly on which ones to focus on, and then just GO … and go quickly.”
This is how Justin Gagnon explained his business transformation decision to me when I was writing the article "Pivot Your Value Proposition: 6 ways brands, entrepreneurs and marketers are responding to COVID-19’s economic fallout." The CEO and co-founder of Choicelunch decided to pivot his business from selling school lunches to selling groceries.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has brought many changes to companies throughout the world. But change and change management is nothing new to those in marketing. From three broadcast TV channels to dozens of cable channels to endless digital channels. From in-store retail to e-commerce. From in-person sales meetings to entirely digital funnels. Marketers constantly have to either react to change or force the change themselves when assets underperform.
I think it’s important to step back and pause for a moment. As Gagnon rightly advises, in moments of crisis, some marketing leaders have no choice but to take a quick-thinking approach – the company has lost all revenue and it’s time for an all-or-nothing bet on something new. Of course, this knee-jerk approach hasn’t been only applied by businesses. We’ve all watched as the U.S. government has added trillions of dollars of debt after mere weeks, if not days, of deliberation.
But if your business is not in a crisis, don’t let the COVID-19 pandemic entirely change your decision-making model. Let the adrenaline cool down in your veins. Even now, many businesses have the financial strength to take a more deliberative approach, to learn from your team and get them aligned behind key changes. And there are likely many other changes that you should make this year – some that you were already contemplating – that have little or nothing to do with COVID-19.
While it often results in the better, more sustainable change to build your business on than a quick command-and-control change, the consensus-building approach is the harder approach to take. And here is the reason why: the Rashomon Effect.
The More You Learn, the Less You Know
I know marketing leaders who try taking a consensus-building approach with their team, only to hit a wall of frustration by hearing so much contradictory information.
We should go for a broader audience. No, we should target the smallest viable audience. We should use a more creative headline. No, we should use a more specific headline. Yada, yada, yada …
Essentially the more they learned about a problem, the less they knew what type of change they should make.
Why is this? I attribute it to the Rashomon Effect, a term coined by psychological anthropologist Karl Heider, that refers to how humans understand and describe complex and ambiguous situations. Complex and ambiguous – that is a perfect explanation of marketing decisions, in my opinion.
The name is based on the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which contradictory eyewitness accounts of a crime are all presented as true.
In your marketing department you don’t have the woodcutter, the bandit, the wife, and the samurai. But you likely do have the data scientist, the copywriter, the social media marketer, and the designer.
And just like in Kurosawa’s story, our marketing departments have the same very human traits. Sure, we’re self-serving. And we also have genuine blindspots, tend to perceive things based on our ingroup associations, and are biased by our skillsets (as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail).
And if you bring in outside vendors like consultants, agencies, or software platforms – that brings up a whole new level of blindspots (but also, in fairness, outside perspectives).
As Rabbi Shemuel ben Nachmani said, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.” Which is why, consensus is so difficult. But don’t shy away from these challenges when you come across the Rashomon Effect.
Lean Into the Rashomon Effect
If you’ve heard of the Rashomon Effect before, you probably learned it in the context of unreliable eyewitness testimony. It certainly has a negative connotation, and if you come across the Rashomon Effect you might prefer to avoid the situation entirely. But don’t avoid these situations. Lean in.
While most of the discussion about the Rashomon Effect is about unreliable eyewitnesses, what is often overlooked is that Heider thought this effect was a natural outcropping of especially juicy challenges. In "The Rashomon Effect: When Ethnographers Disagree" (published in American Anthropologist journal) Heider wrote, “Those realms of culture that generate disagreement are likely to be those that are most problematical and interesting.”
And the same is probably true for your business. When everyone agrees, it’s probably a pretty easy challenge or change to make.
However, once you start getting into The Rashomon Effect with your team – now you’re getting into the good stuff. You’ve probably hit on a pretty significant challenge or opportunity worth addressing.
But if you come across the Rashomon Effect while taking a team-feedback, consensus-based approach, what can you do? Here is a five-step process you can follow.
Step No. 1: Run a Back-of-the-Napkin Cost-Benefit Analysis
The designer says the problem with the landing page is that the copy is too long. The IT team says your mobile traffic has increased 10-fold over the last three years, but your site still isn’t mobile-friendly. The sales exec says the problem with your business model is that you only have relationships with directors, not C-level execs inside of organizations. The media agency says your social media ads are losing trust with customers, and you should invest in some print advertising to build trust. Your CEO insists you should offer more squirrel-based products and services.
When you go through all the feedback, you’ll likely find some low-hanging fruit. For example, the IT team probably has a good point. You should make your site mobile-friendly already.
There will be other cases where the change isn’t so obvious. It may be based on that person’s bias. For example, looking at the world through a design perspective, the designer simply might not like long landing pages. However, long landing pages can work because a customer in buy mode may be more interested in getting a lot of information about a product than a designer in a marketing department. (For example, here’s a story about a longer landing page that generated 638% more leads. And another one about a longer landing page that garnered 220% more leads.) These are examples where the change is small enough that you have the resources to make it but aren’t sure if it’s the right thing to do.
There may be other cases where you have the resources to make the change but don’t agree with it. For example, you may disagree with the media agency’s print ad recommendation. You may be right to be skeptical, but keep in mind your disagreement may stem from the fact that you personally favor digital content. Beware your own biases. Remember, you are not the customer.
Some ideas might be worth trying, but they are a major effort that you don’t have the resources for. Like the idea from sales to build an audience of C-level execs. No easy task when every company in your industry is trying to do the same thing, and your bigger competitors have far more resources.
And finally, of course, there are just some flat-out bad ideas. For squirrel-based products and other things. That’s where your charm and tact come in handy as you kindly shoot down those ideas.
Step No. 2: Prioritize the Ideas
Based on the cost-benefit analysis, which ideas are worth pursuing? Your team may be very correct about some changes, but they will take so much resources and deliver such little results, that you can’t ROI them.
You may find a bunch of other ideas can be effective as well, but you need to sequence them because your team doesn’t have the resources do to them all at once.
Set out a clear prioritization of what your team should tackle first, what you should do next, and what should be added to the backlog – things that are nice to have if your team ever gets around to it. Here’s a free test planning scenario tool that might help.
Step No. 3: Build Hypotheses
If you took a scientific approach, what your team has actually given you is a set of hypotheses about what changes need to be made.
Work with whoever made the suggestion to build the idea into a testable hypothesis.
Step No. 4: Test the Ideas
At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you think. Or what your team thinks.
The customer will decide.
Limit risk and increase the chance of a successful change by testing with the customer. Create an A/B test and discover how customers respond to the change. Does conversion increase or decrease?
Some changes may just be too big to test in their entirety. So break them down into chunks that will give you an early indication of success or failure, and test those. Or team with whoever is making the suggestion to launch a pilot.
Step No. 5: Make Sure People Understand They Were Heard
A management benefit from going through these steps is letting your high-performing employees know that their opinions matter, and they are being heard.
For example, if the A/B test results show the longer page performs better, you can review that data with the designer to explain why you aren’t changing the page.
You can team up with the head of sales to work together on creating a pilot to reach C-level execs, showing how much work is involved to get those higher-level leads instead of dismissing the idea out of hand.
This regimented approach is the best way to overcome the Rashomon Effect, whether making changes in reaction to COVID-19 or any other time. Take your team’s feedback seriously, get data from the customer to see what really works, make the changes that get the greatest improvements for the least investment, and close the loop on the ideas that didn’t improve results to help your team better understand their own biases – while challenging your own.
Once you’ve decided on a major change, you may need to get business leaders, clients, or others to buy in as well. To help you do that, we’ve created this free template to help you win approval for your proposed projects, campaigns and ideas.
Daniel Burstein is the Senior Director, Content and Marketing at MECLABS Institute. Daniel oversees all content and marketing coming from the MarketingExperiments and MarketingSherpa brands while helping to shape the marketing direction for MECLABS — digging for actionable discoveries while serving as an advocate for the audience.