The Case for the Un-Quantified Business
Author Tim Leberecht says that we're quickly reaching the point where we only value what we measure. That's bad for business, he argues.
by Laura Montini
Businesses everywhere could use a little less data and a little more romance, according to Tim Leberecht, author of The Business Romantic.
“I’m not talking about about office flirts,” Leberecht, CMO at architecture firm NBBJ and former Frog Design CMO, said during a recent presentation. “I’m also not talking about loving what you do or doing what you love. What I’m referring to is really the notion of romance in the spirit of traditional Romanticism.”
It sounds touchy-feely, but hear it out. Leberecht spoke Wednesday in front of an audience of about 40 attendees at The Commonwealth Cub of California in San Francisco. He related a few stories to explain his argument that our overuse of algorithms and big data puts us at risk of engineering the humanity out of our lives. (He had more to say about his theories to Inc.’s Leigh Buchanan, who interviewed Leberecht in our February issue.)
Take, for example, Uber’s use of surge pricing during a hostage crisis in Sydney last month. As people tried to flee the city’s central business district, Uber prices increased to four times the usual fare. This is how Uber’s pricing algorithm typically responds to an increase in demand.
“Fares have increased to encourage more drivers to come online & pick up passengers in the area,” Uber explained. The company’s decision to stand by the price surge sparked an outcry around the world.
“The right logical decision,” Leberecht called it. “But maybe not the right humane decision at that point in time.”
Leberecht also noted how the algorithm for Facebook’s Year In Review, which aggregated user’s biggest moments in 2014, backfired for some. Facebook user Eric Meyer said he had received an invite to use the feature, which included a picture of his daughter, who had died that year, framed by a celebration-themed background.
In a blog post Meyer acknowledged that it was a mistake caused by an unfeeling algorithm, but it still felt cruel, he said.
Leberecht had a takeaway from all of this: “We have to realize that some experiences are better if they are not optimized,” he said. But how do you actually apply a sentiment like this to a business, which aims to run as efficiently as possible?
For starters, you could stop measuring absolutely everything, Leberecht suggested.
“When I was working for a creative company, for example, we hosted an opening party for South By Southwest Interactive every year,” Leberecht said. And every time, his company had the same debate over whether or not to host the event, given that the large sum of money could be better spent. But every year the firm enthusiastically decided to do it again.
“It was remarkable because there was really no sound business reason to do it,” Leberecht said. “We never quantified the value it created.”
“I think if you look at your businesses, you can find these examples and have a stronger voice and make a stronger case for them,” he said. “Even though you might not have the numbers.”
This article first appeared in Inc Magazine