Why rules of thumb are dumb

Published 2016-03-11, updated 2023-03-21

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Summary - You can’t run a business on aphorisms, sayings and adages. Yet all too often, people quote popular sayings as if they were self-evident truths – and attempt to make business decisions on the basis of a slogan they saw on a poster or on Facebook. As a CEO, that makes me angry. Today, I want to debunk six common sayings about how a business should be run.

They are a staple of social media: Aphorisms, inspirational sayings or ‘truths’ that are touted as the way to run a business.

We’ve all heard them. They usually appear as a single sentence that purports to distill years of experience into a pithy statement supposedly dripping with wisdom and meaning: sentences like “You only have one shot” or “The company that wins is the company that makes the fewest mistakes.”

People never seem to tire of them. Those sayings get posted and reposted, and often get quoted in business meetings as if they were the self-evident solution to whatever problem is being discussed.

I think blind acceptance of those statements does a business more harm than good.

Here are six rules of thumb I think are dumb – and why.

1. “You only have one shot”

I cannot understand why this common misconception gets so much traction. It’s just not true.

I know from my own experience that you get plenty of chances.

For example, we often go back to prospects who tried our product months ago and did not sign up. Our product is always improving, their business is always changing - a ‘no’ then is not necessarily a ‘no’ now.

You should always believe you have an unlimited supply of arrows in your quiver. As long as you can see your target (if you can’t - move on!!), as long as you’re realistic about your abilities, and as long as you are learning along the way … keep firing.

There are few things in life that are irreparable. To say you only have one shot is a defeatist way of looking at life. And it creates unnecessary anxiety.

What ever happened to “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, again’?

2. “The company that wins is the company that makes the fewest mistakes”

This is a bad way to approach things because it really puts a damper on your outlook.

How can you move forward if you’re constantly worried about making a mistake? (This is especially crippling if you think you only have one shot!)

People will make mistakes. But you have to learn from your past experiences. If you make a mistake once, reflect, learn, and don’t do it again.

If you look at most businesses, you will find they have all made close to fatal mistakes, and they have all been at one point on the very edge of survivability. The best ones are able to pull out, reboot and refocus.

But to survive and move forward, businesses need speed and agility. And if they spend time worrying about whether they are making mistakes, they won’t be able to be as quick and nimble as they need to be. It’s as simple as that.

The opposite of this is “if you’re not making any mistakes, you’re not moving fast enough.” It makes you think, but is likely not applicable to your team and your company today.

3. “You should always fire your two poorest performers”

I’ve often heard it said that a good company should always fire its two poorest performers and hire two people to replace them.

I think that’s an awful way to run a company.

Why? Because of what it does to staff morale. Firing the two poorest performers does not make the company better. All it does is create anxiety among staff – and tells employees that they are not people, but merely outputs with dollar signs or pawns in a larger game.

A good employer cares deeply about employees. Hire wisely, and follow through on your obligation to coach them and get them up to speed. That’s how you boost morale and retain staff - and increase performance.

Of course that’s not saying you should keep everybody. An employee who consistently performs poorly despite being coached and helped should be let go - and quickly - because a bad employee can poison the atmosphere at work.

Here is a rule I prefer: Hire slow, fire fast.

4. “Trust me, I have experience”

This is a blanket statement that comes up in a lot of different situations. I’ve used it myself.

My experience, even if it is warranted and even if it may be helpful, may not apply to the situation at hand. But it’s not really the ‘experience’ part I have an issue with; it’s the ‘trust me’. What the person talking really means is “don’t question me.”

That’s not the right attitude to have, in part because it devalues the other people in the conversation.

If you are trying to solve a problem, use all the tools you have available. Experience will tell you what to look for and what commonalities and outcomes to highlight. Data and research can unearth trends and current facts. Marrying the two is essential.

Having a research culture within the company helps counter the ‘trust me’ attitude. Having experienced people helps you understand and make the right decisions.

5. “The customer is always right”

The customer is not always right. Sometimes, the customer is just confused and frustrated... or should not be a customer at all.

Don’t bend over backwards to satisfy a customer unless you know it’s the right customer for you. Don't let yourself be distracted. Keep your eyes open and know what is good feedback, and when the customer is in fact wrong. Or when it's good feedback from the wrong customer.

And sometimes it’s not the customer you should be listening to, but the prospect you don’t yet have.

6. “Stay the course”

This nearly killed our company early on.

The saying is straight out of the short business book Who Moved My Cheese?.

Sayings like this are dangerous because it’s easy to latch onto them and ignore reason.

In our case, I can remember uttering those very words as the market around us was shifting and competitors were eating our lunch.

‘Stay the course’ seemed like a confident statement about our product investments, and a decided effort not to zig-zag, but in fact this little saying took us way off course.

It’s important to ‘stay the course’ only long enough for the feedback to tell its story. It might not even be the full story, but you’ll need to a balance between zig-zagging and remaining on the straight and narrow.

Those are my top six dumb aphorisms; what are yours?

Allan Wille is a Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Klipfolio. He’s also a designer, a cyclist, a father and a resolute optimist.

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