The tree lost its bra

IMG_6596This time last year, this tree had a bra. Actually, 2 or 3. I can’t remember exactly how many.

Not far from this tree, there is a bridge with lots of locks in its railings, tied by couples as a symbol of their love. It’s a tradition. Maybe the bra-thing is a tradition, too, I thought (for instance, a variation of this). A few days and some more ‘cues’ later, I was pretty sure that this was some sort of tradition.


Fast forward to one year later. I walk past the tree, and there are no bras. The tree lost its bra. Puzzled, I ask a local, who tells me that there is no such tradition. And never was. It was just a simple, and very silly, case of confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias is a cognitive situation where I am more likely to notice information that confirms a prior belief than information that challenges it, just like I noticed the locks on the bridge. Moreover, when presented with ambiguous information (e.g., no other trees have bras), my interpretation is biased towards reinforcing my prior belief (e.g., because this tree has a special meaning). Not only that, but the further my train of thought progresses down a particular path, the harder it is for me to reverse it.

Let’s take the case of blaming behaviours, for instance. Imagine that I notice that my favourite flower vase is broken. The first step in my mental process is to decide whether this is someone’s fault. I consider various alternatives, and conclude (wrongly!) that my son did it. My assessment of the situation is now set. I, then, move on to consider whether my son broke my vase on purpose or not. At this stage, even if I am presented with information contradicting my conclusion that he is to blame, I am very unlikely to consider it, because my mind is now busy collecting information to help me decide whether this was intentional. And to add insult to injury, the perceived motivation for doing harm (e.g., my son was cross with me because I did not let him play on his video console) will work to reinforce my previous belief that it was his fault. This paper, offers a great overview of research into blaming, which you should definitely read if you need to deal with customer complaints.

The cognitive bias increases when:

  • There is a negative outcome for the accuser;
  • There is a difference in authority between accused and accuser;
  • The accuser (i.e., me) has strong emotional feelings about the subject, favours retribution, and believes that the harmful behaviour is widespread and goes pretty much unchecked.

And it is not all about bras or broken vases, of course. Blaming is a matter of business life, and particularly likely in scenarios like:

  • Self-service environments – e.g., searching for information or buying something online
  • Stereotypical accusations – e.g., young drivers cause more traffic accidents than average
  • High expectations – e.g., that an haircut will dramatically improve my appearance

So, how can we do to deal with unfair blaming?

Blame management

The accused needs to focus on the wrong assumption and keep providing information that challenges that assumption (see figure). That is, my son should focus on the fact that he did not do it, not whether he was cross with me or not.

Figure: Blame mitigation strategies (Source: Malle et al 2014)


It will not be easy to reverse the process, though, as the longer / stronger the belief, the higher the cost for me of being wrong – for instance, loosing face, accepting lack of competence, realising betrayal, and so on. The costs of being wrong will further bias my information search and interpretation process. This is why some companies prefer to offer some form of repair or compensation when a complaint emerges, even when it is not their fault.

In the end, though, the best way to deal with complaints is to minimise the likelihood of any problems occurring in the first place. Improve the design, test and retest, and fool-proof the process.

As for that tree, it actually looked better with the bra ;-)

Spotted elsewhere: Can We Auto-Correct Humanity?


A video reminding us to look up from our screens, and connect with those around us (as well as ourselves).


Shared on Facebook by Jen Johnson Kampanaos, a lovely lady that I had the pleasure of meeting in business school and with whom, ironically, I keep in touch via Facebook.

So what?

I think technology is a great addition to my life. But it needs to remain that: an addition. Not the nucleus.

Unfortunately, some of the images and examples in this video were too familiar to me for comfort. I could see how, on occasions, technology has ruled what I do, when or how I do it, and even how I judge my actions. This video was a great reminder to connect with myself, with others and with the world. For real, not through a screen.

I thought you might appreciate the reminder, too.

What caught your eye on the web, this week?

What do Andy Warhol, toilet paper and male deodorant have in common?

The artist Andy Warhol was obsessed with celebrities and celebrity culture. It is said that he co-founded the magazine ‘Interview’ as a vehicle to meet celebrities. Through the magazine, Warhol gave celebrities the stage that they valued; in turn, because of the magazine, they gave him the candidness that he craved.

He got what he wanted by going beyond his core competency of producing great prints.

Toilet paper brand, Charmin, wanted to increase awareness in customers’ minds, as well as sales. But toilet paper is not really something that people think about – until they need it, of course. Plus, it’s not a great conversation topic.

But Charmin managed to get customers to think about the brand, every time they are out and about, and need to use a toilet. And it managed to get influencers talking about the brand and recommending it to others, too.

To do that, Charmin went beyond their core competency of producing toilet paper, and got into making mobile apps. Yes, apps. They created an app that allows users to search for public toilets in selected locations. Not just that, but users can also rate the facilities (and even leave comments and photos!), helping others to assess how clean the place is, whether it has changing tables for babies, and so on.

The app was downloaded millions of times, and has been named ‘best apps for moms’ by the influential Parenting Magazine. Arguably, it increased the sales of Charmin toilet paper by 15% – not bad for a non-sexy product, in a very mature market.

Unilever wanted to tap into the very appealing male grooming market in Malaysia, but its traditional approaches were not working. So, the company had to go beyond their core competency of producing deodorants. They got into virtual communities.

In a partnership with MSN, Unilever developed an online portal, the Locker Room, which offered young males a space to hang out and discuss topics of interest to them. The portal contained sharable articles, videos and quizzes about topics ranging from sports to careers, and, of course, male grooming. It allowed young males to indulge in what Spikes Asia calls ‘Bro Time’. Exposure to the brand’s message was rather subtle, and done in the context of the specific content – for instance, tips within articles, or mentions in quizzes.

The results were astonishing. According to Campaign Asia, the initiative largely exceeded all its user, page views and engagement targets, as well as ‘double-digit growth in brand consideration, awareness and attribute recall across all brands (Axe, Rexona Men, Vaseline Men, Clear Men).

What Andy Warhol, Charmin Toilet paper and Axe deodorant have in common is that they all went beyond their core competencies, and turned into content producers to provide value to their customers.

How presenting your work can help you improve it

This isn’t a real post. Just the musings of a tired mind.

Over the past few weeks, and specially the past few days, I have been kicking myself for committing to present the findings of the ‘Digitalisation of SMEs’ project (I mentioned it on the blog, earlier – for instance, here), at a research seminar that took place, today.

I had two options:

  • re-use a presentation that I did a couple of times already, on a topic that I feel very confident about
  • or prepare a new presentation from scratch, on a topic that is still pretty much work in progress.

I chose the latter.

And as I found myself struggling to put this presentation together, while doing many other urgent things, I questioned my decision more than once. ‘You could have chosen the other project,’ I told myself. ‘Why did you have to go with this one?

Well, today I delivered the presentation.

Slide1Am I happy that I chose the second option? Yes, very much so, because:

  1. Preparing the slides really helped me think about different ways of communicating the urgency of the research, and the rationale for the chosen approach. I significantly changed the order in which I presented the various parts of the argument, for instance; and, as I had to read and re-read some of our sources, I got to know the material much better than before;
  2. This topic was much more relevant to the audience than the other one I had in mind. They asked lots of questions and made really pertinent observations that really helped me to think (further) about the issues at stake. Their comments also helped me make sense of some of the findings, and how to present them.

For these reasons, I am now in a much better place to finish the paper I have been struggling with, as well as plan the next stage of this work.

To me, this was a welcome reminder of the value of writing (or, in this case, presenting) in order to think. It was a reminder to embrace messiness.

I would like to encourage you to do the same: in your blog posts, in your presentations, in the projects you choose to accept (maybe even your running?): take the more challenging route, because it offers more opportunities for growth.


December 2014 and January 2015 round-up

At the end of December, I was travelling and had limited access to the Internet. So, I decided not to write my usual monthly ’round up’ post. Nonetheless, I still took the time to reflect on how the month had gone; and, afterwards, on how 2014 had gone, and I was stricken by the difference.

The first half of 2014 felt like a never-ending race, with no break, no pause for breath. It’s weird because I remember being acutely aware of time and how it was flying by. And, yet, I wasn’t really aware of time as individual units. Hours merged into days, days into weeks, and so on… Fortunately, by the end of year, things had got much better and, of course, I am now on sabbatical (no, I am not on holidays – just a different type of work). Anyway, that desperate feeling of time passing by inspired me to make 2015 the year when I am very aware of what is happening to me and around me. So, I came up with this little project that I call ‘The 5pm project’.

The 5 pm project works like this:

  • I set a daily alarm on my phone. Mine is at 5 pm.
  • When the alarm goes off, it’s my cue to stop, take a deep breath and take in what I am doing, where I am, other people, the weather, etc.
  • I have also been taking a picture of what is immediately in front of me. These are very mundane pictures, often with terrible light – but it does not matter, because it is about recording the moment, not the image.

I have been looking through those pictures and this is what I was doing, between 1st and 31st of January of 2015, at 5 pm:

5pm project5pm project

It was nice going through these pictures, and remember what I have been doing this month. I do recommend having some sort of awareness trigger.

And, now for the highlights of December and January.


I did not start any new projects in December or January. Though, I conducted one more interview for the digitalisation in SMEs project, and read a lot about goal incongruence.

IMG_6402The sabbatical started with a bang. In the beginning of January, I presented at the HICSS conference, reconnected with former colleagues, and made new acquaintances and lots of plans for research and writing with the always-inspiring Jan Kietzmann. Upon returning from the HICSS conference, I had three days of intense coding and writing work with my colleagues Sarah Quinton and Tribikram Budhathoki from Brookes, Rebecca Pera from Politecnico di Milano and Sebastian Molinillo from University of Malaga.



It has been a very productive writing period. I submitted a journal paper in mid-December (wikipedia entry to follow), and nearly finished another one. I also worked on (and submitted) two co-authored conference papers, did some editing work on two co-authored books due to come out later this year, and finalised a report for a project sponsor.

During the three days that Rebecca and Sebastian were in the UK, we also made good progress on drafting a journal paper.


My own teaching finished in November, but I ended up covering for a colleague in December. I also did a guest talk for students at the University of Reading on using social media data for customer insight. It was an invitation from Dr Faten Jaber.

No teaching in January.


I am very keen to do some work on measuring influence, and in December I had some interesting discussions with colleagues in other subject areas about how similar concepts are measured in their fields. Then, in January, I did an intensive course on statistical analysis on SPSS, and started a MOOC on Introduction to Computer Science.


What were December’s and January’s highlights for you?

Spotted elsewhere: How dark web marketplaces work


A blog post about the dynamics of dark web marketplaces, authored by Joel Montenegro whom, I understand, is an investor at a venture capital firm



Posted on Twitter by Maha Shaikh (@Open_Sourcing), whom you should definitely follow if you are interested on matters of open sourcing, open innovation, and communities of practice.



So what?

It is not every day you get to read an insider’s view on how marketplaces work in the dark web because, let’s face it, people who trade on drugs, stolen personal information and the like are not that forthcoming about their methods! So, this post is a worthwhile read in, and of, itself. But this is particularly good because the author then outlines the key lessons learned from his research for other (legitimate!) marketplaces. These are:

  • The importance of brand and reputation
  • The role of social proof as a mechanism to signal ‘good’ reputation
  • The role of influencers in conveying information about the product and the seller
  • How the existence of opportunities for adding value or cutting cost lead to the emergence of new players and business models
  • That consumers often have very creative solutions to apparently insurmountable problems
  • That you do not need customer data to succeed


And as a bonus, the comments are great, too.



What caught your eye on the web, this week?