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MBA Essentials
JUL 17, 2017

Does Your Dog Bite?

By Gil Chavez

A man walks up to another man sitting beside a dog and asks, “Does your dog bite?”

The sitting man, without looking up, replies, “No.”

The other man reaches out. “Nice doggie…” The dog growls and bites his hand. “I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite!”

The sitting man shrugs. “That’s not my dog.”

This is a well-known joke, but also a useful illustration of how we blithely define situations with little analytical depth. It’s a foolish mistake – good for comedy, but bad for business. If we don’t time to clearly define a situation, we are doomed to ask foolish questions and do foolish things based on the answers.

“Does your dog bite?” is, of course, a sensible question if you’re addressing the dog’s owner and utterly useless if you’re not. But that is only one problem with the scene. The approaching man doesn’t ask if the dog will bite. He’s actually making an indirect request for permission to pet the dog. If he really suspected that the dog might bite, he would probably keep his distance and wouldn’t ask the question at all. He asks the wrong question, but gets an honest answer – that’s what makes the joke funny.

Approaching man: May I pet your dog?
Sitting man: Yes.
Dog: *bites*
Approaching man: I thought you said I could pet your dog!

See? It just doesn’t work.

When a situation, objective, or option is left unstated or vague, that lack of clarity can plague a decision process. Take this example, from a session regarding a marketing case for gum that reduces cavities:

Participant: We want to target office workers.
Instructor: Why?
Participant: Because they’re busy.
Instructor: They’re busy…so what?
Participant: They don’t have time.
Instructor: Yes, I understand that’s what busy means.
Participant: Well, that’s why we want to target them.
Instructor: Wait a moment, please. They’re too busy to do what?
Participant: To take care of their health and beauty.
Instructor: Are we selling chewing gum or Gold’s Gym memberships?
Participant: Chewing gum.
Instructor: Then we can’t really help them with health and beauty, can we?
Participant: …Dental needs?
Instructor: That’s closer.

I once encountered a stunning series of assumptions at the start of a meeting: “Our product is useful to people in the US. If we had a better brand identity – logo, web design – we could sell more to the US.”

After 20 minutes, I had to stop the conversation and tell the prospective client that the problem was far more fundamental: they had no evidence of a market in the US. They were the assuming that the dog wouldn’t bite, without even bothering to ask if it would. They were fully prepared to pet the dog and enter the US.

Spend time thinking about the situation you’re in. How you define a problem will determine everything else. If you aren’t careful, the market may bear its teeth and bite you.

You have been warned, even though it’s not my dog.