Tipping Sacred Cows

Learn how to kick the bad work habits that masquerade as virtues

Do You Make the Thin Mint Cookie Mistake?

We overestimate how much variety will satisfy us, at work and at home.

Who is been on the receiving end of the girl scout cookie shakedown? My two older daughters have gotten out of the trade, but the youngest, Margaret, still works the neighborhood. Armed with a green sash and her big blue eyes, she pushes overpriced Do-Si-Dos and Trefoils on the unsuspecting masses.

You can guess who Margaret’s best customer is: me. I'm encouraging the trade.

Every year I buy a couple boxes of each one. And every year, I end up with leftover boxes of every sort, except for one. The beloved thin mint, which disappear in a panicked feeding frenzy. Meanwhile we have enough dusty boxes of Do-Si-Dos around the house to keep us fed through a decade's worth of snow days.

When I order I think of myself as an enlightened, evolved, curious consumer of a diverse array of cookie product. The new diet lemonade mango cookies? Sure, those sound delightful. Actually, my kids and I are just single-minded thin mint eating machines. We want to be cookie connoisseurs but we’re really just cookie monsters.

We aren’t the only ones who overestimate our urge for variety. Research shows we predict our future selves will place more value on variety than is actually the case. We seek out novelty, even though novelty doesn’t satisfy us.

This tendency to overestimate how much variety will satisfy us is called diversification bias and was first studied by Daniel Read and George Loewenstein while at Carnegie Mellon. Read and Lowenstein’s experiments show that we think we will want more variety than we actually end up wanting.

Diversification bias has largely been studied as a consumer phenomenon. But at work, it leads to even more costly waste. We re-arrange the organization. We change the ad campaign. We start initiatives. Because initiative feels good. Initiative looks good. We come up with new ways to do the same old things. 

We feel proud of how creative we seem to each other. My advice: if you know you like thin mints, order thin mints. And if the org structure is working, don’t change it.

The next time you propose a new initiative, check yourself. Is this something the company really needs? Or are you merely scratching your itch for variety?

Remember, no matter how much variety you think you'll crave later, you're likely to end up eating more of the same thin mints.

Jake Breeden is author of Tipping Sacred Cows. He is a faculty member of Duke Corporate Education, where he’s taught leaders at Google, IBM, Starbucks and others.

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