Wind, sun, and a doomed idea


Since you’re reading the newspaper for the latest scoop on Pacific events, I’ll only roll back about 2,600 years and consider some wisdom from ancient Greece. OK, so I’m missing your expectations a bit, but let’s not dwell on that.

So here we go: A fable from Aesop mentions that the wind and the sun were arguing over which of them was more powerful. They settled their attention on a man who was wearing a coat. They agreed to a contest to see which one of them could get the man to shed it. The wind went first, trying to blow the coat off the guy. The harder it blew, however, the tighter the man clung to the coat. The sun went next. It turned up its heat, and the man willfully shed the coat because it was so hot. The wisdom is that gentleness can produce better results than force.

These old stories are meant to be told for effect. The gist is more important than the details, so I have offered the spirit of the fable, not the letter of the fable, since I haven’t seen the letter of it in a long time.

At the risk of overstating the obvious, I’ll state it anyway. The sun is able to think one step ahead, and align its goals with the natural order by anticipating what the man will willingly do when he is confronted with a new circumstance. The sun knows that it can’t directly control the man’s behavior, but the sun can control the new circumstance.

As obvious as that is, though, a surprisingly large number of schemes fail to take into account even basic first-order effects such as this simple fable illustrates. The impulse to coerce is often stronger than the desire to cooperate. And then when things don’t go as planned, “unexpected consequences” are blamed for basic, and largely predictable, human reactions. You could fill an entire newspaper with contemporary examples, but, come to think of it, that’s what much of the news is made of, even if it’s not seen in that light. Saipan is not an exception.

In my corporate days I tried to come up with a way to measure the difference between taking the coercive and the cooperative approach. I couldn’t take a perfectly clean cut at it, but I resolved to do the best I could with the data and circumstances that I had at hand.

Our company extended a lot of credit to household customers, most of whom were not prime risks. We had a large pool of past-due accounts. The administrative department sent out the standard array of dunning letters. As is standard practice, the aggressiveness of the letters notched up as the associated account became more and more overdue.

I aimed my efforts at the accounts that were not very far past due. Their usual dunning letters, again in accordance with standard practice, were of the boringly-worded “friendly reminder” variety.

I expanded that standard mail-out to include a copy of the company newsletter, a few coupons, and a brief note that said I knew that many people were having a hard time paying their bills, but (as they could see in the newsletter) the company was doing great things and we were always happy to see our customers. My goal was to get these people back into our retail locations so things would be reset to a human-to-human basis, and reestablish a feeling of business as usual, as opposed to framing our interaction strictly on a creditor-to-deadbeat basis. No suasion was to be applied at the retail locations (though no new credit was to be extended, either). If the fresh human interaction inspired people to pay their bills, great. If not, well, that’s life.

One-shot correspondence is, from my experience, seldom effective. I therefore settled on a three-letter series as my test material.

Unfortunately, the computer system that carried our account data was not something I could get to mesh with my desktop computer. I had a lot of manual data entry to perform. While at first I wanted to test my idea with half the target accounts, using the other half as a status-quo control, I wound up selecting a far smaller sample for my experiment so I could minimize the data entry burden.

The day finally came where I had all this stuff dialed-in and I had the materials drafted. I sought a sign-off from senior management to take the experiment live. Even if this induced a 10 percent reduction in the accounts that were 30- to 90-days past due it would have been a success. Of course, you could never prove that any such result was a function of my idea and not of mere randomness, but those fog banks just go with the territory.

There is, however, no need to worry about results in this case. That’s because there were no results. My idea got shot down. I scrapped the project and forgot all about it.

You can’t win them all. I think I’ll buy a book of Aesop’s fables. After all, some wisdom is easier read than measured.

Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at His column runs every Friday.
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