Does Your Dog Bite?

Assumptions and their sometimes painful consequences

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

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

The walker reaches out, “Nice doggie” – the dog growls, and bites his hand. “I thought you said your dog doesn't bite.”

The sitting man shrugs, “He's not my dog.”

This is a well-known joke and a useful illustration of how we blithely define situations rapidly and with little analytical depth – a foolish mistake – good for comedy but bad for business. If we haven’t taken 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, sensible if you’re addressing the dog’s owner and utterly useless if you’re not. But that is only one problem with the walker’s thinking in the scene: He really isn’t asking if the dog will bite, though it seems that way in light of what happens. The walker is actually making an indirect request for permission to touch the dog. If the walker really suspected that the dog might bite, he would be walking a good distance away and wouldn’t ask the question at all. He wants to pet the dog and so rather than asking for permission directly, he asks if the dog bites. That’s what makes it funny.

Walker: “May I pet your dog?”

Sitting man: “Yes.”

Dog bites walker: “I thought you said I could pet your dog.”

Sitting man: “He’s not my dog.”

See? It just doesn’t work.

A lack of clarity plagues many decision processes – situation, objective and options might be left unstated or vaguely defined. Witness this paraphrased 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: “So? 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: “Stop for a moment, please. They are too busy to do what?
Participant: “Too busy to take care of their health and beauty.”
Instructor: “Are we selling chewing gum or Gold’s Gym?”
Participant: “Chewing gum.”
Instructor: “Then we can’t help them with health and beauty, can we?”
Participant: “Dental needs?”

Instructor: “That’s closer, isn’t it?”

Another example: Once, I 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 fundamental. They had no evidence of a market in the US. They were the assuming that the dog wouldn’t bite. In fact, they weren’t even bothering to ask if it would bite and were fully prepared to pet the dog and enter the US.

So spend time thinking about the situation. How you define it 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.

Revised from original version.

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