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When obvious isn't obvious

A quiz doing the rounds a while ago required just four correct answers from nine simple questions to prove that you possess decent general knowledge. The questions go like this:

General knowledge

  1. How long did the Hundred Years War last?
  2. Which country makes Panama hats?
  3. From which animal do we get catgut?
  4. In which month do Russians celebrate the October Revolution?
  5. What is a camel’s hair brush made of?
  6. The Canary Islands in the Pacific are named after what animal?
  7. What was King George VI’s first name?
  8. What color is a purple finch?
  9. Where are Chinese gooseberries from?

(answers at the end of the column)

Don’t feel bad if you only get one answer right.

What the quiz proves, aside from how complicated general knowledge can get, is that the answer to the simplest questions are not always obvious. At the same time, it unintentionally reveals that there isn’t always only one correct answer (you might say, for instance, that technically King George did take on George as his new first name; in practise, Chinese gooseberries in fact come from the fruit and veg store down Republic Road).

A few years ago, an ad campaign for Old Mutual division Fairbairn Capital used common sense riddles in an attempt to position it as the “Wealth from wisdom” brand. The main ad, usually on the front page of a newspaper supplement like the Independent Group’s Personal Finance or Business Times’ Money section, carried a riddle in large type, and directed you to the page where you would find the answer. The idea was that Faribairn was the place to go for solving portfolio needs.

One weekend, the riddle went: “A woman has two sons who are born on the same hour of the same day of the same year, but they are not twins. How can this be so?”

Well, that’s easy. They were both born at, say 2.30pm on, say a Monday, but 10 or 11 months apart. It did say “day”, and not “date”, didn’t it?

The answer on page 3 was simpler: they were two of a set of triplets.

The point is, both answers were correct, depending on one’s perspective. And the point of that is, there is seldom one correct answer for everybody. Further, one person or organisation doesn’t have all the answers.

It is a constant source of amazement that organisations with huge budgets for, say, marketing, will throw all that budget at one company to come up with both a strategy and an implementation. Not because I thought they would throw the budget at me instead, but because I thought they would be terrified of throwing all their eggs into one basket.

As Fairbairn Capital so neatly illustrated, they didn’t have all the answers, even if they did have some very good answers. So anyone with a large capital investment need would be exercising wisdom if they chose to invest some of their capital with a company like Fairbairn, some with a slightly different company, and some with an altogether different company, depending on the characteristics of the investor and the investment needs.

This makes sound business sense, and doesn’t doom the investor if the investment company makes a disastrous investment or hires a rogue trader who can Nick Leeson a few billions into vapour.

Same applies to strategy. There is no one strategy that works for all business environments, product sets, customer sets or stages in a business or product life cycle. Companies that apply a single strategy across the board tend to shed resources simply because they do not fit in with an approach that may be relevant at head office but could be completely arbitrary at divisional level.

And, as our quiz reveals, the obvious solution may not always be the correct solution.

Answers to the quiz

  1. Hundred Years War: 116 years
  2. Panama hats: Ecuador
  3. Cat gut: Sheep and Horses
  4. Russians celebrate October Revolution: November
  5. Camel’s hair brush: Squirrel fur
  6. Canary Islands: Dogs
  7. King George VI’s first name: Albert
  8. Color of purple finch: Crimson
  9. Chinese gooseberries: from New Zealand

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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