Consumer Choice and Self-Control, Part I

As promised last week by Steve, I’m going to be
guest-blogging a little this week on some topics that I’ve been thinking about
as part of my research efforts. My job description says that I’m a marketing
professor, so you’ll see that these musings are heavily oriented toward a
consumer behavior view of the world. But my training is in behavioral economics
and decision theory, so I’ll borrow heavily from those fields as well.

Ask any consumer about the amount of choice he or she would
like in their daily lives, and you are likely to hear a preference for
unlimited choice and complete control. So it is no surprise that consumer
trends have been toward increased choice, even to the point of completely
customized offerings. On the grocery shelves we’ve seen an explosion of variety
– you can now find dozens of types of toothbrushes (an item that used to be
considered more of a commodity), along with new varieties of pasta sauces, snack
crackers, and salsas. The old “cup of joe” has been replaced by a completely
individualized venti decaf triple shot
hazelnut nonfat latte
at your local Starbucks. Online, you can visit an
auto manufacturer’s website and customize a long list of options for your new
car, even down to the unique paint job. And in restaurants, perhaps nowhere is
unlimited choice better represented than the buffet line that seemingly
stretches for miles. We are also seeing the trend for increased choice and
control affect public policy, as it becomes part of the debate around
privatizing social security. Proponents of privatization point out the benefits
of allowing individuals control over their own investments, a sentiment many
find enticing.

But at the same time as the number of choices has increased,
dissenting voices have come forward to point out the downside of the trend.
Perhaps most vocal has been psychology Professor Barry Schwartz, author of the 2004
book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. Schwartz pulls together a long
list of academic research in psychology and marketing to demonstrate that too
much choice can leave consumers overwhelmed and overstressed. Consider, for
example, an often-cited study by Professor Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and some of her colleagues. They set
up a jam-tasting table in a grocery store, stocked with either six flavors or
twenty-four flavors. With only six flavors, shoppers were able to choose a
favorite, and jam sales went up. With twenty-four flavors, shoppers felt
overwhelmed and often left without buying any jam. In other words, too much
choice ended up being a bad thing.

But is too much choice always a problem? Why does more choice work well at Starbucks, but not when buying jam? I’ll address this conundrum in the next installment, plus offer some prescriptive advice for dealing with increased choice. And then we’ll consider whether there’s another "dark side" of increased choice that we also need to pay attention to. Stay tuned!

Suzanne Shu

Where Are The McKinsey Blogs?

Just a moment ago, I had one hand on my credit card ready to buy up the domain names for,,, www.,,,, and

They are all available. Are the traditional management consulting firms a bunch of laggards when it comes to blogging even though the rest of the industry is starting to show signs of life for corporate blogs?

Well, blogs succeed because of individuals so don't go making a run on those corporate-oriented blog domain names.

Now I did find a reference here that talks about how Microsoft and McKinsey are encouraging employees to blog. But I have been unable to find a mass of individual management consultant bloggers out there. Now Tom Peters has an McKinsey alumni badge. One would think that the thought leadership of these firms (whether strategy- or implementation-focused firms) would lead them down this path. History has shown that traditional management consulting firms produce this type of work. Thought leadership includes areas like M&A as it relates to shareholder value, farm animal-growth share frameworks for marketing, pricing methodologies, IT alignment  … the list goes on and on.

So far, I have reconciled this in my mind as follows: The use of corporate blogs is not yet widespread enough to justify pressing this too hard in the consultancy firms. There are many other reasons that come to mind too (such as management consultants tend to tackle problems from the top down, i.e., flowing from strategy & conceptual through implementation so blogging may appear at lower-levels), but slow dispersion of corporate blogging to date seems to be the most natural explanation to me.

That said, there are CEO and senior executives forming blogs. And blogging is supposed to be one of the fastest growing things on the Internet as reported by a number of analysts. As management consultants frequently work at the CEO levels, hopefully they are at least getting a chance to learn about the blogging medium that their clients are starting to use. Tom has at least.

Steve Shu
Managing Director, S4 Management Group

Update (5/23/05): Due to continued traffic to this post, I thought it would be good to forward point to an update I had …

Update (1/4/07): After close to two years, here's a new post on more consulting blogs.

Update (3/19/07): McKinsey alum Paola Bonomo commented here (thanks, Paola) and points us to a wiki of McKinseyite and McKinsey alum blogs.

Update (4/16/09): McKinsey blog here?

Thoughts on Virginia Postrel’s Post on “How to Get More Female Scientists”

Virginia Postrel has three excellent blog posts today covering Larry Summers and other stuff (here, here, and here). I generally agree with everything she’s said, but I wanted comment on the middle blog post that covers "How to Get More Female Scientists". As a person with a professorial wife and as a person that does nitty-gritty consulting with regard to pipeline operations (consulting that looks to optimize the relationships of metrics, people, jobs, workflow, throughput, quality, organizational structure, control structure, goals, systems, and culture), I really zeroed in on Virginia’s following text:

"So, if a university like Harvard wants to foster the careers of female
scientists, this is my advice: Speed up the training process so people
get their first professorial jobs as early as possible–ideally, by 25
or 26. Accelerate undergraduate and graduate education; summer breaks
are great for students who want to travel or take professional
internships, but maybe science students should spend them in school.
Penalize senior researchers whose grad students take forever to finish
their Ph.D.s. Spend more of those huge endowments on reducing (or
eliminating) teaching assistant loads and other distractions from a
grad student’s own research and training. If you want more female
scientists, ceteris paribus (as the economists say), stop extending academic adolescence."

Her closing comment "stop extending academic adolescence" is beautiful, but I would go further to say that universities should go even further to "stop creating academic obsolesence". The clocks don’t stop at the Ph.D. level. Getting tenure after becoming a professor means performing quality research (and sometimes also performing quality classroom teaching depending on the institution). Things like grading take up an extraordinary time and provide little if any benefit to either the professor or the students. There should be additional focus on actively monitoring, mentoring, and helping females through the academic process as opposed to having university adminstration passively check in on candidates.

Where I may differ from Virginia a little bit on specifics (although she probably was just blue sky thinking like I am doing now) is that I would focus more on acceleration of the graduate school part of the process (i.e., post bachelors degree through tenured professor) as opposed to the undergraduate part. Just my gut feel there. Although I hated undergraduate education more than graduate school, part of it has to do with that I wasn’t "educated" enough in a worldly sense back then to know the value and risks of shortening that timeframe.

As for Viriginia’s comment, "Penalize senior researchers whose grad students take forever to finish
their Ph.D.s.", I could get on board with that. But that’s a tough one to implement based on what little I know about the different flavors of university cultures and plethora of organizational processes.

Two other closing items I wanted to mention because it sheds light on both the pressure on females and the pressure of reasearch on both sexes in this whole process:

  • A number of female Ph.D. students I know have told one another that "the time to have kids is during the process before getting a Ph.D." Otherwise, you may be dead or childless unintentionally.
  • There was once a researcher who said something to the effect of "I have to think about research all of the time (even when I am not doing it) to be able to make it through the academic process. The only time I am not thinking about research is when I am swimming because I fear I will drown."

Steve Shu
Managing Director, S4 Management Group

Scoble’s Right About RSS … But There’s More In Other Worlds

Referred to by some as the Obi-Wan Kenobi of blogs, Scoble (Microsoft evangelist) has some interesting discussions on the use of RSS for blogging. On the one hand, RSS is pretty cheap. It costs nothing to add. It allows people that are connectors and relaters in the network to build stronger relationships within the blogosphere. That said, the blogosphere is grassroots to an extent. Thus, while RSS helps bloggers and those that use aggregators to gather information, to reach the rest of the world one probably also needs to consider other things (e.g., like [choke] using email). To comment on Winer’s comments that not having RSS is like not having business cards – I have to also agree from a cost perspective. That said, I think that there are some businesses and people that have marketed and done deals without business cards. Really depends on the business model.

Anyway, I wanted to memorialize Scoble’s posts here and here because they have very useful learnings in there, even for those that are neither bloggers nor regular readers of blogs.

Steve Shu
Managing Director, S4 Management Group

Pardon The Dust

Just getting this blog online. Will take me awhile to get the kinks out and get used to the new workflow. Prior S4 Management Group Perspectives blog is here. My reasons for moving are also posted there. No current plans to migrate content.

Steve Shu
Managing Director, S4 Management Group