Urban Myths

In 1901, David Hänig, a German scientist, studied how our tongue processes taste sensations such as salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. The edges of the tongue are more sensitive to tastes. That’s what we call taste buds. He found that there was a variation around the tongue in how much of a particular taste stimulus it took for a person to detect the taste. The variations were very small.

When he presented his test results, he included a graphic of his measurements showing the sensitivity variations. Nearly 40 years later, a Harvard psychology professor developed a tongue map showing zones of taste sensitivity. It was an artistic representation of the work of Hänig, but it had no scientific basis. But yet the tongue map became accepted as fact. It became what we commonly refer to as an urban myth.

Urban myths are beliefs generally held to be true but in fact, have no validity. Urban myths are prevalent in all aspects of society. Here are some common myths

  • Fortune cookies came from Chinese cuisine.
  • Albert Einstein did not say: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
  • The Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776.

In the business world, a popular myth is that: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” This is a frequently quoted myth attributed to famous business gurus who deny ever having said that.

So much of what matters in organizations can’t be measured. For example, how do you measure a supportive culture? Does anyone really believe that a survey of employees can measure how supportive people are toward one another? Or how do you measure talent or potential? These are the lifeblood of any organization. With all of the advances in neuroscience, talent, and potential remain unmeasurable.

Even when we do measure things, they are often the wrong metrics. Too often we measure inputs when we should be measuring outcomes. For example, we measure the costs of service, but shouldn’t we be more concerned about whether that service leads to repeat business? But we can’t measure what leads to repeat business, so we go with costs. And costs may have a negative relationship with repeat business.

We are addicted to measurements when we should be focused on things that really matter. But they are generally unmeasurable.

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“It is wrong to suppose that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it – a costly myth.” – W. Edward Deming (quality guru)

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