Your business has a Casssandra Complex

Business and The Cassandra Complex

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Admittedly I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have in school around the Greek/Roman mythology stuff, so this morning I learned a little bit more about Cassandra from Troy; if you’re unfamiliar with the story, she’s the beautiful daughter (was everyone in Troy beautiful? I think so) of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. She was given the gift of prophecy — so she knew what was going to happen! — but then subsequently cursed so that no one would believe her. (Apollo, that bastard, did the cursing.) This became a whole thing because she foresaw the fall of Troy, but no one believed her.

It’s kind of a little bit (a tiny bit) like a mythological “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” ‘cept it’s a beautiful princess.

Anyway, point being: this all does have relevance back to the business world. Here’s how.

In 1949, a French philosopher (Gaston Bachelard) created something called “The Cassandra Complex,” which is exactly what you’d expect: a valid concern or belief is presented, but ultimately ignored by everyone. If you’ve ever worked in an office setting, this might be familiar to you.

In fact, Forrester brought this up just recently with a post on CMOs and customer life cycle:

Organizations have been grappling with the disconnect between establishing a new vision for the business with the ability to reach consensus and actually move forward toward reaching that vision. Achieving a clear, shared vision is often difficult, as it does not match reality and many not feel a sense of urgency to change, resulting in a lack of commitment to the new vision. At the same time, those who support the new vision are termed Cassandras — they are able to see what is going to happen, but no one believes them. Even Warren Buffett, who repeatedly warned that the 1990s stock market surge was a bubble, earned the title of “Wall Street Cassandra.”

First off, nice reference to Warren Buffett — you toss him into any business-related presentation and 1,000 ears instantly perk up.

Secondly, let me break this into more digestible terms:

  • There’s typically an 80-20 rule in business (and life); 80 percent of your benefits/revenue come from 20 percent of your actions, give or take.
  • In short, companies tend to know what makes them money.
  • It’s pretty uncertain times right now — another recession could be lurking — so people don’t want to alter the playbook too much.
  • This is especially tough in marketing right now, because the entire way you reach people/put them in a sales funnel has changed.
  • But if marketing has been making money one way, they’ll probably stick to that plan.
  • Basic issue, then: you want to keep making money, but you also realize things are shifting. What do you do?

The No. 1 thing you need to remember in any discussion like this is that senior business leaders mostly fear being viewed as incompetent, which influences a lot of their decision-making as well. (It tends to make it safer or tied back to ideas/concepts they already understand.)

That’s why there are a bunch of “Cassandra Complex” people in every office — they can see “Hey, some things are shifting…” but no one will listen to them, because it’s easier to stay the course and chase the same revenue you’ve always chased. Heck, in most offices, I’d argue that good ideas are actually seen as a threat. That’s the absolute worst culture to work in, IMHO.

Marketing is a good example — the field definitely needs to evolve — but most current CMOs are probably early 50s to early 60s, and their model involves print, TV buys, conventional advertising, and maybe a little AdWords and some Facebook shares! That’s what they understand. There’s a lot more that they could be doing/chasing, but it feels like the revenue isn’t there, the ROI isn’t there, or whatever the case may be. It’s all a little bit lame, but again, if you get some whippersnapper in there trying to sell “an omni-channel digital marketing plan,” chances are someone up the chain is going to “Cassandra Complex” (or “Apollo”) you.

Here’s the thing people should remember: organizational breakthroughs can literally come from anywhere. So sometimes, even if a prophecy seems ridiculous, it deserves a few minutes of context and thought.

Ted Bauer