Malcolm Gladwell’s Puzzles & Mysteries: Or, When NOT to use Marketing Research

Malcolm Gladwell’s recent article on Enron puts the spotlight on a very useful framework, first described by Gregory Treverton, for addressing decision problems. It is easily and usefully applicable to most marketing problems.

Is it a Puzzle or a Mystery?
A puzzle is a problem or a question with a definitive answer. Its solution depends on finding all the relevant pieces of information.

Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. The key to the puzzle will probably come from someone close to bin Laden, and until we can find that source bin Laden will remain at large.

A mystery, on the other hand, is a problem or a question without a definitive answer.

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.

A Typical Case
Consider the case of a soft drinks company with a couple of familiar marketing problems. Why is the company losing market share to its rival? And what can it do to win back share?

The first question is a Puzzle. Solving it requires nothing more than finding all the pieces of information that explain the situation, such as competitor activity, distribution figures, promotional spends, and changes in consumer preferences. This calls for the rigorous application of traditional Marketing Research techniques and reports.

The second question, on the other hand, is a Mystery. No amount of Marketing Research can solve this problem. Its solution depends on the creative use of what Theodore Levitt famously described as the “Marketing Imagination“. (It’s one of my favourite books.)

Imagine treating this problem as though it were a Puzzle. The marketing manager at the soft drinks company would probably carry out a series of Marketing Research studies designed to find the solution, such as need-gap analysis, concept testing, product benchmarking and so on. The problem with this approach is that this kind of research is usually a rear-view mirror. It can tell us where consumers were and what they wanted when we carried out the research but it can’t tell us anything useful about how they might behave in the future.

(This is also known as the Sony Walkman conundrum, because in the world that existed before the Walkman was invented and marketed, all available research showed that consumers reacted negatively to the idea of a portable music device. Take that, iPod!)

I think that most marketing problems can be classified as Puzzles or Mysteries and this framework makes it easy to determine when to apply Marketing Research techniques and when not to do so.

What do you think? Do write a comment if you think this framework makes sense (or not).


  1. […] Unfortunately, despite the obvious danger spelled out above, a very common practice today seems to be to test new products in exactly this way, without stopping to think about when such testing might actually be useful. […]

  2. Rohini said

    Very well thought out and written. I lived the analogies of Osama and Saddam – they really brought the whole concept to life in a way that a marketing case study could not have.

    This is really interesting stuff. You shoudl write more often.

    By the way, check out my latest post – your wife may find it of some interest.

  3. […] As Malcolm Gladwell postulates in his account of the Enron scandal, there are two classes of problems in the world: puzzles and mysteries.  The first suffer from a lack of information, and can be solved by spying, more research or other information gathering exercises.  The second class of problems suffer from too much information, and the real talent lies in sifting through it for illumination.  I would postulate that what Campbell has done here is to sift through a mountain of information and provide a concise decoding of the “diseases of affluence” mystery. […]

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