We live in a multiplicative system but don’t know it

Remember the saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link?

It’s a concept we inherently understand: if we pull on the chain, the weakest link will fail first which breaks the entire chain. Sometimes people invoke the metaphor to explain why we should concentrate on helping the lowest performers in a group as the best way to improve overall performance, rather than relying on the superstars.

This metaphor is based on a multiplicative model, rather than an additive one. I will use two questions and a little math to explain what I mean:

Q1: What’s 6347 times 34 times 0 times 812?
Q2: What’s 6347 plus 34 plus 0 plus 812?

You probably recognized quickly that the first answer is 0 but it may have taken you a little while to calculate the second answer (7193) – especially if you did the math in your head. The 0 is the weakest link in the multiplicative chain because it makes all of the other numbers irrelevant.

Additive systems are different. Imagine you are throwing a potluck dinner. You cook the main dish but ask your guests to bring the salads, sides, and desserts. You don’t need to dictate which person brings which dish. If every brings salads and sides and no one remembers to bring a dessert, you still have a successful potluck dinner. No individual dish is the weakest link in a potluck; it’s an additive system. (You could claim the main course is the weakest link but I believe you still have a successful potluck with sides, sales, and desserts but not a main course.)

Most businesses think they operate in an additive system but they really operate in a multiplicative one. We’ve all interacted with a company that continually promotes their new products but has lousy customer service. No matter how good the product is, customers don’t come back because of the service – the bad service acts like the zero in the multiplicative chain making the good product (and everything else good about the company) irrelevant. Therefore, rather than investing in product, the company should focus on improving service.

For decades, classically-trained marketers have known multiplicative thinking is required to be successful. Introduced by Regis McKenna and popularized by Geoffrey Moore in Crossing The Chasm, the so-called ‘whole product’ reminded marketers that the core offering is not sufficient to delight customers. There must be complementary offerings, training, support, channel and many other things to create the whole product.

A multiplicative system also comes into play when you are trying to get a job, especially early on in your career. You might have strong skills, good experience, and supportive references but you might not be a cultural fit for the organization. Or maybe you’re already at the company but have a reputation for self-promotion. Regardless, one weakness among many strengths is enough to hold you back.

It’s a lesson we all need to remember in business: find the weakest link in the chain and focus on strengthening it.

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