HomeUncategorizedHow Poor Assumptions Killed a U.S. President

How Poor Assumptions Killed a U.S. President

Most people view James Garfield as a mere footnote in history, that is, if they recognize the name of the 20th U.S. president at all. However, there are some valuable lessons to be learned in history’s dusty corners that apply to today’s business world.

Garfield, elected in 1880, was the first president since well before the Civil War to have widespread support from both the North and South.  His presidency was off to a rousing start until a crazed job seeker shot him, just four months into his term.  Immediately, Robert Todd Lincoln (Garfield’s Secretary of War and son of Abe), recommended that Dr Willard Bliss be put in command of Garfield’s care. 

As told in Candice Millard’s outstanding book, Destiny of the Republic, Bliss’ 30 years of experience actually prevented him from healing Garfield.  Bliss made two critical assumptions that contributed to Garfield’s death.

He rejected the use of antiseptics pioneered by British surgeon Joseph Lister, for whom Listerine would later be named.  Instead, Dr Bliss and his colleagues caused Garfield’s death by probing the wound with unclean fingers and instruments.   

While the country panicked, Alexander Graham Bell, (that’s THE Alexander Graham Bell- inventor of the telephone), raced to develop a device to detect the location of Garfield’s bullet. Bliss had publicly stated that the bullet was on Garfield’s right side of the body. Since he did not want to be proven wrong, Bliss only let Bell use his invention to examine that side. With this restriction, Bell couldn’t find the bullet and was sent home. It turns out the bullet was on the left side and could have been easily removed.

Rather than surviving what should have been a minor injury (even by 1881 standards), Garfield spent two months in agony as the resulting infection eventually took his life.


Assumption Is Not Reality


We can shake our heads in amazement at the false assumptions and missteps that contributed to Garfield’s death.  Today, while business decisions are usually not life and death, we often fall victim to our own false assumptions.

 In my experience one of the most prominent areas where people make dangerous assumptions is in relation to value propositions.

While we assume our products and services deliver superior value to our customers, Bain & Company research proves otherwise. According to Bain’s survey of hundreds of senior executives, over 80 percent of companies believe they deliver superior value to their customers. And yet, when their customers are asked the same question, only 8 percent agree!  Bain refers to this as the “value delivery gap.” This failure to deliver what customers value results in steep discounting, wasted marketing dollars and longer sales cycles (if sales are even made).  

What can be done to close the value delivery gap?

Develop a deep and objective understanding of customer needs

Identify your ideal target market segment based on the value it receives from your product or service

Ensure you understand what value your product or service provides to your target customer

Design a customer experience that delivers the promised value

Ensure each functional group can play its part in delivering the promised value

Monitor and modify to guarantee that your organization is optimized to deliver the promised value

This is hard to do.  Just like Dr. Bliss, our own experience and emotions get in our way. I often hear from experienced leaders, “With my 30 years in this industry, I know what the customers need.”  We make assumptions about what our customers need and how well we provide value.  

It can be difficult to overcome these assumptions without an outsider’s perspective.  If Dr. Bliss had listened to Joseph Lister and Alexander Graham Bell, Garfield would likely have survived. And the nation would have been spared the need to mourn a beloved president.   

Neil Baron has served in a variety of senior marketing and management roles at companies such as IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, Sybase, Art Technology Group, Brooks Automation and ATMI. He is passionate about involving customers throughout the go-to-market process. In 2009, he started Baron Strategic Partners, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations launch groundbreaking products and services and reenergize older ones. You can email him at nbaron@baronstrategic.com.

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