Sorting gurus from grifters

5 warning signs that your solution could be a hurdle

Ian Hawkins

‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’ said Arthur C Clarke, a visionary in so many ways, not least because that quotation comes from a time before ordering pizza through Alexa became a thing.  

Even without full-on frauds, the world is full of chancers whose sales pitch is more impressive than the products they are offering. And although charisma is a poor substitute for research and development, plenty of us have bought into a product or service without checking the bona fides first. There’s a real value to being an early adopter and spotting a trend before the rest of your industry gets on board, but if your colleagues tell you that a software update turns your head so fast you get whiplash, read on: process improvement shouldn't end in wasted time, money and a mess that needs cleaning up. 

Technology has indeed entered a phase in which it is difficult to sort technofact from fiction. There are plenty of people who want the world to see them as the natural successor to Steve Jobs, and have the roll-neck sweater to prove it. As a reader of this blog, though, you’ll want to dig a little deeper, and before you get your hands on that shiny software or helpful hardware, PEX Network dipped into our Brain Trust for some key tips on spotting a charlatan.  

Debashis Sarkar is an author and Managing Partner, Proliferator Advisory & Consulting. I asked Deb whether a genuine product was ever a Clarkeian ‘magic box’ and what the appeal of such an approach could be: ‘It’s a strategy to attract customers. Anything that’s secretive and mysterious generates a lot curiosity and sells well – to a certain crowd. Customers believe that because it’s not obvious it must be the real thing.’

But that secrecy could be part of a bigger problem: ‘My sense is that these charlatans are very secretive about their ideas. This is because of a couple of reasons. Revealing their idea could expose the hollowness of the stuff that they are trying to peddle to the customers. Giving away their idea could also unmask them and the world could get to know their malicious intentions.’

I’m interested in these malicious intentions, and where the hope of new tech meets the hype of advertising. BJ Cunningham is a marketing guru who has worked with big businesses and small start ups. Bursting onto the scene with the ground-breaking cigarette brand Death, he has built a business philosophy on straight talking. If anyone can spot a fake, it’s an honest marketer, and BJ’s explanation for the fake tech guru is that their motivation may not be purely financial: ‘Satan’s trident has three spikes, symbolic of our three fundamental, root fears. The first is the fear of being unlovable for who we really are. This fear drives us to create a persona we believe to be loveable. And so it follows that the second is the fear of being discovered as the pretender that we are.’ So the charlatan’s need is emotional? ‘Snake-oil salesmen live in this drama. The best of them, in the knowledge that they are complete pretenders.’ 

This is explains why charlatans love to get people to buy into an idea before they’ve parted with their money, so it’s wise to check and ask yourself whether you’re buying a solution or insider status. Suddenly, we have found ourselves in the charlatan’s own private psychodrama, the customer’s money a temporary balm for a longer term crisis. ‘The constant fear of being discovered is the huxter’s life, paranoia and isolation their only companions.’ 

And the third fear? ‘The fear of dying alone,’ says BJ, who is gone in a puff of cigarette smoke. 

So it’s easy to spot in theory, but what about a real world case? Part of the resistance to any change in business is the possibility that a ‘good enough’ process is being exchanged for something that will have negative consequences. Russell Ollie has led transformation projects within General Motors, so knows all about taking new ideas and working out what will make them improve operations in a big business. Even an established idea – like RPA – can be mis-sold to the unwary: 

‘Robotic Process Automation or RPA is an in-vogue technology that’s often acquired by companies with the promise of being able to reduce personnel costs. I believe we’re going to find that the actual ratio of long-term cost to savings from this technology are going to be a disappointment.’ 

I ask Russell for evidence of what some would flat out call heresy. ‘I still see no evidence that the typical mid to large size company is building off-setting capabilities to understand, evolve, and adapt how work gets done over time. They automate or streamline some work - in this case with RPA - that will in a short period of time no longer reflect how the organisation should work in order to remain a nimble competitor.’

In other words, while technology can have a profound impact, it’s wise to look at previous leaps forward, especially in processes. ‘I’ve been around long enough to have seen this same boom and bust cycle with the re-engineering and outsourcing movements of the ‘90s and ‘00s. Machine learning and AI are amazing game changers, but the true potential for cutting edge tech will be realized by only the rarest of organizations.’

In Russell’s world, then, even the best solutions, honestly sold, can become worthless in the wrong hands. But what about full-on fake solutions?

‘What determines whether I’m getting cutting edge tech or snake oil is the promise, explicit or implicit, that comes with the technology. I’m always on red alert when I’m promised something without any backing verifiable quantitative data. If the offering comes with some sort of exclusivity or first-mover advantage promise I’m backing away.’ Sometimes, scarcity has a value: being a sole supplier or owning a patent is attractive. But if you’re the customer, ask yourself why the vendor isn’t selling as many units as they can build.

Anything else to look out for? ‘Discounting for commitment – not always bad, but if there’s pressure to make a commitment now in order to secure a discount, I’m suspicious.’ 

RPA, AI and all the attendant tech talk can be daunting, and I wanted to cut through the jargon. Fred Stawitz knows all about making things easy to understand – he is award-winning author of best-seller ‘Don’t Run Naked Through The Office’ – a book that demystifies career advice. Fred says that it’s worth understanding everything that you’re told, because only then is it possible to figure out whether you believe it. Getting carried along on a slick of sales patter is fatal: ‘The unwary and even a suitable skeptic can fall victim to fancy terminology that skates across any reasonable foundation in fact if they don't take the time to unpack ambiguous terminology. This applies equally well to the provision of advice and solicitation of access as it does to the sale of snake oil.’

Proceed with caution if the sales pitch has you reaching for the dictionary – and even more caution if you’re not even applying that much due diligence. Remember Occam’s razor: as you drill down into the detail, things should become clearer, not more complex. 

Sorting science fact from science fiction is a challenge, so in summary here’s what you should be looking for:

1 Isolation – there are lone geniuses out there, and there always has to be a first person to get on board. But don’t switch the alarm bells in your head off if you also spot…

2 Paranoia – your would-be guru is secretive, over-cautious or thinks Google is after their idea. (If anyone can find your idea, it’s Google.) Real advances are increasingly open source, real gurus are evangelists.  

3 Unverifiable data – whether it’s a piece of research (double blind trials are the gold standard, but the real world won’t often give you the option) or a patent number, nobody should worry about having their bona fides checked. 

4 Exclusivity – tech companies that hold their cards too close to their chests could be hiding something. Industry events are all about sharing knowledge, building networks and getting the latest products seen. 

5 Bamboozling – if you’re talking to someone who’s made up more science-y sounding words than a shampoo commercial, step away.