Why people don’t eat cats but buy cryptocurrency. Intersubjectivity and why storytelling is so effective.
As a result of our job responsibilities, product management is predominantly staffed by highly rational personalities. Understanding irrational behavior and taking them into account in our work is rather difficult for us. Much of this has to do with intersubjectivity, which we all use, but to different degrees and in different areas.
The concept of intersubjectivity can be illustrated by the example of food. Objectively, we can eat cats and dogs, but we just don’t in most parts of the world. In India, people don’t eat beef, and Muslims don’t eat pork. Vegans generally don’t like to eat animals. Without getting close to anyone, it can be argued that eating all these animals is fundamentally not a problem for humans. And yet we don’t question certain things. Strictly speaking, a large part of our actions in everyday life are driven by such common narratives. They influence what we collectively believe in our respective communities.
Intersubjectivity is neither individual sense (taste), nor objective fact (mathematics or physics). It is the glue that holds societies, cultures, nations, and smaller communities together, provides identity, and forms a basis for common cooperation. It enables people to build complex organizations and conditions that provide the foundation for further growth. Take finance, for example. Without a shared narrative such as “the dollar is a trustworthy and valid currency,” little would work in finance. Yet the dollar is trustworthy because institutions, as well as the vast majority of the population, embrace this narrative.
A look at Venezuela shows that these narratives are changeable over time. If the responsible institutions push the money supply, and thus inflation, too far, the population loses confidence in the currency and will try to use a substitute currency. In other places, pure faith, generated by storys around the narrative, is enough. An example of this are cryptocurrencies, which did not exist a few years ago, but whose value is now believed in by a critical mass of people.
The impact of intersubjectivity on society, and thus on colleagues, customers, and users, is therefore extensive and relevant. The lack of reference to objective facts cannot affect intersubjectivity and thus explains the irrational behavior of people. This is because, especially in the case of technically or professionally complex contexts, narratives help people not to think about every single problem and save a lot of energy when making decisions. These decisions do not have to be good or rational. It is enough for them to feel that they are. This knowledge can be used to facilitate our work in product management.
Trying to take all narratives into account is too costly
The more popular a product is in various markets and target groups, rather than serving a niche, the broader the spectrum of narratives in which it operates. Navigating this complexity is too costly. However, strategies can be used to manage this complexity:
- In the industry context, with use of specialists who know markets and customer groups well.
- In the cross-cultural context, using local staff from the respective region to support localization, marketing and support
- In the development context, trough a multi-cultural and diverse team that can identify issues in advance.
- In general, using heuristics and investigating unexpected variations in behavior
The creation of own narratives for the specific product
At the boundary between marketing and product, a narrative that customers and users can and want to identify with could be created for the own product. Where this succeeds through long-term communication, representation in the product and in customer service, a new intersubjectivity is created that can represent a significant competitive advantage. Good examples here are cryptocurrencies or Amazon’s customer delivery service.
Support alignment and focus on vision and strategy
Those who are confident of their vision and strategy can choose the form of narrative storytelling to create a beneficial context of meaning for the path taken towards the vision. Findings are not explained through lengthy deduction of facts, but are presented in an exciting story with a happy ending (vision) in a way that is comprehensible and creates identification. Both rational and emotional employees and colleagues can be enthused by this without having to know the details. It is enough for them to believe that the narrative is correct and that it can serve as a suitable basis for further cooperation.