The Tree Stump Theory

Since I mentioned it in my eTail presentation last week, I’ve received a number of requests to expound on my Tree Stump Theory in this space. So, here goes:

As truly amazing as the human brain is, it’s not able to re-process everything we see anew every time we see it. So, our brains take some shortcuts by basically ignoring things we are very familiar with, and that can cause us trouble any time we have interactions with people who don’t have the same level of familiarity with something as we do. I usually talk about this in reference to website usability, but it actually applies to many areas of our lives. To illustrate the concept, I have my Tree Stump Theory…

Imagine if someone brought a big tree stump into one of your conference rooms. The first time you saw it, you would say something like “Hey, what’s with the tree stump?” Someone would give you a compelling reason why it was there, and you would go on with the meeting. The next time you entered the conference room, you would notice the tree stump but not ask about it. After while, someone might throw a tablecloth on it or dress it up in some manner, but it would still be there. You would no longer ask about it or think about it. Frankly, you wouldn’t even really see it. You’d just arrange yourselves at the table in a way that worked around the tree stump and go on with your meeting. Meanwhile, anyone new coming into the room can’t help but see the tree stump and find it to be an obstacle.

We all have these types of “tree stumps” on our sites and in our lives. I bet you could think of something like this in your house right now. They manifest themselves as obstacles to good web usability, but they’re also our biases, our stereotypes and any other set of assumptions we rely on, usually unconsciously, to drive our daily actions and decisions. Sometimes they’re relatively harmless, but more often than not tree stumps prevent people from buying on our sites, or they are the unspoken roots of disagreements and miscommunications in our daily interactions both at work and at home.

So how do we get rid of our tree stumps?

1. The first step is to recognize the fact that tree stumps are everywhere, even when we can’t see them.

If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably made it to step one.

2. Next, get some help finding them

The very nature of tree stumps makes them difficult to self-identify. If you’re dealing with web usability, try the steps prescribed in this post. If you’re concerned about tree stumps in strategies, policies or general decisions, seek some input from someone who is outside the general team and who has a different background from you and your key decision makers. Ask them to openly question everything.

3. Specifically call out assumptions, preferably in writing

Assumptions are the roots of tree stumps. We make assumptions so often that we don’t always realize we’re making them. Listen for statements or reasons that hint of tree stumps. The most obvious is “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” If you hear that one, sound the sirens. But there are other, less obvious comments like “People want…” or “Based on my experience…” or “In a previous life we…” Don’t get me wrong, some of these statements could be perfectly accurate and valid. But whenever someone is applying past experience to a currently situation, he or she is assuming the two situations are similar enough to warrant the comparison. That’s potentially an assumption fraught with problems because the number of potentially important variables in any situation is massive. Writing down those assumptions and then testing them on the current situation often brings bad assumptions to light.

Also, on the web usability side, remember that while your internal reason for a tree stump may seem extremely valid to everyone in the company, your customers don’t know those reasons and even if they did, they probably don’t care. Common explanations that won’t hold water with customers include:”I’m not in charge of that area;” “It doesn’t matter because people don’t use that anyway;” or the time-honored classic, “That’s due to the limitations of our platform.”

4. Schedule regular reviews of your own assumptions

This one in some ways is a repeat of #3, but the point here is to specifically and methodically question yourself. This is really hard to do, of course, but it has a tremendous amount of value. One technique I’ve used in various situations is to write down my first impressions of important situations so that I can regularly review them in the future after I’ve learned more. I recently talked with about this technique in reference to starting a new job. Beyond that technique, it just takes practice and discipline to think about your own biases and assumptions to see if they still apply.

I also find it helpful to constantly look for new ideas. I read lots of business and science books. I don’t always agree with everything I read, but new ideas cause me to question my own ideas. I also enjoying reading thought-provoking blogs, some of which are listed to the right, and I follow interesting people on Twitter. More than anything, though, I love to spend time talking to people who think differently than I do and are willing to share their perspectives. (And I hope you’ll share your comments on this post and others.)

Tree stumps are everywhere. We’ve all got them. And as soon as we remove some, more will crop up. It takes a concerted effort and a solid process to regularly look for and remove the tree stumps in our lives and our businesses. But I’ll argue that those of us who are aware of our tree stumps are on a much faster path to improvement than those who go on ignoring them.

What do you think? What types of tree stumps have you run into? How do you go about removing them?


  • By Sarah, August 11, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    Nice photoshopping, Kevin! You missed your calling. 🙂

  • By Carrie Requist, August 12, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    One thing about tree stumps is that they are often the last part left of a giant tree that was really in the way. The company has been struggling and cutting down the tree for so long that, even if they do see the stump, the attitude is “that is SO much better than when it was a huge tree that blocked everything.” It is hard to get people to see the stump as a new customer/visitor sees it – something out of place and in the way. And it is hard to get people motivated to continue to work to get the stump out of the way when they have already worked so hard to remove the rest of the tree.

  • By rebecca, August 12, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    At my job we recently went through a tree stump search. We set up a team of people from all departments and looked very deeply into how we were doing things. Then we looked for areas of improvement in each department. At the end the suggestions were discussed and it was decided what things should change or what new things should be implemented. After it was all said and done, there were still people in th company doing things the old way, even members of the team. How do you get people to break old habits? I think during the process they can see the value in the changes, but have trouble breaking the routine in order to implement them fully.

  • By Kevin Ertell, August 13, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    I get my inspiration from the Daily Show graphics. 🙂

  • By Kevin Ertell, August 13, 2009 @ 9:13 am

    Thanks for your comment, Carrie. You make an excellent point. As the old saying goes, “Good can sometimes be the enemy of great.” Cutting down huge trees is good progress (in this metaphor), but getting to great means we can’t rest on our laurels and have to keep on finding and removing those remaining tree stumps.

  • By Kevin Ertell, August 13, 2009 @ 9:17 am

    Thanks for your comment Rebecca. Old habits die hard, don’t they? I’ve found that true change needs to be practiced. The habits that created the status quo were developed over many iterations over many years, in most cases, so changing those habits requires repetition until new habits are ingrained. Would it be possible for your team to repeat the same process of looking for tree stumps and implementing change every couple of months until new habits can take hold?

Other Links to this Post

  1. “If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looking hard enough” | Retail: Shaken Not Stirred — January 6, 2010 @ 7:53 pm

  2. The Case to Cross It Up | Retail: Shaken Not Stirred — January 6, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

  3. 2 concepts for better usability | Retail: Shaken Not Stirred — April 8, 2010 @ 10:35 am

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