Everything is Obvious (once you know the answer)

Everything-is-obvious-cover Painted in 1519 by Leonardo da Vinci and valued at $700MM, more than any painting ever sold, the Mona Lisa gained world attention for something that happened in 1911.

Almost four centuries is not nearly fast enough in a day and age when each quarter matters.

What happened to make it famous? Was there a tipping point? After all, Leonardo da Vinci was a change agent.

As it turns out, there was.

On August 21, 1911, a disgruntled Louvre employee named Vincenzo Peruggia hid in a broom closet until closing time and then walked out of the museum with the Mona Lisa tucked under his coat.

You can guess why — he felt the painting belonged in Italy, not France. His plan was to return it to its native land. Moving a work of art turned out to be a challenging task, and after two years he was apprehended as he was trying to sell the painting to the Uffizi in Firenze.

That's what happened.

Everyone was talking about the bold theft; the Italians applauding the gesture, the French happy for the artwork's recovery. Often being the case with notoriety, the painting was the subject of two acts of attempted vandalism a few years later.

In the limelight, the painting became the object of fascination by other artists who — whether in mockery or admiration — contributed to catapulting it to fame.

One of the big reasons commons sense in unreliable is that no matter how well we understand the parts or details of a situation, we fail to see and understand the whole.

Sociology can help with that, says Ducan Watts.

Everything is Obvious* once you know the answer by Duncan Watts is not an easy read. Part science and part a book about business, it will make you think. While the science deals with how information cascades make the world unpredictable, the business part is about how your organization can use the information for profit.

The recurring theme is that our commonsense understanding of the world is often wrong.

Some of the business questions: How much can CEO’s impact the performance of their companies? And does higher pay represent an incentive for people to work hard?

It seems obvious that people respond to incentives; yet managers frequently fail to anticipate how people will respond to the incentives they create.

Watts also talks about social trends. These often seem to have been driven by certain influential people; yet marketers have been unable to identify these “influencers” in advance.

Although successful products or companies always seem in retrospect to have succeeded because of their unique qualities, predicting the qualities of the next hit product or hot company is notoriously difficult even for experienced professionals.

The book is about understanding how and when common sense fails.

Watts contends that only when we do that can we improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present. It turns out that tipping points are circular conversations — you can tell the story only in hindsight.

I'm all about asking the question differently, in some cases that means flipping it around. This book will help you do that. My word of caution is: Don't expect a formula. Be open to challenging your own assumptions, and the book will be a solid thinking tool.


Watts runs the Human Social Dynamics research group at Yahoo!