I have for a while now successfully replaced TV watching with watching TED videos. It makes me feel virtuous, although I do spend equal amounts of time on the couch — and by extension — not exercising.

Recently, one particular stream of thought spread across a few videos resonated with me strongly. It is this notion that often times what you should be solving for is the perceived problem and not necessarily the “described” problem. Let me give you a few examples (courtesy of TED and my own experiences).

Example: Six million pounds were spent on Eurostar to reduce the transit time between London and Paris by 40 minutes. For 0.01% of the money they could have instead put Wi-Fi on the train making the perceived transit time much shorter.

Example: To cut down the high rate of drivers running red lights in India, where staffing a large traffic police force in proportion to the population is impossible, there are time counters that count down to zero when the traffic light is red. It has done more for the drivers to be patient than any amount of policing or monetary fines.

Example: British postal service had a statistical track record of on-time delivery of mail 98% of the time. They undertook a massive project to move to 99%, in the process nearly breaking the whole organization. A quick survey beforehand however would have revealed that the public perception of on-time track record of the British postal service was around 60%. A simple awareness building campaign would have been sufficient.

The above examples highlight THREE lessons in my mind:

1) Solving the perception problem can be more economical than an actual engineering solution.

2) If you have not changed the perception, you have not really solved anything.

3) But solving for a wrong perception gap can be costlier than doing nothing.

These have served me well many times before. For example, in my last job as the Vice President of Sales Strategy in a large B2B media company, we were tackling the issue of low revenue from recently introduced digital products compared to our traditional products. The task force recommendations ran the gamut of (a) investing in a separate digital sales force,  (b) higher comp for selling digital, (c) investing in more digital products innovation, etc. All of which, as you can imagine, are costly solutions. An internal survey, however, revealed that due to unfamiliarity with the sales process for the new digital products, Sales force had mistakenly perceived it to be complicated and perceived that it kept them longer behind their desk to push the digital orders through. Though the perception was contrary to benchmarked facts, they had hastily concluded that selling digital as not worth their time. A simple internal campaign centered around “easy to sell; easy to execute” did the trick.

I have been in Celanese relatively a short time and haven’t had a chance to test my theory of perception here yet. However, in my current role, I get to work on commercial effectiveness efforts around product launch, value pricing, and Customer value management, among other things. These are all areas where the importance of influencing the perception is just as critical as having a great differentiated product. I imagine that similar opportunities exist in many other areas of our organization.

I look forward to hearing your feedback and Celanese specific examples.