Over-generalization sounds like a useless compound word. It’s a bit academic, I admit. It is, however, a very useful concept and one that any person with a responsible job should be familiar with. Why? Two reasons –
1. It means the application of concept that, while valid in a particular circumstance, isn’t valid in all cases.
2. Human beings are given to over-generalizing, in general. Pardon the pun.
The easiest way to describe the concept is to think about how young children learn language. They are parrots they repeat and use words and phrases in a very exacting way. That is the charm and inaccuracy of what they are doing. They learn a conjugation and they repeat it before they understand how to use different forms of verbs. They hear “He is” and repeat it, then extend that to She is, they is, I is, etc. They do this because they do not yet know the verb forms – He is, I am, She is, They are, We are, etc This pattern of acquiring language is fairly consistent and indeed useful. How could we learn all the verb forms at once? Grab hold of one concept then add to it. We forgive and indeed, even think it cute when young children make conjugation errors.
Now think about how professionals behave. Smart though we may be, we tend to over-generalize from a specific. Here are a few examples from my consulting experience:
We got a $100,000 project from someone who found us on Twitter so we should increase our investment in social media
We did an acquisition a few years back, we know how to do this
We have had 3 CEO successions in the last 20 years, we’ve got it
A customer wants us to do an app, we should do that…now!
Each of these are samples of over-generalization. This taking a specific and using it make decisions as though it represents a pattern. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. Isn’t it better to know that before investing?
The risks of taking action based on over-generalizing are huge. What is at risk?
Other than that, it’s a great idea. Beware of making decisions based on mistaking one or two events for a trend.