Marketing Thought

Classification And The Platypus: Imposing Rigid Structure On A Complex World

Classification is fundamentally a problem. It is putting things that are different into categories to make us feel better. (Perhaps more fairly to allow us to cope with a complex world). Classification and the platypus tells us that we shouldn’t do it more than we have to.

Classifying Seems To Cheer Some People Up

People love classifying. Taking things that are all different from each other and putting them in buckets. In business consumers are divided into good and bad prospects. Even when you are measuring consumer potential effectively there is often very little difference between some consumers in each group. For instance, when extending credit there is always someone who just missed the cut. They will be very similar to someone offered the loan.

In education the lowest A- student is often almost identical to the highest B+ student. Sadly the transcripts of these students look very different. We often simply have no choice but to classify, for example if we have only one scholarship to award. Still it is worth bearing in mind that many classification systems approach arbitrary. Don’t take them too seriously.

Somehow The Platypus Copes Despite Messing Up Everyone’s Classification Systems

Classification And The Platypus

The natural world has had many fascinating classification problems. For example, the Duck Billed Platypus seemed to present a significant problem for classification when discovered. That it is a mammal that lays eggs is pretty atypical. Yet mostly the problem seemed to be the unscientific criteria that the Duck Billed Platypus looks really, really weird. When brought back to Europe people doubted its was genuine. “But Shaw, an experienced naturalist, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Assistant Keeper of Natural History at the British Museum, clearly regraded the peculiar specimen with suspicion. Could it, he wondered, be a hoax?” (Moyal 2004, pages 6-7). Classification of the platypus was all over the place.

Indeed, it should have been. the platypus shows the limits of the value of our classification systems. We are trying to impose rigid structure on something much more complex. (This is quite a social problem too but I’ll leave that for another day).

Business And Classification

As a business scholar the lessons to learn from problems classifying the Platypus aren’t anything to do with biology.

Firstly, it is worth remembering that to learn from other disciplines we need not be at the cutting edge of their discipline. There is nothing wrong with learning from historical problems in other disciplines. We too have classification problems.

A second, more practical lesson, is to remember that any classification system that imposes a rigid structure on a complex world should be tested for the effect of the boundary you choose. If you are bucketing customers who spend over $100 together check what happens if you bucket those who spend over $90? What happens when you bucket those who spend over $110, together? If this makes a massive difference to your expected results you might need to reconsider your classification system.

You might also worry about stereotyping in segmentation, see here. Don’t try and force things into boxes to make your world easier.


I rewrote this a little when I saw the platypus would glow under blacklight, see here. The main conclusion remains that it is really a cool animal.

Read: Ann Moyal (2004) Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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