Web Heresies

All the heresies the web can handle (all opinions expressed here are my own).

The Hazards of Perfection

The business culture at academically-oriented institutions (museums, universities, etc.) carries a heavy burden: perfectionism. It’s a reflection of academia’s meritocracy: work is assessed and rewarded, and status earned based on how close to perfect that work is. This is because of the peer review process: work is subjected to adversarial review, and peers try to pick it apart, challenging every assumption, detail and scrap of evidence in an attempt to find flaws.

This approach serves academia well. It’s laudable and necessary for establishing whether - for example - a new medical approach has been designed and tested thoroughly enough to merit mainstream adoption. It’s essential for testing whether observed physical phenomena are bona fide and can serve as the underpinnings for future work. It’s useful for determining whether sociological or psychological theses are valid or based on flawed assumptions and hidden prejudices.

These inquisitions and investigations test the rigor and strength of academic work, because so much depends on their accuracy and validity: the very foundation of knowledge in our society depends on this. Without it, we’re left with conjecture, maybes and assumptions that can undermine the body of knowledge our society requires for progress.

The danger

Unfortunately, this quite necessary emphasis on perfection bleeds into peripheral areas where academia has no place and where it undermines and weakens everything it touches. Perfection is the enemy of done on time and done well. It’s where ego goes to find refuge from criticism. It impedes the ability to get work done in a timely fashion, to make quick decisions, to work efficiently and to keep business processes lean.

Unfortunately, in academic settings business culture becomes academic, adopting all the qualities that serve academia, but which are antithetical to successful business. Quick decisions, good (but not perfect) work, risk tolerance and other essential business virtues are shunted aside in the hunt for perfection.

The result is a dysfunctional business climate. But it doesn’t have to be.

What we can do differently?

  1. Talk up and explain the necessary differences between academic and business values to senior administrators. These are the key decision-makers who most likely come from an academic background, and who may unconsciously bias business operations towards an academic model. The Lean Startup is a good place to begin the discussion, because it explains in simple language the business logic of doing things quickly and iteratively, learning by doing, getting products to market quickly, and - most importantly - not over-thinking business decisions, which is the greatest danger posed by an academic bias.
  2. Focus on metrics. They replace the academic reward structure that values perfectionism, with one that focuses on objective, empirical business results. Those results don’t have to be elegant or academic: if they’re explicitly laid out and align with the institution’s strategic goals, metrics can help an organization make better business decisions.
  3. Talk Agile. The Agile Manifesto and the body of test cases and knowledge behind it approach an academic level of rigor. It’s hard to argue with the case histories, studies and research that validate this approach. Agility can apply to much more than software development, and uses concepts and a language that an academic can relate to.
  4. Stay on strategy. Your organization’s strategic goals - not a drive for perfection - can and should drive your organization’s business decisions. Showing that your tactics align with the organization’s strategy is armor against a whole range of potential criticisms.
  5. Embrace failure. There’s no better antidote for perfectionism than failure. Acceptance of failure is the hardest of these five points to embrace, but the most transformative. Fail Fridays, peer learning sessions and more can help an organization de-fang failure and make risk more acceptable.

 

 

298 Lives Lost Thanks to Sloppy Risk Management" by one Johnny Spangenberg appeared at the top of my LinkedIn feed Thursday. It referred to the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet shot down over Ukraine earlier that day, arguing that poor risk management - not the impact of a few hundred pounds of ground-to-air missile - were ultimately to blame for the crash.

The story struck a nerve among readers. As of 10:40pm Thursday night, there were 158 comments, the majority of which expressed anger at a how “insensitive,” “sick” or just plain “stupid” it was:

"295 dead and you blame sloppy risk management?"

"This is by far the worst article I’ve read on LinkedIn in years."

"This is the type of article that will lead to LinkedIn’s demise or at least the demise of allowing anyone to ‘self publish’."

The last comment is the most telling for me, because it highlights the biggest problem facing LinkedIn’s self-publishing model: the rise of sub-standard content that threatens to turn the platform from a useful business network into an echo chamber for poorly-written self-promotion and vertical marketing.

The problem lies in the mashup of business content marketing and networking platform LinkedIn has evolved into. On Facebook and Twitter, users typically share more stories from mainstream news outlets, browse content, promote their business, and link to funny, odd, useful or idiosyncratic content.

On LinkedIn, the network’s business DNA mixes with its self-publishing model to produce a volatile mix of writers clamoring for attention. This doesn’t necessarily produce insightful, meaningful or well-written content. Often it just demonstrates an ability to cobble together a top-ten list, slap together a contrarian opinion, or spin current events in an attempt to grab readers’ attention and establish the writer’s legitimacy.

This is what appears to have happened with Mr. Spangenberg’s post: a rush to publish combined with a desire for attention and a dose of bad judgment. What compelled him to temporarily ignore the terrible human toll of an airliner blown out of the sky only hours earlier in order to opine on risk management is beyond me. What it shows is the unfortunate trend on LinkedIn towards facile, opportunistic and not very meaningful content.

Another issue is what system is responsible for allowing this content to bubble to the surface. It’s unclear whether algorithms or human intervention are responsible, but either way it doesn’t reflect well on LinkedIn’s ability to curate content.

LinkedIn has the power to fix this problem, but it would mean creating a whole new way to curate content so that vertical marketing and self-promotion are replaced with genuine insight and useful information. That’s not easy when your revenue stream depends in no small part on the number of eyeballs you can collect for advertisers through the volume of content you produce.

However, LinkedIn may not have much choice. In 2014 the long-term viability of social networks depends on the value of content they can produce. Facebook realized that years ago and introduced the EdgeRank algorithm. Twitter took a step in that direction with its recent redesign, which emphasizes the most popular content. It’s not too late for LinkedIn to follow suit.

Poor content is like junk food: it’s cheap, easy to get and satisfies a need. But like junk food it leaves you flabby and unhealthy. LinkedIn needs to get back into shape.

 

 

"What gets measured, gets managed." 
Peter Drucker said that, and with good reason. Far too many business decisions hinge on what’s “good for us,” “core to our mission,” “innovative” or any one of a rainbow of other buzzwords.
This is regrettable, because the only thing that matters in business - the only thing that should matter - is results. And the only worthwhile measure of results is numbers.
If this seems heretical to you, please remember that this site is called “Web Heresies,” not “Web Platitudes.” Our goal is to slaughter sacred cows and serve them up to you. Thus, it’s essential to understand that metrics are really all that matter in business, and that even faulty metrics are better than no metrics at all. That’s how important they are.
Consider what happens in the absence of metrics: politics rushes in to fill the void.
Business requires transparency, predictability and stability to achieve results, which is why politics in business is like cancer: it distorts and weakens everything it touches. It erodes transparency, predictability and stability by rewarding the ability to game systems and manipulate hierarchies. Advancement and reward are decoupled from the ability to meet objective criteria, and are attached to how well you can play the game.
This makes it impossible for most workers to predict whether they will be rewarded for doing a good job, or even whether the ability to do a good job exists.
Where people can’t predict the outcome of their efforts with reasonable certainty (such as whether they’re going to be rewarded or punished) uncertainty blossoms. In uncertain environments, chaos creeps in. Group cohesion crumbles, and employees rely on gamesmanship, favoritism, nepotism and other approaches to achieve some degree of certainty or stability. Everyone starts watching their back. This leads to a decline in morale, productivity and forward momentum.
Enter metrics. They’re objective, impersonal and empirical. They give employees the ability to control their destiny in some way which is understandable, transparent, and at least somewhat predictable. This gives people some sense of control over their destiny, and that empowers them to move forward.
However, metrics can also become a straightjacket. It’s difficult to come up with the right ones, attach realistic numerical goals to them, and modify those metrics and goals when their underlying conditions and assumptions change. This leads to criticism of their validity even before they’ve been defined. How does it serve the business to tie itself to arbitrary measures? Why do this when the business climate changes on a weekly basis? Why not identify our top-level goals and work towards those without dreaming up some superficial numbers management says we have to hit?
The reason is politics. Without those metrics - even flawed metrics - politics creeps into the equation. Metrics are proof against that. Even if they’re only half valid, they will help an organization avoid the kind of decay and lack of direction that politics brings.
To put it simply, let’s use an old slogan from seafaring: when you’re in the middle of an ocean, any wind is better than no wind at all.

"What gets measured, gets managed."

Peter Drucker said that, and with good reason. Far too many business decisions hinge on what’s “good for us,” “core to our mission,” “innovative” or any one of a rainbow of other buzzwords.

This is regrettable, because the only thing that matters in business - the only thing that should matter - is results. And the only worthwhile measure of results is numbers.

If this seems heretical to you, please remember that this site is called “Web Heresies,” not “Web Platitudes.” Our goal is to slaughter sacred cows and serve them up to you. Thus, it’s essential to understand that metrics are really all that matter in business, and that even faulty metrics are better than no metrics at all. That’s how important they are.

Consider what happens in the absence of metrics: politics rushes in to fill the void.

Business requires transparency, predictability and stability to achieve results, which is why politics in business is like cancer: it distorts and weakens everything it touches. It erodes transparency, predictability and stability by rewarding the ability to game systems and manipulate hierarchies. Advancement and reward are decoupled from the ability to meet objective criteria, and are attached to how well you can play the game.

This makes it impossible for most workers to predict whether they will be rewarded for doing a good job, or even whether the ability to do a good job exists.

Where people can’t predict the outcome of their efforts with reasonable certainty (such as whether they’re going to be rewarded or punished) uncertainty blossoms. In uncertain environments, chaos creeps in. Group cohesion crumbles, and employees rely on gamesmanship, favoritism, nepotism and other approaches to achieve some degree of certainty or stability. Everyone starts watching their back. This leads to a decline in morale, productivity and forward momentum.

Enter metrics. They’re objective, impersonal and empirical. They give employees the ability to control their destiny in some way which is understandable, transparent, and at least somewhat predictable. This gives people some sense of control over their destiny, and that empowers them to move forward.

However, metrics can also become a straightjacket. It’s difficult to come up with the right ones, attach realistic numerical goals to them, and modify those metrics and goals when their underlying conditions and assumptions change. This leads to criticism of their validity even before they’ve been defined. How does it serve the business to tie itself to arbitrary measures? Why do this when the business climate changes on a weekly basis? Why not identify our top-level goals and work towards those without dreaming up some superficial numbers management says we have to hit?

The reason is politics. Without those metrics - even flawed metrics - politics creeps into the equation. Metrics are proof against that. Even if they’re only half valid, they will help an organization avoid the kind of decay and lack of direction that politics brings.

To put it simply, let’s use an old slogan from seafaring: when you’re in the middle of an ocean, any wind is better than no wind at all.

 

 

Risk vs. Strategy
Organizations say they want strategies. I create strategies for the digital side of their businesses, whatever that business may be. Unfortunately, when you scratch the surface you find that a lot of organizations don’t actually want a strategy. Executing a strategy means doing things differently, embracing change and taking risks. Businesses aren’t very good at any of those things. Businesses are conservative. Businesses are risk-averse. They avoid risk because it’s unknown, and could lead to failure, however modest that failure might be. Most businesses and the component pieces that make them run (employees and managers) are rewarded for success and punished for failure, just like in any other system. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they avoid failure at all costs. Not only are they incentivized to avoid failure, failure is personal. In practically every business culture, failure is seen as a reflection of the shortcomings of the individual(s) responsible, and it becomes a blow to the ego. Small wonder it’s avoided so strongly.
Unfortunately, failure is necessary, especially if an organization wants to do things differently. There is no such thing as a safe strategy. If there were, everyone would be using safe strategies, there would be no competitive advantage to having one vs. another, and the strategic playing field would be completely level.
Safe strategies don’t exist; there’s risk in every one of them. Every strategy is a playbook for doing things differently and changing an organization, even if that’s in infinitesimal ways.
That doesn’t stop organizations from wanting a strategy that essentially entails doing things the same way they currently do. It’s not a particularly realistic expectation, but it maps to what we know about how individuals handle change, which is similar to how they handle grief: denial - bargaining - rejection - acceptance. Organizations will try to deny that change is necessary, or that it has to be part of their strategic approach. Often they will try to commodify or water down the necessary change (bargaining). At some point they may reject the idea of doing things differently altogether as an unnecessary risk.
But the bright ones - that ones that survive - understand what’s at stake, eventually embrace change, and the corresponding change-based strategy. The strategy they embrace probably doesn’t look like the one they started the process with, but it will be a strategy that relies on doing things differently.
Where does your organization lie on the change spectrum?

Risk vs. Strategy

Organizations say they want strategies. I create strategies for the digital side of their businesses, whatever that business may be. Unfortunately, when you scratch the surface you find that a lot of organizations don’t actually want a strategy. Executing a strategy means doing things differently, embracing change and taking risks. Businesses aren’t very good at any of those things. Businesses are conservative. Businesses are risk-averse. They avoid risk because it’s unknown, and could lead to failure, however modest that failure might be. Most businesses and the component pieces that make them run (employees and managers) are rewarded for success and punished for failure, just like in any other system. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they avoid failure at all costs. Not only are they incentivized to avoid failure, failure is personal. In practically every business culture, failure is seen as a reflection of the shortcomings of the individual(s) responsible, and it becomes a blow to the ego. Small wonder it’s avoided so strongly.

Unfortunately, failure is necessary, especially if an organization wants to do things differently. There is no such thing as a safe strategy. If there were, everyone would be using safe strategies, there would be no competitive advantage to having one vs. another, and the strategic playing field would be completely level.

Safe strategies don’t exist; there’s risk in every one of them. Every strategy is a playbook for doing things differently and changing an organization, even if that’s in infinitesimal ways.

That doesn’t stop organizations from wanting a strategy that essentially entails doing things the same way they currently do. It’s not a particularly realistic expectation, but it maps to what we know about how individuals handle change, which is similar to how they handle grief: denial - bargaining - rejection - acceptance. Organizations will try to deny that change is necessary, or that it has to be part of their strategic approach. Often they will try to commodify or water down the necessary change (bargaining). At some point they may reject the idea of doing things differently altogether as an unnecessary risk.

But the bright ones - that ones that survive - understand what’s at stake, eventually embrace change, and the corresponding change-based strategy. The strategy they embrace probably doesn’t look like the one they started the process with, but it will be a strategy that relies on doing things differently.

Where does your organization lie on the change spectrum?

 

 

image

From a presentation I gave to York University in May: http://www.slideshare.net/Markus6464/digital-strategy-101-35901605