Why do smart companies & orgs make stupid mistakes?
Last month, I gave a talk about product management & leadership @SVPMA.
This Tweetstorm covers one of the seven topics I presented at the talk.
It’s the topic that appeared to resonate the most with the audience.
Why does Facebook make stupid mistakes, over and over and over again?
What about the mistakes that Uber, Google, and so many others in our industry have made over the years?
Mind you, I’m not talking about “mistakes in hindsight”.
Rather they are the “what the heck were these people thinking?” flavor of mistakes.
When we read exposés in the press that lay out the timeline and events leading up to such mistakes (and there have been so many in just the past 5 years), the most common conclusion (incorrect) tends to be:
“The people in these companies are stupid”
The next most common conclusion tends to be:
“The people in these companies are evil”
So, what is actually going on when an otherwise smart, well-meaning organization makes obvious blunders?
And why do some organizations tend to do this over and over again?
While the exact details surely vary across these situations, one organizational cognitive bias most often at the root.
What is it?
Now, why do smart, even tremendously-successful organizations fall prey to this?
There’s no better way to understand that than watching this scene from Superman II.
It is, IMVHO, among the greatest 200 seconds in motion picture history.
Watch it. I’ll wait.
(For future readers: Use this link if the YT video gets taken down for some reason:
https://www.google.com/search?q=superman+ii+niagara+falls+scene … )
No, really, watch that scene before moving to the next Tweet.
Welcome back. So, what did we just see?
Let’s break it down.
Now, I have a question for you.
If Superman is like most of us — if he cares about appreciation for a job well done — what will he do the next time he’s in this situation?
(A) Will he try to prevent the boy from falling?
Or, (B) will he let the boy fall, transform into Superman within a nanosecond, and heroically rescue the boy from certain death?
It should be obvious that, if he’s motivated by appreciation and accolades (as certainly most humans are), you should bet on (B), not (A), being the correct answer.
Mind you, this is not merely an academic question.
Because what you just saw happens in the organizations that we’re part of, every... single... day....
And while no organization (or leader) *wants to* incentivize problem creation over problem prevention, they unwittingly end up doing it anyway.
This paradox is so important for us to understand, as a community and as a society, that I’m going to share another story.
What you’re about to see is a remarkable couple of paragraphs from Rolf Dobelli’s excellent book “The Art of The Good Life”*
* As an aside, this is one of my top 5 all-time favorite books.
Let’s bring this back to product management (and leadership in general).
In the earlier stages of your career as a PM (or a leader), it makes sense for you to go in and solve whatever problem is facing the team.
And some PMs (and leaders), after multiple years of doing this, convince themselves that problem *solving* is their job. They come in to the office, look for the “problem of the day”, and then get to work.
However, if you want to be a true and unselfish leader of people,
to do what’s right for your company,
you need to be the captain who just avoids the iceberg,
and not the one who hits it and then heroically attempts to rescue everyone.
Leaders looking to combat the preventable problem paradox within their organization should:
1. Create awareness of its existence
2. Change the mechanisms for rewards and recognition
3. Embrace pre-mortems
Want to learn more about these solutions?
Share the excitement via your replies, quote Tweets, retweets, and faves, and I’ll post a follow up thread within the next few days.
(warning: it’ll be equally long :) )
To be continued...
If you reached this far (❤️), check out my talk about PM leadership from 2018 (along with another long Tweetstorm):
A Tweetstorm on pre-mortems is now available here:
“OMG, I sound terrible.”
That was the first thought that hit me during the first few minutes of this recording of my talk @SVPMA.
Luckily, my delivery improves (only a bit) as it progresses.
Check out the video here:
You can follow @shreyas.
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