Discover more from The Two But Rule
No Buts Allowed: An Innovation Disaster Story
Issue #24 of The Two But Rule
Have you ever found yourself in the shoes of Cassandra, the priestess of Apollo gifted with foresight but cursed so that all her prophecies fell on deaf ears? Or have you ever found yourself in a company full of would-be Cassandras, always predicting disaster? Neither situation is much fun.
There’s no question that organizations dominated by negativity tend to be stagnant cesspools of inaction. And habitually saying “But that won’t work” will get you nowhere (and earn you a reputation as an obstructionist to be ignored), but there’s another momentum killer that’s even more insidious, and it’s on the rise.
Many today live in a culture of correctness, toxic positivity, and general avoidance that leaves us utterly bereft of our buts, incapable of pointing out problems or even fully realizing there are any problems to solve. In such an environment, nobody wants to hear about your but, even if you come with two buts in hand. Call it the no-buts policy. Admittedly, the proximate cause of a no-buts policy is usually a long-standing culture of negative one-butism that eroded the organization’s ability to innovate in the first place. Unfortunately, if one-butism is a momentum killer, a no-buts policy is worse.
Facebook and Cambridge Analytica
Sandy Parakilas was a Facebook platform operations manager responsible for protecting the personal information of the social network’s users. His special focus was third party developers that provided a variety of services–from games like FarmVille to popular surveys like “This Is Your Digital Life.” To do this, these services accessed data from Facebook’s internal systems.
For example, “This Is Your Digital Life,” created by Cambridge University researcher Aleksandr Kogan, collected data about both Facebook users and their networks of friends in order to generate personality insights.
Parakilas grew worried about these apps in 2011, later telling The Guardian, “My concerns were that all of the data that left Facebook servers to developers could not be monitored by Facebook, so we had no idea what developers were doing with the data.”
He raised these concerns to management, which he says were not heeded. Then he got his but out of there, leaving the company in 2012.
Soon after that, Kogan shared the data he had collected about Facebook users and their social networks with political consulting firm, Cambridge Analytica. The scandal that resulted was legendary. The Guardian and The New York Times reported in 2018 that profiles of millions of people had been created by Cambridge Analytica from Facebook’s data and used in a variety of political campaigns. The fallout led to Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, being called before Congress, where they vigorously paddled his but. The Federal Trade Commission launched a probe into Facebook that led to a $5 billion fine. And eventually several executives found themselves out on their buts, including the CEO of Cambridge Analytica.
In the end, the whole affair led to reported changes in how Facebook and other platforms like it handle user data, but not before the scandal caused a general erosion in the public’s trust in social media and other platforms, which carries on today.
Dumb Ideas Stay Dumb
Clearly the no-buts policy has a terrible effect on identifying and solving problems. And it’s not just about making it unsafe to speak truth to power or raise flags. It’s often about allowing obviously-stupid ideas to percolate up without challenge, where they eventually take root in the DNA of the company without having been transformed into good ideas along the way.
It’s especially easy for a dumb idea to stay dumb when it comes wrapped in statistics from flawed studies. One of the most notable cases of this was Coca-Cola’s decision to reformulate its flagship Coke product in the mid-1980s. The decision was prompted by taste tests that showed people preferring sweeter drinks. This allowed proponents to push aside reported resistance to the project. But the taste tests failed to account for how preferences might change when people drank the sweeter drink regularly over time.
“New Coke” replaced the original formula in April, 1985. The public response was so bad that it led to a public relations crisis as consumers demanded the original formula be restored. Three months later, the company reversed itself by introducing “Coca-Cola Classic.” It’s widely considered one of the biggest product blunders in history.
How To Avert Disaster
There were plenty of opportunities to avoid the mess. Folks who early-on weren’t convinced of the wisdom of New Coke appear to have missed several opportunities to apply the two-but rule. Otherwise, they might have been able to redirect proponents into better decisions that could have resulted in a wildly successful product instead of a costly double-rebranding exercise.
For example, if taste tests indeed indicated a preference for a sweeter drink, they might have introduced a test product in specific markets to learn how it performed over time rather than replacing the formulation of the flagship brand.
So, if your name happens to be Cassandra, and you see a stupid disaster of an idea forming in the meeting you’re attending, here’s a good two-but rule of thumb: It’s your responsibility to not let that dumb idea escape the room unchallenged, but you know that nobody’s going to respond well to direct opposition…BUT if you’re clever, you can propose a way forward that will divert or dissipate the impact of bad decisions and avert destroying the business.
To put it another way: Don’t stand in the way of hot lava flowing toward town. Dig a ditch to let it flow around. #2buts
The Two But Rule is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.