Why smart companies do dumb things Featured

10:32am EDT August 1, 2012
Why smart companies do dumb things

Not a day goes by when I don’t ask myself, “Why do smart companies do such dumb things?”

A sweeping answer is that companies are run by smart people, and smart people do dumb things. However, when smart people assemble in companies, they are still capable of doing dumb, if not even dumber, things. Here are some reasons why.

Consensus. When it comes to doing dumb things, the sum of the parts is less than the whole. Throwing more minds at the problem means more data, more perspectives, more possible solutions, more critiques of these solutions and more minds (and hands) implementing the solution, right?

Possibly, but there’s also the downside of more people: Once consensus starts to build, it’s harder to alter a decision. It’s one thing to argue against a few people; it’s much more difficult to argue against the wisdom of a crowd. Individuals who hold out, question or disagree are labeled as clueless, uncooperative and not team players.

Conviction. Consensus rears its ugly head during the decision-making process. The situation can get worse once implementation occurs because the organization marches along with a firm belief in what it’s doing. At that point, a decision takes on a sacred life of its own, and a company cannot see flaws. Conviction is not inherently bad, and truthfully, it’s an important component of success. The trick is to combine conviction with open eyes and open minds to reduce the likelihood of having a conviction in the wrong thing.

Experts. If there’s anything smart people worship it is other smart people. It’s tough to be strong enough to not defer to an expert. Most experts have a tough time accepting surprises that are outside of their comfort zone.

Good news. A company is constantly assaulted by its competition, customers, governments and schmexperts (schmucks + experts). Faced with this onslaught, good news is an addictive, illegal and dangerous drug. It makes you crave more good news, and you refuse to communicate bad news up the chain of command. Ultimately, it may even make you refuse to hear bad news at all.

Lofty ends. Lofty ends can justify all sorts of weird and inappropriate means. Look no further than the quests for peace that produce mayhem and violence. Or, the desire to make a profit (something that is genuinely good for shareholders and customers) that warps a company’s code of ethics even though the company is made up of smart, honest people. Companies trying to achieve a lofty goal can start believing that any means to achieve it is OK.

So what can you do to prevent doing dumb things?

• Say, believe and act in a way that convinces employees that differences of opinion and diversity of thoughts are good things. Frankly, a couple of curmudgeons is a good thing for a company.

• Don’t be in a rush to meet consensus. In particular CEOs should not rush into a decision even though the image of decisiveness is so seductive.

• Spell things out. It’s not enough to say, “Plug this leak in our company,” and assume that it will be done legally. You should say, “Plug this leak in our company by using only legal, ethical and reasonable methods.” That’s when you’re done.

• Move the crowns. When employees go around saying, “We need to do it this way because Bill/Steve/Carly/Larry wants it this way,” you’re in trouble. It means that employees are making decisions based on what they think will make kings and queens happy, as opposed to what’s right for the customer, employees or shareholders. Good CEOs put the crown on the heads of customers, not themselves.

• Restrict the use of experts to narrow areas. Never use experts to create your product roadmap or marketing plans unless you want MBAs who have never run anything larger than a school snack bar to decide your fate.

• Ask for bad news. Don’t assume it will find you — you have to find it. You should allocate a time that’s specifically for communicating bad news.

• Don’t shoot the messenger who brings the bad news unless he or she caused it.

• And finally, don’t reward the messenger who brings good news unless he or she caused it.

Guy Kawasaki is the co-founder of Alltop.com, an “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the Web, and a founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple. Kawasaki is the author of 10 books including “Enchantment,” “Reality Check” and “The Art of the Start.” He appears courtesy of a partnership with HVACR Business, where this column was originally published. Reach Kawasaki through www.guykawasaki.com or at kawasaki@garage.com.