My English Bulldog and my children have something in common. When my English Bulldog gets out and is running around the woods near my house and I call him to me he never comes, ostensibly because he can’t hear my calls. Yet When I go downstairs and open the dog food container or start to cook something in the kitchen he’s up from a deep sleep and by my side in a nanosecond. Shockingly I see the same behavior pattern in my eight year old son and three year old daughter. When it’s time to clean, go to school, or do homework my son is so wrapped up in what he’s doing that he simply is not aware of anything that I am saying when I’m calling to him. Yet when he wants to share his opinion on something my wife and I are speaking about, usually a decision we are making which may affect his ability to do something he wants to do, even with the headphones on while watching his tablet, he’s able to hear exactly what we are saying and he speaks up with passion to argue his point. The same behavior is seen in my youngest daughter, but her inability to hear what i’m saying only happens around naptime and bedtime for some strange reason. In all cases these members of my family are exhibiting selective hearing. They ignore the important points and only hear what they want to hear. unfortunately we sometimes see the same behavior by management in our organizations.
How Selective Hearing Happens In Business
I have many personal examples of selective hearing from my corporate life. They mostly follow the same pattern of explaining patiently to a decision maker why an initiative won’t work, and what needs to be done to make sure the goal is met. In almost all cases the response I got was silence, ie, my input was being ignored or I would severely corrected with some measure of threat associated with it. “Change your attitude or you may be the one changed!”
In one way this is perfectly reasonable. There is lots of pessimism in the world. Business people, especially entrepreneurs, are born optimists. There’s no question that if you want to be successful with any major goal, you have to learn how to be committed to your own vision. There is huge value in believing something can be done that hasn’t been done before. It also makes a great story you’ll hear again and again when people discuss business successes. Those stories all start out with some variant of “they said it couldn’t be done”. I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not what I’m discussing today. What I want to talk about is when the stated goal is absolutely impossible to anyone who is reasonable, yet management decides to ignore all advice and move forward anyway.
There are two fantastic explanations from the cell phone world. The first one happened back in the iPhone 4 era. The iPhone 4 was a really big deal in part because it was a complete redesign of the phone and in part because it was the first major time Apple’s product was revealed by the press before Apple wanted it to be. In what would become to be known as Antenna gate Apple’s aggressive stance on form over function meant that there was a flaw in the design of the phone. If you held it without a case your hand would limit the signal reception of the phone. Apple swooped in and offered all iPhone 4 owners a free ‘bumper case’ that cost them a few pennies each and the crisis was averted.
The second great example was Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 which would catch fire randomly. Awareness of the problem became so widespread in the general public that I actually heard an announcement on a flight before takeoff calling out that specific phone model as being one that was not allowed on that plane. Think about that for a second. It is unprecedented to hear: “Attention, If there are any passengers who have a Galaxy Note 7 please notify your attendant. The Galaxy Note 7 is not allowed on any flights”. Now at this point the recall had been going on for some time so I doubt there were any units left in circulation. But the point was that it had become such a big problem that I now had the Galaxy Note 7 warnings to listen to In addition to instructions on how to breathe into the oxygen mask and to convert my seat into a life vest in In the event of an emergency.
There are three similarities in these two cases. The first was the prioritization of form over function. Management wanted beautiful products that would sell in large volumes. Secondly, the decision making in both cases flew in the face of well-known rules of physics. The biggest similarity in both cases was that management had made decisions against the advice of engineer’s. It came out after the Apple hubub had died down that management had turned a deaf ear, pun intended, to the signal loss issues. I don’t recall if it ever came out that Samsung management was specifically warned by their engineers against the battery configuration that created the fires but the evidence is fairly clear in their language that they were. The expected corporate apology and explanation used the words ‘overly aggressive’, which really means unrealistic. There was real-world ramifications to this unrealistic expectation which existed as physically burnt skin on their customers and a metaphorical bloody nose for the Galaxy Note brand.
So why does this type happen? why does management ignore ground level advice?
I can think of three reasons why these types of scenarios exist. The first is hubris. Hubris is the worst offender. Typically management got To some lofty position because they either did something very difficult for the organization or they think they did and just happened to be in the right place in the right time. I’ve seen this again and again. Admittedly sometimes it’s warranted, but in most cases it’s usually luck, hard work, and inertia with luck playing the pivotal role in that matrix of success.
The second reason is bandwidth. Bandwidth is so limited they just don’t know how to apply priorities. Since there are so few managers compared to individual contributors in most organizations they can’t become experts in all the different areas. In the case of the phone designs, the priorities should have been that you can’t engineer around the laws of physics. The management team was so focused on thin and beautiful, they simply didn’t prioritize physics and engineering into the design. They didn’t know enough to know when to stop the push to have the thinnest phone on earth.
Finally there can be conflicting priorities. Sometimes the stated goal isn’t the real goal of the manager. I’m not saying that there’s some kind of conspiracy theory on the part of the manager to kill the project. Typically what’s happening is that the success of the project is secondary to something else that is aligned with the effort. In the case of the phones Samsung may have wanted to have bragging rights that they had the thinnest phones on the market across their entire product stack. It was patently obvious there was going to be issues with the Note 7 but that was secondary to the bragging rights and the assumption probably was that it wasn’t going to be that big of an issue.
So what do you do?
This is kind of tough. If you know that a project that is going to be an unavoidable failure in some major way and management is not looking to correct the course then you generally know that there is going to be some sort of fallout from it. That fall out can take many different forms. If the failure is big enough then it could put the company completely out of business. To a lesser extent it could force a reorganization that includes layoffs. The effort could continue and there could be selective pruning of people who get identified as being responsible for the failure.
You need to assess your runway. The amount of time that you have before the inevitable collapse is critical to know. Once you have a general idea of when things will come to a head, then make an assessment of how bad you think things are going to get. There are two vectors for how bad they’re going to get, the first is how bad will things get for the organization, and the second is how bad will they get for the individual contributor personally.
If it’s a minor thing for the organization but a big thing for the department or the team then that gives you a pretty clear direction to go in. Just get away from the group that’s going to take the hit. If you can’t get away from them completely, then anchor yourself to other parts of the organization. If it may have a big impact to the whole organization, then obviously it becomes time to try and find new employment as quickly as you can.
Doing nothing, at least for now, is also a viable option. Some of these projects and initiatives can be years in the making. If you know that your runway is measured in years then you also know that things may change in a positive way, i.e. someone new may come in and start to listen to the realities. In this situation just don’t make waves, do the best job you know how to do, and keep your eyes and ears open. Carefully communicate the challenges to the product to anyone from management who may be interested in hearing truth. Never scream or make a big deal about it, even if it really is a huge deal. Just communicate slowly and carefully.
Although i’m never a fan of political machinations, sometimes the runway is short, the options are limited, and massive failure is inevitable. You know management isn’t listening but the second things fall apart they will want someone other than them to take the blame. You want to turn this situation to your advantage. This part is very difficult because you need to do two things simultaneously. The first one is a ton of CYA. This is the tact taken by most folks and it is reasonable. Everybody wants to say “Hey this isn’t my fault! Look, See! I did was I was told to do!” Creating a trail of compliance and deflection from responsibility can’t be done once, it has to have many layers. You never want to just say “It wasn’t my fault because of this”. You want to say “It wasn’t my fault because of this, this, and this. Oh, and I also tried to stop it this way, but that didn’t’ happen either”. The devil really is in the details here. You want to lay a framework for plausible deniability but don’t want to piss people off doing it or spreading blame before management calls for it. You do have to work with the others in your team. Just be quiet and strategic as you cover yourself. Unfortunately all the CYA in the world won’t work if there needs to be a sacrificial lamb and you or your department happens to be it.
I think the second part of this scenario is to have a plan in place to deal with the failure. If I were the engineer at Samsung and I knew there were going to be battery problems I’d have a manual ready of options. I’d have thought about how to refurbish all the recalled phones, what alternative batteries could be put in place, and I would be knowledgeable on how this has been managed in the past by other companies. The goal is not to be the person in charge of cleaning up the mess, it’s to be perceived as someone who can help with that effort. If you are an expert in mess cleaning, then you will be put on that team.
The one thing I’m absolutely certain of is generally bad things happen when management exhibits selective hearing on an issue that the front line folks absolutely know is going to come to a head. It’s always good to have a plan in place for these types of situations. Management, like my kids and my dog, may have the luxury of selective hearing but front-line and individual contributor professionals do not. It’s too bad that we don’t have easy solutions for this challenge at work. I would love it if shaking a box of dogie treats or threatening to take away television could get management to see the obvious problem and correct their behaviors as easily as it does in my household.
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