When One System Fails Another

Robinson Crusoe Shipwrecked

Ten days ago, when I wrote the post “Uber and the Cost of a Culture of Corruption”, I said that assuming there will be negative consequences (both legal and financial) from the incidents in the news, then it is in Uber’s best interests to fix the problem that led to them in the first place. The negative consequences are now becoming visible in the form of people abandoning ship.

Over the weekend, Uber’s president, Jeff Jones, resigned with the following statement:

I joined Uber because of its Mission, and the challenge to build global capabilities that would help the company mature and thrive long-term.

It is now clear, however, that the beliefs and approach to leadership that have guided my career are inconsistent with what I saw and experienced at Uber, and I can no longer continue as president of the ride sharing business.

There are thousands of amazing people at the company, and I truly wish everyone well.

Travis Kalanick’s announcement to Uber’s employees, while factually accurate (the decision did come after the announcement of the search for a COO), doesn’t quite convey Jones’ reasons for leaving:

Team,

I wanted to let you know that Jeff Jones has decided to resign from Uber.

Jeff joined Uber in October 2016 from being CMO at retailer Target. In 6 months, he made an important impact on the company—from his focus on being driver obsessed to delivering our first brand reputation study, which will help set our course in the coming months and year.

After we announced our intention to hire a COO, Jeff came to the tough decision that he doesn’t see his future at Uber. It is unfortunate that this was announced through the press but I thought it was important to send all of you an email before providing comment publicly.

Rachel, Pierre and Mac will continue to lead the Global Ops teams, reporting to me until we have signed a COO. Troy Stevenson, who leads CommOps, and Shalin Amin who leads brand design will report to Rachel Holt. Ab Gupta will report to Andrew MacDonald.

Thanks,

Travis

Jones is not the only Uber executive to resign this weekend. Brian McClendon, vice president in charge of Uber’s mapping, is “…leaving to return to his hometown in Kansas”.

These resignations are also not the only recent executive casualties. Ed Baker, vice president of product and growth, had also announced his departure earlier this month amid questions regarding his conduct with other Uber employees. This came after senior vice president of engineering Amit Singhal was asked to resign when it was discovered that he failed to disclose that he was investigated for sexual harassment while at Google.

It’s cliché to talk about people as assets, but for companies like Uber, their talent really does comprise the majority of their value. While the media will take note of high-profile departures like these, it would be a mistake to consider them the entirety of the damage. How many lesser known employees have left or will be leaving as a result of the recent scandals? How much potential talent will pass by opportunities at Uber due to what’s happened? In particular, how much harder will this make Kalanick’s search for a Chief Operating Officer who can turn things around?

If the talent drain is not quickly plugged, what happens to the quality of Uber’s service?

This situation perfectly illustrates the theme of organizations as systems. Uber’s software and business model have done well for it, but the culture created by the lack of leadership and lack of ethics of its management may well sink it. One bad component can bring down a system, whether software or social. The tragedy is that the innocent would be harmed along with the guilty.

Uber and the Cost of a Culture of Corruption

'Personification of the Faculty of Law' from the pedestal of the statue of Emperor Charles IV, Prague, Czech Republic - via Wikimedia Commons

Even before I hit the “Publish” button on Monday’s post, “Regulating Software Development”, I had already started composing this post in my head. In that post I had used the words “corrupt culture” in passing. I needed to expand on that, because I believe that’s what lies at the heart of Uber’s cascading collection of scandals.

Uber’s business model has always displayed a certain flexible attitude towards government regulation. Greyball represented a departure from dancing on the line to barging over it. Caught with their hand in the cookie jar, Uber has now announced “We are expressly prohibiting its use to target action by local regulators going forward”. I doubt this act of contrition on their part will be deemed sufficient.

In this environment, Susan Fowler’s account of her time at Uber becomes less of a “how could they be so stupid” story and more of a foregone conclusion. When, to all appearances, violating the law is part of your business model and you’re building software intended to thwart enforcement of the laws you’re violating, your moral authority is rather thin. In this type of culture, I’d imagine things like unwanted sexual advances and retaliation aren’t seen as a big deal, rather business as usual. Crossing lines, like other activities, becomes easier with practice.

Assuming that there will be negative consequences (both legal and financial), from these incidents, then it is in Uber’s best interests to fix the problem that led to them in the first place. This means radically changing Uber’s culture, otherwise new problems will continue to arise. Uber’s CEO has announced that the company is looking for leadership assistance:

“This morning I told the Uber team that we’re actively looking for a Chief Operating Officer: a peer who can partner with me to write the next chapter in our journey,” Kalanick said in a statement on Tuesday.

It remains to be seen whether this will represent a radical change in leadership or not. Anything less than a radical change will be unlikely to affect the current culture which appears to be a deeply entrenched. Debbie Madden, CEO of Stride, published an open letter to Uber’s Travis Kalanick on Wednesday. In “Dear Travis Kalanick: Here’s What You Must Demand From Uber’s New COO”, she noted that “Uber’s culture is broken and you need help to fix it”. She outlined seven steps to do just that:

Step 1: Change Uber’s core values

Step 2: Kill Greyball

Step 3: Adopt a zero-tolerance harassment policy and fire offenders

Step 4: Hire a strong head of HR and an employment lawyer and educate employees

Step 5: Fire or PIP each manager and HR employee who turned a blind eye

Step 6: Shift focus from individual productivity to team productivity

Step 7: Change your recruiting process

Uber isn’t the only organization in trouble due to a troubled culture. Volkswagen is in the same boat and it isn’t over yet. It’s reported that the pollution hidden by their cheating on emissions testing could contribute to the early death of 1,200 Europeans. It’s a solid bet that there will be more litigation to come.

Uber hasn’t killed anyone as a result of their corporate culture, but with their interest in self-driving vehicles, we should all be rooting for a turn-around in the ethics department. Uber can only exist in the future by eliminating the Uber of the past.

Fear of Failure, Fear and Failure

Capricho 43, Goya's 'The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters'

Some things seem so logically inconsistent that you just have to check them out.

Such was the title of a post on LinkedIn that I saw the other day: “Innovation In Fear-Based Cultures? Or, why hire lions to be dogs?”. In it, Michael Graber noted that “…top-down organizations have the most trouble innovating.”:

In particular, the fearful mindsets that review, align, and sign off on “decks” to be presented to Vice President-level colleagues often edit out the insights and recommendations that have the power to grow the business in new ways.

These well-trained, obedient keepers of the status quo are rewarded for not taking risks and for not thinking outside of the existing paradigm of the business.

None of this is particularly shocking, a culture of fear is pretty much the antithesis of a learning culture and innovation in the absence of a learning culture is a bit like snow in the desert – not impossible, but certainly remarkable.

Learning involves risk. Whether the method is “move fast and break things” or something more deliberate and considered (such as that outlined in Greger Wikstrand‘s post “Jobs to be done innovation”), there is a risk of failure. Where there is a culture of fear, people will avoid all failure. Even limited risk failure in the context of an acknowledged experiment will be avoided because people won’t trust in the powers that be not to punish the failure. In avoiding this type of failure, learning that leads to innovation is avoided as well. You can still learn from what others have done (or failed to do), but even then there’s the problem of finding someone foolhardy enough to propose an action that’s out of the norm for the organization.

Why would an organization foster this kind of culture?

Seth Godin’s post, “What bureaucracy can’t do for you”, holds the key:

It lets us off the hook in many ways. It creates systems and momentum and eliminates many decisions for its members.

“I’m just doing my job.”

“That’s the way the system works.”

Decisions involve risk, someone could make the wrong one. For that reason, the number of people making decisions should be minimized (not a position I endorse, mind you).

That’s the irony of top-down, bureaucratic organizations – often the culture is by design, intended to eliminate risk. By succeeding in doing so on the mundane level, the organization actually introduces an existential risk, the risk of stagnation. The law of unintended consequences has a very long arm.

This type of culture actually introduces perverse incentives that further threaten the organization’s long-term health. Creativity is a huge risk, you could be wrong. Even if you’re right, you’ve become noticeable. Visibility becomes the same as risk. Likewise, responsibility means appearing on the radar. This not only discourages positive actions, but can easily be a corrupting influence.

Fear isn’t the only thing we have to fear, but sometimes it’s something we really need to be concerned about.


This post is another installment of an ongoing conversation about innovation with Greger Wikstrand.

I fought the law (of unintended consequences) and the law won

Sometimes, what seemed to be a really good idea just doesn’t turn out that way in the end.

In my opinion, a lack of a systems approach to problem solving makes that type of outcome much more likely. Simplistic responses to issues that fail to deal with problems holistically can backfire. Such ill-considered solutions not only fail to solve the original problem, but often set up perverse incentives that can lead to new problems.

An article on the Daily WTF last week, “Just the fax, Ma’am”, illustrates this perfectly. In the article, an inflexible and time-consuming database change process (layered on top of the standard change management process) leads to the “reuse” of an existing, but obsolete field in the database. Using a field labeled “Fax” for an entirely different purpose is far from “best practice”, but following the rules would lead to being seen as responsible for delaying a release. This is an example of a moral hazard, such as Tom Cagley discussed in his post “Some Moral Hazards In Software Development”. Where the cost of taking a risk is not borne by the party deciding whether to take it, potential for abuse abounds. This risk becomes particularly likely when the person taking shortcuts can claim a “moral” rationale for doing so (such as “getting it done” for the customer).

None of this is to suggest that change management isn’t a worthy goal. In fact, the worthier the goal, the greater the danger of creating an unintended consequence because it’s so easy to conflate argument over means with disagreement regarding the ends. If you’re not in favor of being strip-searched on arrival and departure from work, that doesn’t mean you’re anti-security. Nonetheless, the danger of that accusation being made will likely resonate for many. When the worthiness of the goal forestalls, or even just hinders, examination of the effectiveness of methods, then that effectiveness is likely to suffer.

Over the course of 2016, I’ve published twenty-two posts, counting this one, with the category Organizations as Systems. The fact that social systems are less deterministic than software systems only reinforces the need for intentional design. When foreseeable abuses are not accounted for, their incidence becomes more likely. Whether the abuse results from personal pettiness, doctrinal disagreements, or even just clumsy design like the change management process described above is irrelevant. In all of those cases, the problem is the same, decreased respect for institutional norms. Studies have found that “…corruption corrupts”:

Gächter has long been interested in honesty and how it manifests around the world. In 2008, he showed that students from 16 cities, from Riyadh to Boston, varied in how likely they were to punish cheaters in their midst, and how likely those cheaters were to then retaliate against their castigators. Both qualities were related to the values of the respective cities. Gächter found that the students were more likely to tolerate free-loaders and retaliate against do-gooders if they came from places whose citizens took a more relaxed view on tax evasion or fare-dodging, or had less trust in their courts and police.

If opinions around corruption and rule of law can affect people’s reactions to dishonesty, Gächter reasoned that they surely affect how honest people are themselves. If celebrities cheat, politicians rig elections, and business leaders engage in nepotism, surely common citizens would feel more justified in cutting corners themselves.

Taking a relaxed attitude toward the design of a social system can result in its constituents taking a relaxed attitude toward those aspects of the system that are inconvenient to them.

What Customer-Centric Looks Like

My last post, “Defense Against the Dark Art of Disruption”, went into some detail about notable failures in customer-experience for 2016. This week, however, I ran across a counter-example (h/t to Tim Worstall) showing that a little social media awareness and a customer-centric culture can make magic:

A baby products company is launching a special run of ‘little blue cups’ for a 13-year-old boy with autism following a global appeal by his father.

Ben Carter, from Devon, will only drink from a blue Tommee Tippee cup, prompting father Marc to put out an appeal on social media after becoming concerned the cup was wearing out.

Ben would refuse drinks that were not in the cup and had been to hospital with severe dehydration.
His father, tweeting as @GrumpyCarer, prompted people across the world to look through their cupboards for identical cups or to spread the #cupforben message. His request was retweeted more than 12,000 times.

Tommee Tippee, based in Northumberland, said it was nearly 20 years since it had manufactured that product, but has now rediscovered the design and found the mould used to make the two-handled originals, stored in a usable condition in China.

It has said it will make a run of 500 cups to ensure ‘that Ben has a lifetime supply and that his family won’t ever have to worry about finding another cup’.

 

While I don’t know what it cost them to find the molds and run a one-off batch of cups, I suspect that the value of the positive global media coverage should substantially offset it. As a father, I know that the gesture was priceless.

Win-win.

Learning Organizations – Shooting the Messenger All the Way to the Fuhrerbunker

Unless you’re living under a rock, it’s a near certainty that you’ve seen at least one Downfall parody video (although I hadn’t realized just how long these had been around until I started working on this post…time flies!). There’s a reason why they’ve managed to hang on as a meme as long as they have. The “shoot the messenger” style of management, in spite of all the weight of evidence against it, is still alive and well.

When Tom Cagley and I were recording the Form Follows Function segment for SPaMCast 407, one of Tom’s questions brought to mind the image of Hitler’s delusional ranting in the bunker made famous by these parodies. The subject of the segment was my post “Learning to Deal with the Inevitable”, which deals with the need for a culture of learning to be able to deal effectively with the change that has become a constant in our world. Tom keyed in on one point (taken from a talk I’d attended put on by Professor Edward Hess): ‘candor, facing the “brutal facts” is essential to a learning culture’. Although his leadership failures pale in significance to the atrocities that he was responsible for, the Hitler portrayed in these clips demonstrates that point vividly.

It should be unnecessary to point out that flying into a rage when given bad news does nothing to change the nature of those events. It is particularly destructive when the bearer of the news is attacked even when blameless for what they’re reporting. Far from helping anything, the temper tantrum ensures that negative information is only delivered when it can no longer be hidden, hampering the ability to react in a timely and effective manner. A vicious circle builds up where delay, spin, and outright deception replace candor.

Delusional, drug-addled dictators can be expected to operate in this manner (thank heavens). The rest of us should aim for better.

It can be inconvenient to have to deal with crises; it’s more inconvenient to find out about them when the situation is unsalvageable. Maturity, humility, and perspective can be difficult character traits to develop, but not as difficult as finding yourself under siege from a world of enemies with only the pathetic dregs of your minions for company.

Barriers to Innovation

US Soldiers crossing Siegfried Line in WWII

 

Is innovation inevitable?

Greger Wikstrand and I have been trading blog posts on innovation since last November. In his latest post, “Credit card fraud and stalled innovation”, Greger discusses the relatively slow pace of innovation in credit card security. Those best placed to increase security neglect it because they don’t own the risk (a concept called “moral hazard”).

Sometimes, a potential innovation is not the best route to take. For example, the situation I discussed in “What’s Innovation Worth”, where change was avoided because the payoff didn’t justify the cost. Sometimes, however, potentially valuable innovation can be blocked in ways similar to what Greger outlined.

Laws and regulations can introduce perverse incentives that distort economic conditions. Ironically, where this hurts some innovations (e.g. Uber and other “gig economy” companies), it can also unintentionally push others. Increases in minimum wage laws are making automation more likely for some jobs.

External factors are far from the only barriers to innovation. Technological innovations, no matter how promising, will fail to flourish when placed in an inhospitable ecosystem. If all the systems, social and technological, fail to complement each other, then effectiveness will be diminished via friction. Technology, organization (structure), and process are all intertwined and interdependent.

Culture and structure are aspects of social systems that can contribute to impeding innovation. Organizations which are highly focused on efficiency and stability will be disposed to avoid the risk inherent in experimenting. Likewise, rigidly siloed organizations will have difficulty with activities that require crossing reporting structures. This can be the result of deliberate and destructive office politics, or less obvious (therefore, more insidious) cognitive biases that lead to evidence being overlooked:

Yet ‘evidence’ literally means ‘that which is seen’. And here we hit right up against a fundamental problem of cognitive-bias, sometimes known as Gooch’s Paradox: that “things not only have to be seen to be believed, but also have to be believed to be seen”.


Inertia, the “indisposition to motion, exertion, or change”, is another social system innovation killer. In the seventh installment of our series on innovation, “Organizations and Innovation – Swim or Die!”, I made the point that organizations need constantly to adapt to their changing contexts or risk “death”. Sitting still in a changing world is a losing tactic.

It should be obvious that all the barriers to innovation I’ve listed are aspects of the social systems involved. The technology part is relatively easy compared to the social. Technology (at least at present) isn’t lazy, complacent, biased, fearful, or malicious. The upside is that organizations, being composed of people, can change.

To return to the question above, is innovation inevitable?

Perhaps. The better question is whether it’s inevitable for your organization. The more your organization is subject to the barriers listed above, the more likely an organization not subject to them will eat your lunch.