Dilbert and The Smart Talk Trap: The Dangers of Skilled Bullshitting
One of the main themes on The Knowing-Doing Gap is something that we call "The Smart Talk Trap," that there are too many times in organizations when executives, managers, and other people say smart things instead of doing smart things, and somehow after they have said all the right things, they feel so much better that they believe no other action is necessary or somehow their magical words will turn into action without having to do anything else. Another variation is when bosses do seemingly brilliant talk, talk that they believe is brilliant too, and then -- because they don't know what they are talking about -- people either resist turning it into action or, when they try, it turns out to be impossible (I recall a stage gate system at one of my client's organizations that was impossible to use.) Indeed, bad ideas of this last variety helped inspire Jeff Pfeffer and I to write Hard Factsbecause we kept dealing with organizations where people believed that they were doing the right thing, but we believed it was wrong based on the best evidence-- they suffered from doing-knowing gaps, as we came to call them.
The above cartoon is intriguing because it seems to reflect a case of skilled bullshitting leading to dumb action -- and the bullshitter knows it is dumb. Dilbert thought it he was talking about garbage, he just threw together a presentation to get through a meeting. Unlike many bosses and others who do this,however, Dilbert realizes his ideas are garbage -- but now it seems they are being acted upon! The only other thing I've ever heard like this in real corporate life happened with a talking Barney doll at Microsoft. Here is the story from Weird Ideas That Work -- note that like Dilbert, it was an idea that the team believed was bad from the start, yet somehow it was turned into action. The extra twist was whether or not the product sucked, it was a commercial success. This story was told to me in 2000 by Justin Kitch, CEO and founder of Homestead, a dotcom start-up that still exists and apparently was bought by Intuit. I am also impressed to see that Justin is still CEO, and in fact, most of his founding team is still intact. I have to learn more about what happened.
Here is the Barney story:
Right after he graduated from Stanford, Justin went to work for Microsoft in a group that developed educational software for young children. One day, Justin led a brainstorming session on “What would be the worst product we could possibly build.” His idea was “Let’s do that, and think opposite. Think about what’s the worst characteristics it could have? What’s the least educational thing we could do?” The result was “A talking Barney Doll, it was called Barney 1, 2, 3. It was a Barney doll that talked to you and taught you numbers. I still have the drawing. I made it as a total joke and I gave it to my boss.”
To Justin’s dismay, Microsoft came out with pretty much the same product a couple years later. He said “I couldn’t believe it. They built exactly what we brainstormed would be the worst possible product.”
Note that Justin seemed confident that “my team's little chuckle over Barney had nothing to do with the eventual project,” but others I talked to were less sure -- in any event Justin made clear to me that he refused to take any credit for that "piece of shit." This little incident and Dilbert’s cartoon suggest that you have to be careful who you show your silly ideas to – and in Justin’s case, the lesson is also that ideas that seem dumb may have more merit than you think – at least by commercial standards.
P.S. The phrase "Smart Talk Trap" was actually invented by Suzy Welch, yes Jack's wife, when she was an editor at theHarvard Business Review and worked on a paper based The Knowing-Doing Gap. Suzy was a damn good editor.