This week I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to explain the insane thing that Facebook did without using the word “stupid.” And last week, I was reviewing notes on some shifty stuff GM did that also made it difficult to not use that same word. But you know what? Both things are truly mistakes that could have been avoided had someone in power—anyone—stood up and said, “Let’s not do this, because it is insanely, utterly, absolutely, unequivocally, ultimately (insert as many related words here as you’d like), stupid!”
I’m an ex-internal auditor and I used to run into this stuff all the time. You would be reviewing items, turn over a rock (not even a very big one), and you’d suddenly be standing in a pile of stupid decisions made by folks who should have known better and who were likely going to lose their jobs. In some cases, you’d be hard pressed to explain why a 6-year-old would make these kinds of mistakes, let alone a highly paid executive.
It has led me to wonder if large companies need a Don’t Do Something Stupid (DDSS) department.
Let’s talk about that this week, and for context I’ll explain the latest Facebook and GM revelations.
Facebook: We Can’t Spell Social
Facebook is the leader in the social media market, so you’d think it would be the shining example of how social media works. At the very least, you’d think it would want to appear to be an expert. In a previous post, I'd written about a Facebook press event where it was clear that the firm, and especially its CEO, didn’t understand “social,” but the latest problem is an even better showcase.
Apparently, the company decided, without express permission or even prior notification, to do a study on Facebook customers to see if users’ moods could be influenced. Effectively, the company wanted to try to make them happy or sad. I can go down a list of problems from folks who might feel they were damaged because they were saddened all the way down to some young, clinically depressed teen who might have committed suicide because they were pushed over the edge. For such younger persons to participate should have at least warranted some form of formal approval process and the involvement of guardians for minors, or even better, their exclusion, as well as the exclusion of anyone who might have been mentally harmed (i.e., psychotics, depressives, etc.). But none of that was done.
In the GM disclosures that are coming out of the massive safety recall effort, some testimony has been given saying that engineers at safety meetings did not take notes because these notes could be used as evidence of wrong doing. Apparently, this bit of anti-brilliance came from the legal department. The lack of note taking, paired with “pass-the-buck mentality,” means company products became less safe. In attempting to avoid damaging evidence from discovery, GM employees were effectively increasing the chance that the products could actually kill someone. This would be like deciding to wear a motorcycle helmet backwards to avoid the mental trauma of seeing what you were going to hit. In effect, employees were behaving negligently by trying to hide any evidence of negligence. If folks aren’t getting killed by your cars, the notes don’t matter, but if they are, the lack of notes makes it look like you are covering stuff up, which should massively increase judgments. After reading some of the press coverage, you’d likely wonder if the GM folks in these meetings had brain damage.
It just amazes me that such intelligent people couldn’t see something this obviously stupid. And more importantly, why would they keep doing it for years? And you know what? The reality is that if someone had pointed out how stupid it all was while it was going on, I’d lay odds that they’d have been fired.
Wrapping Up: DDSS Department
Now the reason this kind of thing often happens (and I’ll bet you have nearly as many examples of stupid as I do) is that folks stop thinking and forget why they are doing something. In the case of Facebook, the company is building a community of trust and part of that trust lies in its expertise on social networking. If its employees don’t have social networking skills, then perhaps they should get them. But at the very least, they should avoid taking advantage of their customers because that breaks the trust they are trying so desperately to create.
In GM’s case, the company let concerns about evidence get in the way of doing the right thing. If you are doing the right things, the evidence actually supports you. If you are being told not to create evidence, then what you are doing is wrong and maybe that wrong thing is the very thing you should stop doing.
So now I’m a firm believer that companies should have DDSS departments. Groups of experienced people that, from time to time, step in and with the voice of experience and authority, suggest that the firm’s executive leadership not do something stupid. My mental image of this department is that it should be made up of nuns built like Arnold Schwarzenegger with titanium rulers. Unfortunately, I don’t think anything less than that would work.