More Fallout from the Zuckerberg Files

Should the unintended consequences that emerge in the course of a company’s evolution be a primary concern of management?

Is the exponential creation of shareholder value still the overriding force when a wildly successful company grows even faster than its own outsized vision?

Are the naive philosophical aspirations of under-experienced entrepreneurs a get-out-of-jail-free card from the ramifications of otherwise noble intentions?

In answering these and similar questions, is Facebook somehow a different animal?

These are some of the issues examined by a new Frontline documentary recently aired on PBS that frames a deeply damning critique of Facebook and its leadership team. While purposefully steering past the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Facebook’s innocent exchanges of family photos and recipes, The Facebook Dilemma dives into Facebook’s structural roots.

The critique presented is strident but not unfair: Why didn’t Facebook as an enterprise heed the many early warnings of the pervasiveness of its influence and more strongly consider mitigation strategies, and now that the political chaos has been unleashed, is there any possibility of getting the bad genie back in its bottle?

When Facebook launched, founder Mark Zuckerberg braved a bold and curious global community manifesto:

“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.”

That sounds good on the surface, and it sounded so good to so many of Facebook’s early employees that they rallied around the life-affirming purpose. They believed they were building a platform toward the betterment of humanity.

Simultaneously, the size of the audience embracing the platform created a media opportunity unlike any other in history. No company has ever thought about achieving monetization of a billion (heck, now two billion) individuals. To make sure no money was left on the table, Zuckerberg hired Sheryl Sandberg from Google to build that side of the equation.

The inherent conflicts soon became apparent. Facebook claimed to be a technology company, not a media company, even though its business model was selling advertising, which is what a media company does. To be the most valuable media company it could be, it needed two things: the world’s most in-depth data warehouse, and a rule set of utilizing that data with the fewest possible restrictions.

As a business, this all made sense. As you can see every day in the public company’s enterprise value, it worked beyond all expectations. The problem remains, it was initially fueled by another slogan:

“Move fast and break things.”

This ethos is not unique to Facebook. One of the tenets of Silicon Valley is to drive value from what is called an MVP, a minimum viable product. The point is to get a functional offering in the market quickly, find where it is successful, worry little about its failings, and start to iterate while building cash flow. Success is defined first by penetration (audience reach) and second by monetization (lifetime customer value). When things go sour, startups try to fix them, but because success is winner take all, most teams unapologetically expect there will be a lot of sourness to sweeten.

The question Facebook has encountered is unsettling: Is its very business model antithetical to fixing the byproducts of its success?

The Frontline documentary illustrates many of the ways Facebook has gone sour. Arab Spring. Fake news penetration in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russian intervention in media buying in the same election and outrageous exploitation of privacy by Cambridge Analytica. Violence in Myanmar.

Even Roger McNamee, a celebrated early investor in Facebook, took it upon himself to act counter to his own financial interests and ask Facebook management to step back and rethink the implications of its mindset. They did not heed his warnings. They were either too optimistic, too idealistic, too hooked on winning, too greedy, too ambitious, too arrogant, too busy to see the light of day, or a combination of all of those.

Facebook management has been reactive on all these fronts and done what it can to play whack-a-mole as crises emerge. Executives and managers there admit repeatedly they have been “too slow” to address the ramifications of their global viral adoption. The “too slow” apology parrots Zuckerberg’s appearance before Congress. It was a well-played chess move. It reveals no ethos of a fundamental commitment to a proactive playbook of innovative solutions. It’s a cost center, not a profit center.

Traditional media companies work under the direction of a qualified, responsible editor. When a journalist makes a mistake, the media brand runs a retraction. Facebook doesn’t want to be a media company, and it doesn’t want to be an editor, but any way you slice it, the algorithm that sits under News Feed is a robotic editor more likely to show you what it thinks you want to see than what is true or real. Then a perfectly targeted ad is inserted. That is how the game has been won at Facebook. It’s a winning formula. Any risk to changing that is far riskier to the company’s stock price than a few incidents of political unrest.

The real question remains: If Facebook’s mission requires that the company remove most obstacles to the free flow of information, the result of which is to facilitate unfiltered speech, the result of which is chaos, can it both stay true to its values and smooth over the chaos? And if the company is selling some of the most valuable ads in the world because the vast archive of privacy data is what makes those ads click, how can it impose limits on the interests of its ownership?

It’s a greater good question, one that capitalism believes is best left to the free market to solve, but in this case, it’s almost impossible to see how that gap is bridged.

Zuckerberg likes to say that Facebook is an “idealistic and optimistic” company. He said it when we was hauled before Congress to address the breach of privacy trust. When he was a younger man, it was a quaint proclamation I could have believed were it not for the true origin of Facebook as a college hook-up site. When he says it today, it sounds cynical. People who work for him might still be drinking the Kool-Aid. He’s selling advertising, justifying it, and trying to dodge regulation. To wit, he’s doing his day job as CEO.

Part of the problem might be social media itself. Its greatest strength is its greatest weakness. While pure democracy of publishing without a filter is liberating, audiences can easily be misled and mislead each other in chaotic exchanges of raw opinion. Add in bad actors buying access for covert agendas and the danger can become uncontainable.

Shortly before Zuckerberg testified earlier this year, I wrote a post entitled Is Facebook the Next AOL? At that time I wasn’t sure. Now I am. The byproducts of Facebook are so pernicious and likely unresolvable, I do think at some point the vast audience will abandon the platform. The cost of trading one’s privacy for family photos and recipes is too high. I don’t know when that will happen, and Facebook has a ton of cash so it can last a long time, but I expect the devoted masses will eventually exit their loyal addiction in self-defense. I don’t think this invention can adequately address the inherent conflict of interest it has created to thrive. Creative destruction will replace it with a better, more respectful product.

A brand is a promise. When trust is eroded, a brand dies.

I remain active on Facebook, but the broad notion that the world would be better as an open and connected place has always troubled me. Maybe it’s because I grew up as a kid learning of Nixon’s enemies list. Privacy to me always seemed to matter. Today’s political climate almost makes the Nixon era seem welcoming.

I’ve long subscribed to the notion that technology is advancing much faster than our ability to understand its implications. I saw that in my early career with the addictive nature of computer games. We see it all around us with people’s attention glued to mobile screens as they bump into each other and fall into fountains. We don’t really know what this stuff is doing to us. We buy it and use it and another tech company goes public.

Silicon Valley moves fast and breaks things because it’s good for business. Collateral damage is expected and as long as a company survives and grows few real tears are shed. Expecting it will change is unrealistic. It’s a form of realpolitik. Expediency wins over ideology because of the vast money at stake.

Since you’re probably staying on the social media playing field indefinitely, protect yourself. No one else will.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Image: Pixabay

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The 70% – Part 2

EngagementHierarchyIn the Executive Coaching Workshop I co-lead with John Vercelli for Coaches Training Institute, we discuss early in the curriculum the pervasive epidemic of Bad Boss Syndrome.  It is jaw-dropping how many employees reflect on the lack of leadership and vision they receive from those who manage them, how starved they are for inspiration, and how little it takes to turn a bad day into a good day.  When you think about the study published recently by Gallup noting that 70% of employees are disengaged — and that too many of them hate their jobs — boss improvement is a good place to start.

Another good place to start is the Dead Brand Graveyard, where we also focus in the workshop.  Surely some brands die purposefully in mergers and consolidations, but my observation is that many more die because they break their promise to their customers, who simply move on.  In a world of virtually unlimited customer choice, when a company fails to innovate or repeatedly breaks a brand promise, the Dead Brand Graveyard is soon to cement a new tombstone.  For the employees who are part of the letdown, the lost promise, and ultimately the job loss that follows, demoralization is readily understood.  Remember, a lot of these employees came to their companies with hope and passion and energy and ideas.  They may have had the solutions to their company’s death sentence on their desktops.  Perhaps no one was listening.  That takes us right back to Bad Boss Land.  It’s an infinite loop.

Let’s pull these two concepts together — bad bosses and dying brands — and then think about the twelve Gallup questions which you can find in last week’s post, Part 1 of this inquiry.  None of the questions involve compensation.  They ask things like whether individuals have the opportunity to do what they do best, whether their supervisor cares about them or their advancement, whether the mission or purpose of their company is understood and they are part of something that matters, whether there is a commitment to quality in the workplace, and whether there are peers or leaders in the environment who are supportive.

Human stuff, huh?  HR mush?  Not the stuff of hard-won profit and loss?  Garbage!  If companies have it so right, why are brands evaporating from the landscape in record time?  Why are fully capitalized companies lasting half as long as the average human lifespan?  Creative destruction, you say, the natural course of things business?  Well, sure, I’ll give you that.  So is top management willing to say the whole Circle of Life is out of their hands and the survival of the enterprise is entirely up to market forces, to fate rather than strategy, to a competitor’s campaign rather than a driven response to galvanizing the single most important asset in the company’s inventory, the intellectual capital that is allowed to rest idle and fester?

That’s not very optimistic.  And yet, optimism is the spirit that drives opportunity, and opportunity is the backbone of capitalist enterprise.

Why do we so often get this so completely wrong?  Why would we let 70% of employees churn in the ranks, angry and sad and defeated?  Why would anyone allow a brand to go stale, to break a promise to a customer, to fail to reinvent itself when invention is the lifeblood of all revenue and profit growth?  Borders, Circuit City, Kodak, Polaroid, Palm — all once admired companies, all with revered brands — what do you suspect the internal opinions were of management as repositioning opportunities were missed and tired product performance spiraled downward?

Much has been written about short-term versus long-term financial incentives as value destroying tactics, particularly among senior management at the top of the compensation bell curve.  That is only part of the problem.  Certainly if you set a sales target for a commission based or stocky savvy executive, she or he will chase that goal aggressively, often with widespread collateral damage.  Yet is it the incentive that is the time bomb, or the misperception on the individual’s part of the fundamental rewards that may or may not be at hand?  To that end, I mentioned that the Gallup poll does not reference compensation.  I would be willing to bet Big Money that the disengagement factor cuts across every salary band in the spectrum.  It is my own observation that once you get past basic human needs being met — housing, food, safety, decent educational opportunities for the kids and maybe a family vacation now and again — there is no guarantee whatsoever that financial reward brings vast job satisfaction.  I have met as many or more unhappy wealthy people as I have in the middle class.  The tendency to focus on the wrong motivation is not exclusive to the underpaid or overpaid, and the failure to align truly rewarding incentives with human performance is almost always the difference between long brand life and flash in pan cash register rings.

When I hear that 70% of employees are disengaged, and when I see brands and companies dying in record time, I experience one story.  We try hard to focus the executive coaching mission on revitalizing the human potential in an organization, to bring the executive’s focus back to the brand promise, and to evangelize that set of values broadly among the members of a team as a rallying cry.

I see three major factors that matter in a job — what you do, who you do it for and with, and the compensation you receive for what you give.  If the first two mandates of that string aren’t met, it seems ludicrous to believe that compensation is going to make up for the loss.  And if the only thing that people are focusing on is compensation, what real chance does that company have at longevity?  A brand will not be reinvented because it needs to be more profitable; it will be the magnet of innovation because people care about it and bond together to transform it into something it currently is not because it matters.  From that investment of idealism will flow vast improvements in continuing profitability.

Short-term harvesting of any cash cow is possible — if you want to squeeze profits, go ahead and squeeze the people who are producing them.  At the moment 70% of those people are telling you they don’t like what they are doing or who they are doing it for.  Want to make the Big Money that lasts the long run?  The Gallup survey tells you in the questions alone where we’re leaving the Big Money on the table.  Start Thinking Different!

Bosses must learn to listen.  Employees need to teach their bosses to listen so they can be heard and emerge.  Coaching can be implicit or explicit, but it has to be obvious that letting ideas flow not only improves morale, it is vital to sustaining the enterprise.  Companies that last do so because they apply long-term strategies, both in terms of bolstering their brands and employee engagement.  Everyone can win — especially customers — if that’s the walk that leadership walks, leadership by example.  It does not happen accidentally, but by commitment, and constant reminder of core values that can be shared.

For me, it will always be People, Products, Profits — In That Order.