Managing Through Absurdity

I began 2020 by asking the question: Can Business Be Philosophical? Little did I know it was going to be a test.

As this very difficult year comes to an end, I’ve been mulling over any learning I can carry forward. I’ve been pondering the fundamental notion of quarantine, a strategy I’ve never before considered as a defense against an invisible assailant. I’ve even taken to religious texts for clues on interpreting the darkness. I’m not finding many answers to my perhaps impossible questions, but I do find myself zeroing in on a direction in thought that has guided me as a coping strategy in traversing shaky ground.

What are we supposed to learn from the year of pandemic? If there is no learning in crisis, then a repeat of the same crisis is inevitable. I don’t believe that because it ends the contest between fatalism and free will. We can’t throw in the towel that easily.

Understand the Malady

Might I suggest we have been living through a period of absurdity?

Covid-19 thus far taking the lives of more than a million and a half people globally and 300,000 Americans is absurdity.

The failure of our government to be in a state of readiness for this crisis is absurdity.

Conflicting policies between federal, state, and municipal restrictions is absurdity.

Misaligned interstate regulations in a nation where we travel freely is absurdity.

Hospitals with ICU wards beyond capacity is absurdity.

Categorical rejection by millions of a protective vaccine is absurdity.

Systemic racism is absurdity.

Failure to acknowledge and address systemic racism is absurdity.

Police brutality directed at people of color is absurdity.

Suffering wildfires and hurricanes while rejecting climate science is absurdity.

A president who lies endlessly for convenience as an alternative matter of style is absurdity.

A soundly defeated political candidate and his followers denying the legitimacy of validated democratic process is absurdity.

That’s a lot of absurdity. It can’t be tucked away in a vault. It can’t be explained away by any retroactive framework. Our ability to move on confidently hangs in the balance.

Maintain Integrity

I wonder, have we arrived exhausted at a place and time where all opinions are due equal consideration? If I say that the moon is made of cheese, is that just another point of view I get to insist is as valid as any other idea? Are we so proud of killing political correctness that we have forgotten the pernicious blurring effect of false equivalency?

Like all of us, this year I had to make a lot of hard decisions. Many of them impacted the lives of others. I worried at length about the easy draw of relativism and situational ethics.

By relativism, I mean the temptation to justify a decision I might not otherwise make because of the material circumstance of contemporary events.

By situational ethics, I mean the ability to justify a twist in the consistent application of values as warranted by endlessly deteriorating real-world conditions.

Neither of these is ever desirable, but faced with absurdity, it is easy to see how one could slide toward an argument that was de facto temporary and expirable.

Don’t Make It Worse

In times of turmoil, we must never cross our own lines of absolute right and wrong, but can we know for certain under extreme duress where those lines begin and end?

I suppose some might think the justification or compromise of authority in our pragmatic world is linked to intention. Is the outcome of a tense judgment call broadly beneficial or narrowly self-serving? If we do something we otherwise wouldn’t for a public purpose, for the greater good, is it okay to bend our own rules? If we don’t do it to benefit ourselves, can it be less highly scrutinized?

Those are all curious frameworks I’m sure many in leadership positions encountered this year. None of it worked for me. I chose instead to steer toward a path I could consider consistent. That was an early lesson in managing through absurdity. When faced with absurdity, the first mandate had to be not to compound the absurdity with more absurdity.

Remain Methodical

I thought I might call this post: “What I learned this year.” Then I decided I didn’t learn it this year. The learning has been cumulative. Socrates suggested that all learning is recollection (Socrates also believed in reincarnation, so of course all learning would be recollection).

This year I have been recalling the battles of previous crises: 9-11; the internet bubble; a corporate hostile takeover; a shareholder war; the CDO financial collapse. These were all instances of absurdity. We know that 2020 is not an isolated collection of discord; it’s recency might just make it feel that way.

Maybe that’s the key learning: absurdity can’t be suppressed. It can at best be navigated. Calm, thoughtful teamwork is a good place to start. Collective learning and brainstorming are usually more exponential in effect than individual edict or hunch.

That doesn’t mean we can allow absurdity to become our norm. Dysfunction has to be called out. Identifying dysfunction is often where healing begins. We will be tossed into absurdity again, and the choice will remain: dig in deeper or dig our way out. We’ve proven conclusively we can do both.

Not long ago I happened upon a streaming performance by Bill Irwin at The Irish Repertory Theatre in New York. He enacted several passages from one of my favorite plays, Waiting for Godot. Beckett’s existential masterpiece is about absurdity, about inaction masquerading as action. It is a play of anxiety where nothing happens except for the characters’ recognition of their own circuitous fate. Are Didi and Gogo noble in trying to identify purpose when escape is beyond their ability to see past the proscenium? They may go nowhere, but they never give up hope. The unsettling themes of tedium and uncertainty seem incredibly apt for our times.

Learn to Learn Quickly

Yes, it’s been a hell of a year. Loss, fear, isolation, alienation, pressure, financial inequality, hardball rhetoric, political divisiveness, ceaseless conflict— it’s been a nasty witch’s brew of stress. Are we ready now to embrace empathy?

My ongoing observation in getting past this and getting on to that is that life is too short. I don’t mean that to be cerebral or pithy, but practical. We can’t learn stuff fast enough to put it to work. Just when we start to understand how things work we are old and retiring. If only we could learn it sooner, faster, how much better our work, our interactions, the whole of our lives might be. If only knowledge as recollection could be accelerated to a state of immediacy.

Sadly our journeys aren’t predictable that way. We know what we know when we know it. We can’t reach for answers we don’t have because absurdity comes calling. Our experience emerges and compounds at its own pace. We can no more control the amassing of experience than we can control the unfolding of absurdity.

We must take what we know, apply it the best we can when faced with turmoil, and remain true and consistent to the values we cherish. We will fail often, but the faster we fail, the faster we learn what not to do. That modest confession is my takeaway in managing through this morass.

That’s not absurdity. That’s reality.

I wish you a brilliant, healthy, revitalizing new year of recovery and inspiration.

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Photo: Pixabay

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