In their book Decisive, Chip and Dan Heath write about the need to honor our core priorities when making decisions. They write that “An agonizing decision … is often a sign of a conflict among ‘core priorities’ … [T]hese are priorities that transcend the week or the quarter … [including] long-term goals and aspirations.”
To illustrate their point, the Heath brothers tell the story of Interplast*, the non-profit organization that recruits volunteer surgeons to repair cleft lips throughout the world. Interplast had some ”thorny issues” that caused contentious arguments and internal turmoil.
One seemingly minor issue was whether surgeons could take their families with them as they traveled to remote locations. The argument in favor: The surgeons were volunteering their time and vacations. It seems only fair to allow them to take their families. The argument against: The families distract the surgeon from their work and make it more difficult to train local doctors.
The argument was intense and divisive. Finally, one board member said to another, “You know, the difference between you and me is you believe the customer is the volunteer surgeon and I believe the customer is the patient.”
That simple statement led Interplast to re-examine and clarify its core priorities. Ultimately, Interplast’s executives resolved that the patient is indeed the center of their universe. Once that was clarified, the decision was no longer agonizing – surgeons should not take their families along.
I thought of Interplast as I read the coverage of Brian Williams’ situation at NBC. In much the same way as Interplast, NBC had to clarify its core priorities. The basic question is whom does NBC serve? Is it more loyal to Brian Williams or to its viewing audience?
In normal times, NBC doesn’t have to answer this question. It can support and promote its anchor while also serving its audience. In a crisis, however, NBC is forced to choose. It’s the moment of truth. Does the company support the man in whom it has invested so much? Or does it protect its credibility with the audience?
Ultimately, NBC sought to protect its credibility. I was struck by what Lester Holt said on his first evening on the air: “Now if I may on a personal note say it is an enormously difficult story to report. Brian is a member of our family, but so are you, our viewers and we will work every night to be worthy of your trust.”
Holt’s statement suggests to me that NBC’s core priority is credibility with the audience. I certainly respect that. It also struck me as being very similar to the question Interplast asked itself.
Clarifying your core priorities is never a simple task. Indeed, it may take a crisis to force the issue. But once you complete the task, everything else is simpler. As my father used to say: Decisions are easy when values are clear.
*Interplast has been renamed ReSurge International. Its website is here.
Long ago, when I was a product manager at NBI, I gave a speech on local area networks (LANs) at a customer conference. LANs were just becoming popular at the time and industry analysts were debating which standards would prevail.
NBI was betting on a standard called CSMA/CD. IBM was betting on token ring. The objective of my speech was to persuade the audience that CSMA/CD was the better choice and, therefore, more likely to prevail in the long run. Token ring, on the other hand, was risky and might become a dead end product – much like IBM’s OS/2 operating system.
I knew the technology cold and I gave a great speech if I do say so myself. I highlighted the technology advantages of CSMA/CD. I set criteria around the key functions that CSMA/CD could perform and token ring couldn’t. I know that most audiences admire IBM so I didn’t take any cheap shots at Big Blue. A cheap shot would weaken my credibility, not theirs.
At the end of the speech, I was busy patting myself on the back when a very nice woman came up and asked a simple question: “What’s a LAN?” Throughout my speech, I had defined an array of advanced technical concepts but had forgotten to define the basics. My face turned red as I realized that I had just made the rookiest of rookie mistakes. I had asked the audience to come to my house rather than going to their house.
In the trade, this is known as the curse of knowledge. I knew the audience wouldn’t know the finer points of CSMA/CD but I assumed – erroneously – that they grasped the basics. I didn’t need to explain them. I never even thought about it.
In Made To Stick, the Brothers Heath tell the story of “tappers” and “listeners” which was the subject of Elizabeth Newton’s dissertation in psychology. Tappers received a list of popular songs and were asked to tap out the song on a tabletop. No whistling or humming allowed; just tap on the table. Listeners were supposed to guess the song.
Tappers were confident that they could convey the song successfully at least 50 percent of the time. But, in fact, listeners guessed the song correctly only 2.5 percent of the time.
Why were the tappers so confident? Because they could hear the song in their head. They heard the taps but they also heard so much more. As the Heaths point out, “Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has ‘cursed’ us. And it becomes difficult for us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”
When I gave my speech on LANs, I could hear the entire song in my head. I knew how it sounded. I knew how to orchestrate it. I knew where to pause. I knew where to put in jokes. I knew it cold.
The only thing I didn’t know was what was in my audience’s head. That’s the curse.