He was scrambling up the slippery slope to the TED-talk elite: authors and scientists for whom the book or the experiment is just part of a multimedia branding strategy. He was on a conveyor belt of blog posts, features, lectures, and inspirational books, serving an entrepreneurial public hungry for futurist fables, easy fixes, and scientific marvels in a world that often feels tangled, stagnant, and frustratingly familiar. He was less interested in wisdom than in seeming convincingly wise. The remarkable thing about that transformation is that it wasn’t all that unusual. In his short, spectacular career, Lehrer had two advocate-editors who quickly became his exilers.
The first, Wired editor Chris Anderson, has himself been caught plagiarizing twice, the second time in an uncorrected proof. The often-absentee editor of a futurist magazine that may be the house journal of the lecture circuit, Anderson makes his living precisely as Lehrer did—snipping and tailoring anecdotal factoids into ready-to-wear tech-friendly conclusions.
The second, David Remnick, has invested resources in The New Yorker’s own highbrow talk series, The New Yorker Festival, in which staff writers function as boldfaced brand experts in everything from economics to medicine to creativity. The tone of those talks mixes the smooth technospeak of the Aspen Ideas Festival—co-hosted by rival magazine The Atlantic—with the campfire spirit of first-person storyteller confab the Moth. It was at the Moth that The New Yorker’s biggest brand, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, got into hot water in 2005 by telling a story about games he played in the pages of the Washington Post that turned out to be almost entirely untrue. In print, Gladwell is often knocked for reducing social science to easy epiphanies and is occasionally called out for ignoring evidence that contradicts his cozy theories—most recently over a piece this past September on Jerry Sandusky. Yet he also serves as a pioneer in the industry of big-idea books—like those by his New Yorker colleague James Surowiecki, the “Freakonomics” guys, Dan Ariely, and others. Theirs is a mixed legacy, bringing new esoteric research to a lay audience but sacrificing a great deal of thorny complexity in the process.
Saying you’d never make the same mistakes as someone currently in the process of flaming out smacks a bit opportunistic pile-on to me. Self-aggrandizing at the expense of another. The marginally more intellectual cousin to “oh-no-they-didn’t” comments on TMZ over the latest celebrity implosion.
That said, this event hits on issues of conscientiousness and truth, relevant to both product management and thinking in general.
One aspect to this story is the Paris Hilton strategy in
social media and marketing to establish brand recognition and thought leadership. Talk enough about the things you want to be recognized for, with sufficient verve, and you too can be recognized as an expert by virtue of mass effect. Most of the time people have too many demands on their attention to go deeply into the things you say and expert status can be conferred merely by association and recency.
Joey Roth’s poster nails the relationship to keep in mind about this.
Sometimes people want to be right / recognized more than they want to put in the work for those ends. A good BS test on authority / thinking is the balance between roll up your sleeves work and talk. Is there an even balance between rhetorical skills and ego-driven image engineering and objective fact / truth? I have a reflexive preference for people who favour work to speak for itself vs. self promotion, airtime spent on facts/issues/solutions rather than themselves. Street cred doesn’t come automatically this way, but when it does, it’s deserved.
How this relates to product is in the balance between what something/someone says about a solution and what it actually does. It’s in part why I don’t really believe in outbound marketing. There are many examples in the consumer space where you can create desires based on perceptions that overreach reality or create a need where one didn’t exist before. That may make a sale but the truth of the solution presents itself in use. Building a great product means delivering on promises made. I’d aim to have the facts of a product or solution speak for themselves as well as Steve Jobs level messaging about it. Not one without the other. If the underlying truth is there in the product on how it genuinely solves a valuable problem, marketing messaging about it doesn’t get more complicated than speaking that truth.
This relates to the story-study-lesson model criticized in the article of authors whose product is pop-sci authority. People are drawn to that model because it helps them identify with a problem, understand better tools to solve it and thus feel greater mastery over their world. In other words, this is a shortcut to the emotional correlates of a effective solution, and what’s said is more focused on producing those feel good results rather than actually delivering them in the solution. Consumers have doubts about solution providers because of having trust burned this way. Shortcuts to the promised land.
I have the highest respect for academic / scientific rigor in analyses, but it doesn’t always have the speed or emotional resonance to win every argument or product/business decision. Which is why there tends to be groaning at the prospect of really thinking something through. While bias should be towards action, there needs to be conscious discipline in product thinking whether “fast” and “cheap” are being picked too often over “good.” I think that’s no small part of the player hate from journalists or academia in these charlatan outings or for typical business thinking. Those trained to exert discipline over what they say and to favour truth – it’s easy to see where the contempt comes from when someone is rewarded when they can rock a room but don’t have the same concern for conscientiousness.
No one would argue that plagiarism is right, whether it’s fabricating facts in this case or ripping off ideas. It’s plain and simple dishonesty. Whether that’s upheld in practice depends both on personal character and surrounding systems. In this specific case, systemic factors rewarded or at least did not punish these unacceptable shortcuts. The same risk exists in systems around product. If audiences – whether internal or external – routinely reward cutting corners in thinking and analyses, there will be a bill to pay for it later.
Stand up for discipline in thinking as a product leader because it goes into what you make. Business needs to rapidly respond to demands but not to the point where validity is compromised. It is a characteristic of mediocrity where what is good/true takes a back seat to other considerations like fast and cheap. If you want to make products that kick ass and don’t just suck less, examine the quality of thinking that goes into what you make and not just what you say about it.