Beth Comstock and Kara Swisher on Irritants and De-riskers (coming to a corporate culture near you.)

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[This essay was published on Medium on Sunday (December 2)].

This is a wonderful interview. Two smart people expressing themselves at speed with power and precision. Swisher stops from time to time to sing her own praises. But I’ll take it, especially now that podcast practice is often sloppy thinking coated with a syrupy glaze of “the only thing I really owe you is the sound of my enchanting voice.”

This Recode interview is plain spoken, tough minded, and more or less unfreighted by fashionable ideas. It’s a troika driven bracingly through woods and snow to the safety of a country inn stacked with useful ideas and a blazing hearth of creativity. For the moment, we are rescued from the cold (and those nay-saying corporate cossacks).

Success Theater

Comstock talks about “success theater,” the way an organization beguiles the CEO with an appearance that all is well, that every one of her ideas is irresistibly sensible, and the deep reassuring promise that her kingdom come, her will be done.

Innovation Theater

Comstock also gives us a glimpse of “innovation theater,” those moments when everyone puts on a bright face to embrace the new orthodoxy. Yes, we are well outside the box. Yes, we are going to reinvent near everything. Dude, no problem.

The reality, Comstock knows from her experience at NBC and GE, is otherwise. People are frightened, competitive, and often blinded by a narrow reckoning of their own self interest. Worst of all, new ideas provoke our provincialism. (Surely, NIMBY [Not In My Back Yard] is the least worthy and the most dangerous reason to refuse the future. Because, really, if the future is not in your backyard, you’re are, as a professional and an organization, just asking for trouble.)

Failure

So there’s no “isn’t the future wonderful?” blather here. This interview is about the sheer and dour difficulty of change. We have all heard the “war stories” from the early innovators. Too often these are “just so” accounts that conceal the importance of failure and politics. And not just failure as in “ok, that didn’t work, let’s pivot!” But failure as in “oh, shit, we are committed to an idea that hemorrhages value as it loses altitude.”

Comstock is candid about her failures, including iVillage.

“Bought iVillage. It didn’t work. It took it a while not to work.”

Comstock learned something from iVillage as it was failing. This is how we win even when losing. If we are not learning, then the investment really was squandered. But if IP comes out of failure then the loss was a win and the investment worked. This will demand a C-Suite time-line not to mention accounting subtleties we have yet to master.

Comstock built an early in-house content studio. This was a chance to see what worked and what did not, at a time when nothing was obvious or intuitive. You had to try stuff. Comstock’s group invented The Easter Bunny Hates You and Microwave Gorilla. And then Comstock had to protect her lab from the broadcast mothership which really only grasped big, formulaic TV shows, not to mention C-suite carnivores who felt they could spend these resources more intelligently…not to mention an organization that wanted any kind of short-term success for the sake of balance sheet and PR.

Hulu

Still more trial and error, and before you knew it, Comstock had invented Hulu. (Which, thanks to this interview, I now think of Hulu as a kind of YouTube for old media.) And this in turn forced new forms of advertising. Suddenly there were 10-second “post-rolls.”

Lots of useful self criticism. Here Comstock is on politics.

Politics (or, stop being so University of Chicago)

One, I think the big mistake I made, personally and with the team, is kind of the cool kids versus the not-cool kids. And I think that happens a lot in change and I hired a bunch of digital Turks and we were gonna take on the world and I was out with my face on every magazine cover, like, “Yay, digital’s the future.” And I didn’t spend enough time building the bridges and building the partnerships internally.

I think many creatives and strategists tend to think the idea is everything. (Certainly this is the idea I brought out of University of Chicago. And it is, someone told me, the attitude of many Israeli innovators. Both see politics and anything promotional as so much time-wasting and glad-handing.) Both say, “Once we have the idea, we’re done!” The reality is of course, very different. Ideas are where you start, not where you end.

Irritants

There is also great thinking here on the role of the irritant. (The term is Swisher’s.) The idea is that someone has to tie the bell on the cat, someone has to say to Mark Zuckerberg, “What? Are you kidding me? No!” Who dares risk their career like this? Who wants to be the sacrificial lamb? Only those with Swisher-scale self confidence need apply. They know they don’t need their present position. At all. They can be truth tellers because the world is their oyster, er, option.

(This has wacky implications for hiring. Now we have to hire people we want to keep precisely because we know they’re going to leave. And, er, we want them to. Huh? (I leave this puzzle to the team at Coburn Ventures who recently met to contemplate these issues.)

De-riskers

In additional to irritants, we need those who mint permission, “de-riskers” as Swisher calls them. Someone has to make it OK for others to take risks. Swisher points out that Elon Musk made it ok for Ford and BMW to take the risk on electric vehicles.

Because he paved the way for them. He was the early risk-taker, right? He was de-risking it for them. So you need somebody in your organization who is willing to take the arrows.

The thing we especially forget when beating the innovation drum is how hard a really new idea is to think. In the usual “biz lit” prayer book, innovation is a joyful experience. We just summon our courage. And jump off the deep end. Eazy peazy. Right?

Wrong. New ideas are painful and frightening. The innovation zone is not sunny or fun. Things we haven’t thought before are strange and weird. Eventually we will skin them with familiarity, but when new, brand new, ideas either resist thinking altogether or pin-wheel around inside our skulls like a Hot Wheels stunt truck. Too often, senior management (well, everyone, really) doesn’t want to think new ideas until they are nice and smooth and worn with wear. Because before the novelty disappears, everything looks like the Microwave Gorilla and provokes a “yeah, right” skepticism.

Or as Comstock puts it,

You have to get out in the world and discover. You have to go where things are really weird. You have to make room for it and people have to see it’s valuable.

Multiplicity

But my favorite piece here are thoughts from both Swisher and Comstock on the importance of multiplicity in the way we think.

Comstock:

I think companies don’t spend enough time thinking through [different scenarios]. I always liked those red team, blue team exercises that came out of the military, where you deliberately seed one point of view versus the other and you kind of set up a cage match. … I think if you’re really serious about innovation, and your investors are serious about you having a future, you have to have a separate lane where you’re investing in some of these things, longer return, you’re testing ideas.

This is not the first time, Comstock has talked about multiplicity. See her comments here. I have tried to imagine a scenario-centric corporation here.

Swisher:

I wanted to do scenario-building. I was obsessed with the idea of what are the 10 things that could happen … that’s how I do my reporting actually. That’s my little secret.

Comstock:

Journalism is a great background for that.

Swisher:

I make up things all the time, and then one of them is right.

Comstock

Yeah. Because then you’re testing. You’re constantly testing.

Swisher:

Yeah, then I’ll call people and they’re like, “How did you know?” And I’m like, “I just made it up. Turns out to be true.” One of them is true. Like it’s interesting and it’s always pushing against something.

This is, or should be, management and journalism now that the world rushes in at us. The time between first sighting and ‘right on your doorstep’ is collapsing by orders of magnitude. So you have to spot things early, imagine them ferociously, and domesticate them fast. Otherwise, we are captives of catch-up.

This is where multiplicity and complexity come in. We have to surround ourselves with many versions of the world and we have to learn to manage the intellectual complexity this makes necessary. And this surely means that some captains of industry may not have quite enough intellectual omph to make the journey. For this group, Microwave Gorillas, not to mention much of the rest of the world, must remain an enduring mystery.

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