Friday, September 9, 2011

Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out: Part 21

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Throughout my tenure, I'd clutched to my breast, like a spy's cyanide pill, a last-resort scheme hatched shortly after the shocking phone call where I learned that Darth Vader was my father Clay would be my boss. I called it my "Gone Jesus" option. The idea was that I'd claim to have had a religious awakening, and would load up all my writings, internal memos, Chowhound board postings, and press interviews with heavy-handed scriptural references. I'd subsist entirely on Jesus fish and Ezekiel bread, and claim to have lost all interest in gastronomy.

As previously explained, my employment contract pretty much amounted to indentured servitude. If I were to quit or be fired, I'd be sued. But CNET couldn't fire me over a religious preference. So if I'd Gone Jesus, a mutally-agreeable way would have been found to swiftly ease me out. And so I kept Jesus in the wings. Thankfully, it never quite came to that. But any entrepreneurs caught in this position ought to bone up on their bible studies just in case (I particularly recommend the Book of Job).

It's important to note that my trepidations were mostly personal. I was in for a tough year, but Chowhound, with its well-established culture and strong momentum, would be tough to screw up too badly. And I was comforted by my observation that Clay was a big dreamer but a poor executer. Endless hours were endured listening to his grandiose "vision", but the saving grace was knowing that none of it would actually materialize. Poor execution mercifully stanches bad ideas.

Here are Leff's Four Scenarios of Authority, in declining order of preference:
1. Smart ideas, good execution

2. Dumb ideas, bad execution

3. Smart ideas, bad execution

4. Dumb ideas, good execution
Scenario #1 is too much to hope for, and #3 is heart-breaking and volatile and makes everyone give up (#4, God help us, is Nazi Germany). Scenario #2 is a stable condition of steady-state status quo (let's call it "Planet Earth"). It's worked well for Chowhound post-sale, which is why I began this saga by noting that I'm generally pleased with how the site's fared.

Of course, I didn't love being in the surreal position of fighting against foolish initiatives which I knew would never be implemented. But even after Clay's departure from the company (not long after I bailed) a dumb ideas/bad execution culture has remained firmly entrenched among the corporate overlords, much to my relief. This is why Chowhound's culture is still pretty much intact.

Competence is beneficial only when wisdom is assured. That's why the Founding Fathers intentionally throttled the ability of any one branch of government to easily launch initiatives. Gridlock's not always a bad thing.

One horrible initiative was actually pushed through, however, and put us on a shaky business trajectory which persists to this day.

Read the next installment (#22)


Tom Armitage said...

Interesting taxonomy, Jim. It occurs to me that the person executing his or her idea always thinks that he or she has a smart idea. Otherwise, why go to the time, effort, and expense of trying to execute it. Maybe, later on, when bad execution results in the idea going down the tubes, the person generating the idea may realize in hindsight that it was a dumb idea, and that, in turn, may help make the failure less “heart-breaking.” But there’s also heart-break in realizing that you had a dumb idea. For me, I’ll take the heart-break of failing to execute a smart idea over failing to execute a dumb idea any day. Poor execution can be overcome much more easily than stupidity.

I realize that your taxonomy is based on a third-person, not a first-person, perspective. But measured on a third-person yardstick of social utility, I still vote for #3 over #2.

I always enjoy your creative, provocative and interesting thoughts, Jim. I don’t write or post nearly as much as I used to, even though I have more time to do so now. But that’s a whole different subject. Anyway, I always enjoy reading what you have to say, even if I don’t respond. It always makes me think, and that’s a very good thing.

I’m looking forward to the next installment to tell me about the “shaky business trajectory.”


Tom Armitage

Jim Leff said...

Tom, "Leff's Four Scenarios of Authority" is not a useful view for those in authority, because they (as you say) always assume they're smart.

Rather, it's for those looking inward from outside and those looking upward from below. And, most especially, it's for idealistic entrepreneurs who've sold and want a clear view of what they can hope for. This series, just in general, has been mostly aimed at them.

Also, I agree with you about chancing the heartbreak of failing to execute a smart idea! But I'm not talking about any one action. I'm talking about the....well, you said it best: the taxonomy of authority structures. While there are always shades of grey, most people do over time show a pattern of smart or dumb ideas and good or bad execution.

Those with smart ideas and bad execution drive themselves and those around them crazy. Dumb ideas/bad execution is a numbed-out steady state which at least doesn't screw with the status quo.

In the case of Chowhound, which had a good status quo going in, it was a good thing. In the case of, say, our current Congress....less good!

dianne said...

wow, what an incredible tale!
When i found Chowhound it was like meeting an old friend for the first time, and it honestly changed the way i interact with NYC.
I had no idea that the friendly knowledgeable environment was such a struggle to maintain.
Thank you so much for your efforts, i have enjoyed the site for so long, and for passing it on in a way that it remains 'OK'.

Anonymous said...

This gives WWJD a whole new meaning!

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