Scope Creep Roundup, July 1, 2022
Workplace optimism for productive pessimists; Carter's ESP spyplane; corporate-state comms.
My partner at Special Circumstances, our tiny, usually 2-person shop, used to laugh with me that one of our biggest weaknesses when doing brand or comms consulting was that we always fell in love with our clients’ company too fast. It’s hard not to when you are in that honeymoon moment with a new client where you start to understand their strengths well enough to see the possibilities but not yet fully aware of the limitations.
I am not a pessimist by nature. You wouldn’t know that from the way I think and speak. I come from cultures, both as a late Gen-Xer and also a former journalist, that trade in skepticism as a signifier of authenticity. You presume most things—a company, a project, a culture, a government—are deeply flawed as a baseline, almost certainly incapable of being reformed or improved, so that you can assess them clearly and see where you quixotically might make things incrementally better. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.
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In the workplace, this shows up as a sort of slowly expressed, months-long sigh. I gravitate towards the other people who express that ennui, the hummers of Nearer My God To Thee, who have figured out how to focus on the work at hand but refuse to let cheery optimism serve gloss over fixable realities.
This isn’t a quality that most corporate cultures value. It can breed complacency, or the dreaded, rarely defined ‘toxicity.’ So I have tried, at times—both as an exercise in adopting a new mindset to see if it holds any value, but also as a sort of executive code-switching—to be one of those slightly reserved, eyes-on-the-prize sort of leader and colleague.
There’s something to it. I have been part of company cultures, especially in publishing, where the attitude that Everything Is Fucked prevented any attempt to improve or evolve. This was a major impetus to my decision to look at work outside of publishing, in fact. And I’ve been part of corporate cultures that split the difference incredibly well. I believe a middle path is possible.
Yet it’s also a struggle still, largely because of the authenticity question. While I am not a parent, I have always presumed that the reason so many parents choose to hide some of the darker realities of human nature from their kids is to, in the best case, give them a few precious years to develop as a person in an environment of support and love. To let a child get strong, like an anime training montage, before setting out into the world that will certainly, at times, disappoint them. There’s still part of me, though, that wonders when exactly that protection changes from nurturing to weakening—and if it can ever be known at all.
As the legendary troubadours of adult co-dependance once sang, “So no one told you life was gonna be this way…”
The power dynamics of employment in not-that-late-probably capitalism are such that leaders are caught in this tension: it is laudable to protect employees from distractions if their contributions will lead to a better outcome for them as part of the company as a whole; it’s weakening if it’s preventing them from understanding that a vanishingly small number of jobs these days will prioritize what’s best for them as human beings over what’s best for the company’s continued existence.
For me specifically, this experiment is ongoing. Learning to be positive as much as I can be, sure. More simply keeping my mouth shut more often, even if it feels cowardly, because I have won the wisdom of experience that few people like to be around a constant critic—even if that critic is often correct. And you can’t affect change if you’re fired. Pessimism, realism, criticism—all valuable tools, but only in proportion. I hope.
I don’t expect to have a fully realized understanding of this before, you know, I’m dead. But I’m very open to lessons and rubrics that others have found when it comes to managing pessimism versus optimism, positive-first problem solving versus negative-first assessment. I’d love to hear from others in the working world who wrestle with this.
What I’ve Been Reading This Week
Quoting a former White House aide as his source, Mr. McRae says the Pentagon set up experiments in which psychics guessed the position of targets, and that results were positive enough to suggest increased MX vulnerability. The former aide, Barbara Honegger, who holds a degree in parapsychology and left the Reagan Administration this fall, confirmed in a telephone interview that the experiments had been done. But she said she did not know whether the psychic findings had any bearing on the Reagan Administration's decision to scrap the shell-game mode.
Every couple of years or so I go on a bit of a high strangeness bender. I’m technically agnostic, functionally atheist, but I find that checking in on the latest in UFOs, New Age thought, gnostic and metaphysical variants of major religions, etc. to be a good counterbalance to any surety I may be holding on to too strongly.
While I haven’t read about “remote viewing” since, man, at least high school, I found myself almost nostalgically revisiting it a few evenings ago and found a reference that, while pretty well known to devotees of extra-sensory projection, was new to me: President Carter once shared an anecdote about a CIA-employed psychic discovering a downed Russian spy plane in Africa using only the power of the miiiiinnnnd!
Look, some people self-sooth with drugs or video games. I self-sooth by reading about mystery schools and post-war government boondoggles. And also drugs and video games.
Pentagon Is Said To Focus On ESP For Wartime Use [NYTimes (1984)]
Buzzfeed SPAC Drama Continues
Some people involved in the listing argue that going public was the best option for the employees. Even if their shares are worth little at the moment, it’s still more than nothing — which was all they had in hand when BuzzFeed was private. “I don’t really see the employees as victims here,” says a former executive. “If you said to me, ‘Would you rather have shares at $4 or have shares that you could not sell maybe ever?,’ I think most people probably would have taken that deal. I don’t think there’s a deep issue of justice at play here. Justice for people who made $50,000 instead of $100,000? Come on.” Besides, the person adds, it’s foolish for anyone to put faith in a SPAC, a Wall Street invention that has birthed its fair share of scams: “You’re the person participating in the heist. Ultimately, you can’t really turn around and complain that your share of the takings wasn’t what you thought it should be.”
Look—this sucks. I am 100% okay with the investors who threw money into VC-backed startups a decade+ ago—the BuzzFeeds and Vox Medias and Ozys and Mashables that undermined independent, bootstrapped publishers with a flood of cash—losing their ass. But I’m also a tremendous fan of the work of BuzzFeed over the years, not just BuzzFeed News, which was unimpeachably excellent, but even the pop dross that was often really excellent and clever. The people who did that work, who spent years of their career creating the content that actually made the money, deserved a better outcome than hasty attempt by Peretti and Smith and Steinberg (who almost certainly is the ‘former executive’ here) to get what cash they could claim through what has practically been a fire sale.
The BuzzFeed SPAC Fiasco Is Only Getting Worse [Jen Wieczner, Intelligencer]
A clear-eyed feature by Chris Perkins at Road & Track about the human consequences of a community built around risk for pleasure.
Two years ago, the developers of TrackSecure spoke with Ring organizers to discuss an official partnership, but those talks broke down.
"After [Koprivica's] crash, we wrote an email to them and said, 'Okay, this shocking crash might be the initiator to talk to each other again. Whatever that means, we could sit at a table together. We should talk,'" Glaser said. "We even told them that there are journalists who are asking us about that crash. But all they wrote back was something like, 'We need to do a root cause analysis of that crash on our own. And you know, we are investing lots of money into safety and we don't know how we will continue. So right now we don't necessarily see the need to talk to you.' That's a Hollywood no," Glaser said.
The R&T experiment at Hearst Autos is worth noting: by moving to an every-other-month model, reinvesting in the physical magazine itself, and aiming at more of a “collectors” and “experiences” model the team has finally distinguished the magazine from its sister publication, Car and Driver (which remains good), in what is one of the last major magazine reinventions we might ever see. I want it to work for Hearst and the R&T very much, not just for their sake, but for magazine publishing in general.
Death on the Ring: What Happens When the Nürburgring Loses One of Its Own [Road & Track]
Can Web3 Do Anything At All?
Shapira said that he learned this lesson the hard way, by falling into the same trap himself as an entrepreneur. “I experienced this five times,” he said. “And finally I realized there’s a pattern here: I keep making things that people don’t want. Why am I building things people won’t use for free?” The problem, he gathered, was that he’d gotten caught up in reasoning abstractly about the use cases of his products, to the point where he couldn’t think concretely. He started blogging about this dilemma and talked to hundreds of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, many of whom seemed to fall into this same trap. They’d grown up wanting to build a company; they read Hacker News in college and dreamt about the entrepreneur lifestyle. The only thing missing was a vision. So Shapira started pressing people on their visions.
“They’d say things like, ‘It’s like Slack, but it’s an open community for people.’ And I’d say, ‘Okay, maybe there’s something there. But it’s too high-level of an idea. I can’t tell you if it’s good or bad because it's too abstract.’ So then the next step is to reason through the idea. ‘Who is going to use it? What products are they using now instead?’”
This process of reasoning, Shapira said, is arguably the hardest part of creating a company. But it’s the step that is often skipped. “They think they’ve gotten past the idea stage,” Shapira said. “They move quickly and think, As a founder, I need engineers, I need to hire, I need to raise money, and I need to launch. They move through the steps, but the underlying mechanism that’s missing in their vision is: How does value get created?”
A friend of mine went pretty hard on Warzel in public after this piece, implying he wasn’t strident enough in his skepticism against Web3. I disagree. I appreciate Charlie’s restraint in these instances—I think it’s fine to dedicate 1% of any piece to a “I could be wrong,” even if it undermines the oomph a bit—and while I am far more familiar with than I wish I were with the scant areas where da ‘chain has some interesting applications, this piece is a solid snapshot of several damning, irritating…sorry, no, just enraging moments when cheerleaders of what’s increasingly looking like a shared psychosis of libertarians and the already fabulously wealthy can’t even explain in a couple of sentences what in the fucking world these companies actually do for their customers, let alone society.
I promise when I make my first billion I will build at least one public library. With books. On the streetchain.
The Petty Pleasures of Watching Crypto Profiteers Flounder [Charlie Warzel, Galaxy Brain, The Atlantic]
Hey, QQ for Your CEO (On The Record): You Gonna Snitch?
I do have sympathy for the rank-and-file Comms and Legal and People having to scramble to figure out the implications of a post-Roe theocracy while keeping their own employees focused on their work by telling them that they’ll get to take a plane to any abortion resort of their choosing. Seriously, not an easy knife to skate.
But also: Patience will not last forever. The implication of the spray of rulings the Supreme Court has fired into the side of American institutional order in the last week is ceding moral responsibility to, yes, states, but also, more than ever, corporations. Not my personal preferred form of governance! But practically, the biggest sea change since Citizens United.
For brand and comms folks, the onus to understand this change is implicit at the very least, and the impact this will have on the responsibility and risk of individual employees to speak up, try to affect change, etc. is only going to increase.
If you thought the last couple years’ roiling around companies taking a “No politics at work” stance were tricky, it’s about to get way more complicated.
Big Tech remains silent on questions about data privacy in a post-Roe US [MIT Technology Review]
“Bad managers aren’t bad people.” But what if…
The truth is, neither a toxic leader nor a run-of-the-mill bad manager necessarily has any deep character flaws. They might just be in the wrong role, or be poorly supported.
Moreover, Race says that her background in psychology means she often reflects on how imperfect we all are at work.
“A big takeaway for me of studying dysfunctional leaders and leaders who fail: Human beings, we all have a dark side, and have behaviors that could probably derail us, and which are problematic for those around us,” Race says. “But we do so little for leaders to help them manage it.”
Sure. Sure! But as I alluded to earlier this week, one of the only benefits of our easy-to-fire employment culture is that it’s, you know, relatively easy to fire people. I say this as a person who has absolutely been toxic to environments before, for reasons that were not strictly my fault, but also still my responsibility to adapt to, improve, or exit: there are too many good, smart, people in search of a better role to excuse keeping a toxic—however you define ‘toxic’—person in a group.
But that’s really the rub, isn’t it? Are they toxic…or is your culture?
The real reason toxic leaders keep getting promoted [Quartz]
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