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Continuing with the theme of deciding how much risk is “reasonable” to take in your career and your life, I’d like to share a story about my time at a mythical company we will label as NYNEXX. NYNEXX we’ll imagine, was one of the so-called “Baby Bells” who provided local phone service. It was created from the break-up of AT&TX. NYNEXX paid some marketing company millions to come up with the name which is for New Yorkx (telephone), New Englandx (telephone) and XX = who knows what we might do in the future!? And sure enough, within five years most people who were served by NYNEXX knew it was a brand of headache remedy. See, marketing is not nearly so scientific as some (particularly those selling marketing services) would have you believe. More about that another time. NYNEXX later merged with Bell Atlanticx and then with GTEx and has transmogrified into a company known as Verizonx. (Any resemblance to similarly named companies, such as NYNEX, of course, is purely coincidental).  


This story concerns itself with professional advice I was asked to render. At the time, I was the executive director of the Artificial Intelligence Lab at NYNEXX Science and Technology. But my management chain knew that I was knowledgeable in Human-Computer Interaction, Human Factors, User Experience etc. In fact, I was asked to start up and then head up the AI Lab to do work in speech recognition, expert systems and machine vision. Before even accepting the job, I explained how much we also needed a group doing Human-Computer Interaction research. This turned out to be a wonderful thing for all the obvious reasons, but one of the non-obvious reasons was that it helped cement HCI into the minds of my management. 

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A hot summer day, several of us were called into a conference room by one of the chief aids to the CEO so we could advise on a new proposal the CEO had for increasing trust of top management. You probably intuit quite well that it’s important for workers and managers to trust the top management of the company. The numbers for NYNEXX at that time (decades ago) had been abysmal several years running. The first year that they reported results, only something like 14% of the workers trusted top management. The numbers were even worse for lower management than for union workers. Top management decided the reason for these terrible results was that people did not know enough about top management and the reasons for their decisions. So, they instituted a plan to TELL people more about why what top management was doing was RIGHT, damn it! They did this for a year and then re-measured the results. Now, the percentage of workers who trusted top management had skyrocketed all the way to about 10%! Wow! In the company rag, which I believe was called The Leader, they reported last year’s numbers, this years numbers, and then said that with all their success, they would continue the program for another year. Huh? Yeah, right? And this was way back when Donald Trump was still merely a racist, misogynistic, unfaithful, bankrupt builder.  


The top NYNEXX management had called in one of the top business consultants on the topic of trust and he related to them the story of Sam Walton. You have to understand that whatever you may think of Sam Walton, Wal-Mart, or the Walton heirs, he was a down to earth, hands-on manager. He would spend half his time riding around in his pick-up truck with his hound dogs in the rear of the truck and go personally to the stores and see how things were going and talk to his store managers. At some point, the business grew so large that it took a long time to get back to every store so they started an hour long conference call each week. Each of his store managers called in to a conference call number and any manager could explain in one minute, a problem that they had encountered and solved. Since each of the store managers might face many of these same problems, this sounded like a very useful exercise in knowledge sharing and organizational learning. Part of the reason it worked as well as it did was no doubt because the managers could relate to Sam Walton. They already trusted him because of all his personal contact and the reputation that arose from that personal contact. I am sure the conference calls served to further enhance mutual trust in the organization as well as provide valuable organizational learning. 

The chief aide from the CEO’s office explained all this to us by way of background. Next, he revealed their “take-away” and plan from the consultant’s consultation. They would do what Sam Walton did! He was trusted! So, now they would be trusted. Well, the design rationale thus exposed caused that same facial expression to appear on my face as when I discover that the jar of garlic-filled olives I was looking forward to consuming is completely encased in a finely feathered grey mold. Why the crinkled nose? Because NYNEXX top execs were nothing like Sam Walton when it came to being content to be “just folks.” They didn’t drive pick-up trucks, but were chauffeured in stretch limos. They didn’t ever wear jeans and a plaid shirt. They wore 3-piece suits. Even in the shower. So, already this plan was showing a serious issue. It seemed to me that it would succeed in about the same degree as my wearing the same brand of shoes that Rafa Nadal wears would enable me to create the same degree of speed and top-spin on my forehand drives that he does. Aside from the much more collegial nature of Walton’s relationship to his employees than our executives enjoyed, the other major difference is that all the Wal-Mart store owners faces at least some similar problems. There was a reason to share information. By contrast, the diversity of contexts and jobs and roles that NYNEXX managers faced was tremendous. Some sold yellow page advertising. Some led AI labs. Some managed repair crews. Some managed coin-counting operations. Still others were in charge of long-distance operators.


At the time, there were about 1000 Wal-Mart stores but there were 70,000 NYNEXX managers, so the top management at my company decided it simply would not do to allow them all to talk; it would be chaos. So, to increase “trust” in top management, all 70,000 NYNEXX managers would leave whatever else they were doing each Friday morning at 9 am and dial in to a conference call and hear the CEO talk at them for a solid hour. So, here’s one dilemma. As a so-called Human Factors Expert, I am supposed to take humans as they are and design to them. But I am sitting in the meeting thinking, “How the hell can adult human beings in management not be smart enough to see what a bad idea this is!” But it’s antithetical to the premises of the field to yield to the temptation to shout that. 

And now the aide approaches the punchline, with this gem. “But we do want to make it interactive. At the very end of the hour, each manager will press one of the keys on their touch tone pad and we’ll record their answers. So, for example, the CEO might talk for an hour about how important it was for each manager to know precisely their job responsibilities. And, then, at the end of the talk, every manager would be told to indicate by touch tone on a ten-point scale how well they knew their job responsibilities.” So, this was the plan. Now, the aide turns to me and says, “So, that’s why we need your help. You’re a human factors expert. Should we have them use the “0” key for ten? Or should we use “9” for the top of the scale and “0” at the bottom? Which one?”

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Here we have an example of a classic dilemma in human-computer interaction. The boss/developer/client/customer asks you a very specific question. You could answer the question, but you know that it is the wrong question. Do you answer their question? Or, do you point out that they’ve asked the wrong question? And, what if you point out that it’s the wrong question and they insist that you answer the question asked, not the one you think they should have asked? I do not think that one answer is correct for all circumstances. How much are you willing to risk? It will depend on culture, for instance, and your circumstances; how much your own boss supports you; how much you care about keeping your current job – and many other factors. Here is what happened in this case: 

I explained to this aide as clearly and calmly as I could that this whole idea sucked big time and why it sucked. No, I didn’t use that term. On the other hand, I probably could have toned down the exasperation in my voice just a tad. But sometimes, a degree of righteous anger is appropriate. It wasn’t simply that this was a bad design. It was a bad design because they had no understanding of how trust is created or any ability to empathize with their 70,000 managers that they were supposed to be leading. So, it’s not clear to me that it was inappropriate to be a bit exasperated. 

The aide’s face grew red. He got a pugnacious look on the front of his head and said, “WELL! When my boss, who by the way, is the CEO, asks me what the best way to do something is, it is my job to tell him the best way, not to tell him it’s a bad idea!” 

To which, I responded, “Well, when my boss asks me which type of chain saw is best for him to use to trim his hair, it’s my responsibility to tell him that a chain saw is a really bad way to cut his hair!” 

It makes me chuckle to recall it, but the aide didn’t find it all that funny. One of my colleagues also pointed out the telephone traffic congestion peak created by having 70,000 people call in simultaneously. We apparently put enough doubt in their collective corporate mind that they ran some focus groups on the idea and it was thankfully never actually implemented. 

Silly ideas like this may soon grow more common and the penalties for pointing out the truth may well grow more severe. We all have to ask ourselves how much we will tell the truth — and how much we will answer the wrong question in order to save our jobs, our ratings, our lives. This is not an issue limited to human factors and user experience. It can happen anywhere when people are put in charge based on something other than experience, expertise and a commitment to excellence. 

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