Change Agent - Issue 46

"The new culture of criticism is hurting you and your company."

According to the New York City Parks Department, there are more than 1,800 statues in the Big Apple. Famous American generals. Brilliant international poets. There's even a statue of Gandhi. But extensive research has shown that there isn't one single statue honoring the memory of a critic.

Is it just me or has criticism gotten a little out of hand? A visit to the Permission Marketing page on Amazon.com shows that my book has received more than 85 reviews. Some of them are from people who haven't even read the book. (I suspect some of them may be from people who haven't read any book.) Virtually all of the reviews (as with most book reviews) either give my book one star or five. People either praise the thing to the skies or dimiss it as a "piece of trash."

Of course, it's not just Amazon -- which recently started honoring its most prolific critics -- that is suddenly overflowing with expert commentary. Epinions.com is devoted to nothing but criticism. And there are literally thousands of bulletin boards filled with vitriolic commentary on just about everything from companies to politics.

Is all of this criticism a good thing? At first, the democratization of feedback was terrific. After all, other than a great haircut and an immodest mustache, what credentials does Gene Shalit have to review a movie on television?

But, as criticism starts to proliferate, it creates a lot of noise. Rex Reed and Roger Ebert had a lot of impact because when they started, there were just a few voices. But now, in order to cut through the clutter of criticism, you've got to yell to be heard. And that yelling can get pretty nasty.

Here are five ways to be an unfair critic:

Speak in absolutes. That film you saw last night is, of course, "the worst movie I've ever seen in my life." Heap as much negative thought into one sentence as possible.

Criticize not just the item in question but the background of the person or company responsible as well. If you can point out how much you disliked something else from this source, by all means do so. Inclusion only compounds derision.

Criticize the motivation of the creator. Maybe he's doing it just for the money. Maybe he has some sort of secret political agenda. Better yet, the person behind the creation is certainly some kind of "wannabe" -- a Robert Redford wannabe or perhaps a Tom Peters wannabe. In any event, "wannabe" is a great general put-down. Add 10 points to your critic's score.

Criticize the taste and judgment of anyone who disagrees with your criticism. An enemy of your criticism is your enemy -- and needs to be criticized. Feel free to turn your enemy's criticism back on him -- and score extra points if you use his own words against him.

Make threats in your criticism. Possibilities include threats to "tell everyone" or to destroy the reputation or property of the person you are criticizing. Alternatively, you can claim that you were threatened -- and that the vituperation of your criticism is only one measure of your unwillingness to bow to threats.

Now, don't get the wrong idea: I'm not hoping that you'll feel sorry for me and for the thousands of other authors and product creators who regularly see their work criticized by uneducated, anonymous teenagers with a complexion problem (not that it bothers me, of course; I'm not thin-skinned). But the new culture of criticism is hurting you and your company.

Why is it that as soon as a company becomes successful, it ceases to innovate? How is it that the founders of a company seemingly forget, just a few years after they've founded their breakthrough venture, that it was an innovation that got them there? They didn't achieve success by worrying about doing the same old thing out of fear of criticism; they achieved it by being willing to take a risk and break the rules.

So here they are: the three criticism curses that make companies put the breaks on innovation (and worse, put their best employees -- the innovators -- on the defensive):

Successful companies fear external criticism.

Successful innovators are more subject to harsh criticism.

The newer, less innovative employees have carte blanche to criticize the innovators unfairly.

Did you ever notice that critics are more likely to be harsh to movies and books that come with high expectations? Ask for a list of the worst movies ever made, and people will mention Waterworld, Ishtar, or some other big-budget spectacular. Surely, these movies aren't as bad as some $100,000 exploitation flick made in Tallahassee, Florida over a long weekend. Yet we're quick to assault them because we're so certain that the folks who squandered all of that money deserve our harsh assessment.

Stephen King launches his second online e-book, and it is downloaded by only about 150,000 people. Rather than laud his bravery and insight, or comment on a writer of his stature demonstrating a willingness to take a risk, people want to know why the e-book didn't receive a million downloads. The Wall Street Journal runs a snide paragraph or two suggesting that Mr. King might be better off waiting for a big corporation to back him next time. After all, this is Stephen King, and thus the critics expect instant success.

This external criticism doesn't just go after individuals, of course. When 3M launches a sequel to the Post-it, or priceline.com unveils a new service, our expectations are set very high indeed. This is partially due to all of the hype: Hype attracts criticism the way that horses attract flies. And when the product inevitably doesn't meet those expectations, we're ready to slaughter it.

It's this sort of mind-set that allows someone to get off an on-time flight from New York to San Francisco, having just flown first class (using frequent-flier miles), and bitterly complain that the nuts weren't warm enough. Success means that the critics lose perspective. Success means that nothing is good enough.

At your company, this probably means that even though there are countless ways to take your early successes and leverage them into new successes, senior management is afraid to do so. They're afraid to take the risk of being criticized by customers, competitors, or Wall Street: "We can't do that. We might fail!"

If Microsoft is good at anything, it's avoiding this trap. Microsoft fails constantly. The company is eviscerated in public for lousy products. Yet its people persist, through version after version, until they get something that's good enough. And then they can leverage the power that they've gained in other markets to enforce their standard. Most companies don't get the chance to dominate one market after another. Why not? Because they never went through the steps to build the power; they're afraid. Back in the beginning, when they had nothing to lose, it was easy to launch some big-time innovation. But not now.

Why did all of the retail giants fall to Wal-Mart? Why is Kraft so far behind in organic, nonengineered foods? Why did CBS wait years and years before launching much of anything on cable or the Net? Because market leaders are afraid.

The second criticism effect is the fear that top management (often the original innovators) has of being personally criticized. This is a fear that successful authors and actors have to deal with all the time. When people become associated with an idea or a company (especially an idea or a company that the public loves and respects), the stakes get higher. Not only will those people be open to even greater criticism, but they also may lose the asset that they've built and now treasure: the respect and devotion of the public.

Do you think that Larry Ellison or Steve Jobs or Tom Clancy or Julia Roberts wants to make a product that might flop? Not likely. It's about more than the money for these folks. It's about the aura of wisdom and insight that they've created. Approach one of these people with a daring new idea, and you're going to face quite a challenge getting it implemented.

But it's the last sort of criticism that makes it so difficult for successful companies to innovate. Whether you work for Ben & Jerry's or JC Penney or Toyota or Wal-Mart, your company is going to be staffed with people who are unfair -- and harsh -- critics of your new idea. And by the way, that's any new idea, almost anytime.

Why?

Because as companies mature and grow, they are far more likely to hire people to do jobs, as opposed to hiring people who figure out how to change their jobs for the better. And those people are there because they embrace the status quo. They like their jobs. That's why they took them.

As a result, whatever you want to change at your company has to be unfairly compared with whatever is happening there now. And the comparison goes like this: The worst possible outcome of what you're proposing must be better than the best possible outcome of what we're doing now.

I've sat through some meetings that were absolutely surreal. Someone proposes an email campaign that could dramatically increase a company's profitability and market share at the same time that it would decrease customer-service costs. Then the VP of customer service says, "But what about the people who want to call us and end up getting this email instead? What about them?" Now, simple math would show that she's talking about a tiny fraction of the audience. Worse, a quick audit would show that virtually everyone who calls in is upset about being put on hold for so long. So, while your proposal might offend a few customers, the critic ignores the thousands of customers who end up way happier.

I'm not proposing that you run off and try whatever crazy idea pops into your head, ignoring constructive criticism that can make it better. I am asking, though, that when attending a meeting, follow these three rules:

Criticize an idea based on how well it meets its objectives. If you don't like the objectives, criticize those separately.

Fairly compare the idea to the status quo, warts and all. No fair accepting your current problems just because you already have them.

If you don't like the idea, it's your job to come up with something better by Friday. No solution is not a solution.

Oh, and one last thing. If you're planning to write a review on Amazon, please remember what I learned from my grandmother: "If you don't have anything nice to say.... "

Seth Godin (sgodin@fastcompany.com) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers (Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000). Get his latest book free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).

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