Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Trust In Process, Not People

Even if we've moved on from the "Great Man Theory" of history, the very human desire for simple stories with clear protagonists continues to affect us today.

I was reminded of this fact by a Fast Company story on how Jeff Bezos and Amazon designed and launched the (at this point) unsuccessful Amazon Fire Phone.  Austin Carr (presumably not the former professional basketball player) wrote a fascinating, carefully-reported piece on how Bezos drove the project, and the (apparent) mistakes he made along the way, such as demanding a premium phone with innovative technology like Dynamic Perspective, as opposed to building a "value" product.

(I'm hedging all of my descriptions because, regardless of the thesis of this essay, I'm still terrified that Bezos will somehow make the Fire Phone a monster success and make me look as ridiculous as the analysts who predicted the iPhone would flop.  That's how much I respect his abilities.)

There's a particularly telling passage that describes how the Fire Phone team was skeptical about Bezos' chosen product direction, but felt they had to give him the benefit of the doubt:

"When it came to the Fire Phone, says one former product lead, "Yes, there was heated debate about whether it was heading in the right direction. But at a certain point, you just think, ‘Well, this guy has been right so many times before.’"
Therein lies the mistake that most of us (including me) are guilty of committing.  We focus on the people, rather than the process that they follow.  Focusing on people just feels good and right--there's a reason we make movies about heroes, and not macroeconomic forces.

When someone has made as many good decisions as Jeff Bezos, we assume that he is a good decision-maker, as opposed to thinking that he follows a good decision-making process.  Yet even geniuses can make mistakes, especially when swelling overconfidence causes them to believe in their own omniscience.

Smart people are especially prone to this mistake--just ask any Hacker News reader who believes he knows the answers to the world's problems, or any technology tycoon who believes he knows more about journalism than its practitioners.  Even the late, great Steve Jobs, perhaps the greatest business savant Silicon Valley has ever known, probably cost himself years if not decades of healthy life by opting to treat his cancer with an all-fruit diet rather than surgery.

Evaluate ideas based on evidence, not provenance.  Just as "because science" isn't a valid explanation, neither is "because Bezos," "because Jobs," or any other such invocation of sainted authority.