Imagine an online newspaper with all of the articles removed, where the only thing you can read is the comments.
This newspaper already exists. It’s called Facebook.
Facebook started in 2004 as a social network focused on connecting individuals, directly with each other — first, students connecting with fellow students, later anyone connecting with friends and family. It would be three years before Facebook gave organizations an online home through Facebook Pages and another three years before Facebook enabled individuals to make indirect connections through Facebook Groups.
Today, Facebook is still a place for individuals to connect with people they know, but it’s become, partly organically and partly by design, a place to get news and information. It’s not just social, it’s “media”. As Facebook says in its current mission statement, “People use Facebook… to discover what’s going on in the world”.
A look at Facebook’s mission statement over time:
2006: …[to connect] people through social networks at colleges
2008: …to keep up with friends and family, share photos and videos, control privacy online, reconnect with old classmates
2017 to present: …to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.
Often, Facebook users also discover a lot of what’s not actually going on in the world. On any social media like Facebook, misleading or just plain false “news”, especially posts that cause outrage, often go viral. Features like Pages and Groups extend the reach of those drumming up outrage over stolen elections, child-trafficking pedophiles, COVID-causing 5G networks, etc. As we’ve recently witnessed, that slanted information can be dangerous, helping incite individual or mass acts of violence.
When issues surface with the content posted by its users, Facebook’s response has been to remove objectionable content, users, and groups. And Facebook has been slow to do that, long accused of hiding behind the liability shield of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, at least until the riotous aftermath of the 2020 election forced their hand. In addition to sowing controversy, moderating objectionable users and user behavior is inherently limited. It only filters out objectionable discourse — it does not put that discourse in context or introduce countervailing facts.
Facebook should acknowledge that “discovering what’s going on in the world” has become a large enough part of its use, and abuse, to give actual news a home on its platform. By actual news, I mean news written by authors who:
Fortunately for Facebook, there are abundant news sources available that meet these standards. They’re called newspapers, almost all of which are available in digital form. The list of best practices above is excerpted from the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, which helps set journalistic standards in the US.
(Most newspapers publish a combination of news, analysis, and opinion. I have nothing against analysis and opinion pieces (including the one I’ve written here), but in the context of this article I am talking specifically about just-the-facts news.)
Ironically, Facebook calls its main source of user information a News Feed. The News Feed contains user posts, updates from Pages, and (lots of) ads. Facebook’s News Feed doesn’t contain any actual news — but it should.
Facebook has the technical and financial means to source news articles from news organizations abiding by SPJ standards, identify articles relevant to content posted by users in News Feeds and Groups, and post those news articles (or their ledes) alongside relevant user-posted content.
Facebook wouldn’t have to take responsibility for writing or sourcing news that meets commonly accepted journalistic standards — newspapers already do that. Facebook’s primary responsibility would be to identify those newspapers that don’t. I should mention I am not affiliated with any news organization. But I regard the potentially industry-saving revenue stream for traditional news outlets as a positive byproduct of such an arrangement, not just for the press but for a democracy founded on the principle of a free press.
Working with news organizations that abide by journalistic standards, Facebook should publish real news alongside the often false and provocative user posts that are causing so much damage to society. Maybe then Facebook could actually fulfill another part of its mission statement: to “bring the world closer together”.
“I have to do everything myself, and I don’t have time to fix all of this.”
The CEO who said that to me was a successful entrepreneur who had grown his startup into a 25-person marketing company serving hundreds of brands. Our technology gap analysis had turned into more of a venting session about the growing pains he was seeing in his organization. He was losing sleep about his company’s challenges arising from:
A week later I found myself in a similar conversation, this time with a VP of Engineering looking for an outside perspective. By most measures, his 350-person SAAS (Software as a Service) company was a success. But behind the scenes lurked dysfunction common to many companies, especially those that have grown by acquiring other companies. My friend was aware of these issues but was struggling to make a business case that would persuade his fellow executives to address:
What did these executives have in common?
They had accumulated strategic debt.
If “strategy” is how you define and implement a framework for success, strategic debt is what accrues when you neglect the necessary maintenance of that framework.
strategy = framework for success
strategic debt = deferred maintenance of that framework
I often speak with leaders struggling with strategic debt, and I’ve faced it myself: stuck in a cycle of endless meetings, fighting fires, continuously being in reactive mode. Or struggling to get work done across departments, each with their own competing priorities.
As a leader, at one time you may have invested a fair amount of time and thought in your organization’s strategy. Over time, that initial investment loses value. Your original framework for success drifts from the framework your organization needs today. You accumulate strategic debt.
You know you have strategic debt when:
What examples from your organization would you add to that list?
Strategic debt is comprised of the structural inefficiencies and gaps that grow over time by prioritizing short-term needs over long-term needs. Each decision may have been locally optimal — but the accumulation of these decisions suffocates your organization’s ability to perform. That’s because your people/process/priority infrastructure is no longer organized optimally for your current needs.
What gets measured gets managed
Strategic debt can be difficult to address because it is squishy and hard to quantify. To quantify strategic debt you have to measure decision-making and operational performance across the organization over a long period.
Because it’s hard to quantify most strategic debt, it can be hard to justify spending time to address it. But not all strategic debt is hard to quantify. There is a type of strategic debt commonly found in software development that is highly quantified. Not surprisingly, there is also a commonly adopted approach to addressing it.
Even though software development is creative work, that work is typically decomposed into discrete tasks. Software teams estimate each task’s size independently and log their workflow from initiation to completion. They track productivity and efficiency through metrics that are a natural byproduct of this process. (The “Accelerate metrics”, such as deployment frequency and lead time to deploy, are a popular example.)
Because software development workflows are highly quantified, it’s easier to recognize the effect of strategic debt on productivity — the drag as debt accumulates, and the boost with its elimination. In turn, that makes it easier to persuade individuals and organizations to address strategic debt, or as it’s commonly called in technology organizations, “technical debt.”
In fact, the prevalent approach to addressing “technical debt” can be used to address any strategic debt. That approach is to stop addressing strategic debt as a crisis — and allocate a recurring budget for it.
In software development, 15-30% of a team’s capacity is typically reserved for technical debt. An appropriate budget for your organization’s strategic debt may or may not be in that range. Instead of a percentage, your “budget” might be a requirement for managers to include one strategic debt OKR Objective in their quarterly OKRs. However you allot time and resources for strategic debt, what’s important is that your budget is greater than zero.
Let’s say you’ve decided to reserve a budget for your organization’s strategic debt. How can you spend your budget effectively to reduce that debt? Here are some examples:
Also published on CTO Vision.
And What It Tells Me About You as an Entrepreneur
The conventional wisdom about startup pitch decks is that the most important sections are the team and money slides. And the conventional wisdom is not wrong. Research shows that investors spend more time on these slides than any others.
But having met hundreds of startup entrepreneurs (and their pitch decks), I find I can glean a lot of information about you as an entrepreneur from your competitor slide. Here’s what your thoughtful competitive research tells me, as captured in your competitor slide or simply from a conversation with you about your startup’s competitive landscape:
You Do Your Homework
A comprehensive, detailed list of competitors shows me, first and foremost, that you dig in and do your homework. Competitive research is essentially research into how much of your opportunity has already been seized by others, not a topic most entrepreneurs are passionate about immersing themselves in. Your diligence about competitive research tells me that you’re a professional about the less gratifying tasks in an entrepreneur’s portfolio. I can also expect other facets of your strategy will be similarly backed up by substance and attention to detail.
You’re a Realist
If you’re a startup, by definition you are trying to prove your startup hypothesis. Generally speaking, your hypothesis is that customer demand will scale. If you’re really early stage, your hypothesis may be that customer demand exists. Some of the data crossing your desk will be beneficial to your startup hypothesis, and some, such as evidence of a strong competitor, will be detrimental.
How do you handle data that doesn’t favor your business case? Do you filter it out? Do you bury it? Is your head in the sand (or the clouds)? When you share thoughtful research into your competition, including strengths as well as weaknesses, that’s a strong signal the answer is “no”.
You’re Up for a Challenge
There are many bummer days in an entrepreneur’s life. The day you say to yourself about the competitor you just looked into, “Dang, they’ve actually done a pretty good job of this” is one of those days. If you’ve properly identified and acknowledged the competitive pressures facing your startup AND you’re still excited about your prospects, that tells me you’re more likely to be in it for the long haul. Which is a must for any successful entrepreneur.
You’re Not a BS Artist
Entrepreneurs should be able to paint a compelling picture of their startup. I worry if you haven’t. But I also worry how much of that picture is embellished.
When you acknowledge your competitors’ strengths, you give me confidence that you’re not trying to put a positive spin on everything. “We’ve figured out how to design a smart phone people will want to use, unlike those clowns at Apple and Google” — not what I want to hear. Unless I’ve worked with you before, I’m looking for reasons to believe your narrative. Your clear-eyed competitive research is a very good reason.
Your Opportunity is Real
Nobody can be an expert in every domain. Like many others I’m a “T” — shallow in a lot of areas, deep in only a few. I’m probably not an expert in your particular niche and its ecosystem at this moment. I bet most investors aren’t either. More than your idea or your optimistic financial projections, a few minutes looking into your competitor list gives me a quick education on your space, the opportunity, and your (or anybody’s) prospects for success.
Even though I’m a technologist, one of my favorite classes in high school was social studies class junior year, where we debated different sides of an argument (often not the side we started out believing). Competitive research is like a pro/con debate on “I have a great startup idea”. Use it to challenge your assumptions. Your startup strategy and execution, as well as your pitch deck, will be the better for it.
This post is also featured on The Startup. It was originally published on Shulman Rogers NEXT.