INTERVIEW – If we truly believe lean can change society, then we should use it as a lens through which to look into different aspects of our lives – even when those associations are hard to make. This month, we discuss the world of media.
Interviewee: Michael Ballé, lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France
Interviewer: Roberto Priolo, Managing Editor, Planet Lean
Roberto Priolo: In the past couple of decades, the media has changed beyond recognition – a transformation that became even more evident with the arrival of social media. In the 24-hour news cycle, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish between news and entertainment. When it comes to information, have we lost our True North? What is value for customers in this context?
Michael Ballé: Sensationalism is nothing new. Murder, mayhem and mudslinging were bread and butter to the 19th-century press and scandal fueled much of its development. Some would argue that jingoistic newspapers pushed European nations into World War 1. Similarly, radio was an enabler for Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s – while also allowing de Gaulle to lead France from exile or Franklin Delano Roosevelt to deliver his “fireside chats”. TV spread the American middle-class dream to the world during the Cold War. Now we have social media and, every time humans invent a new mass communication media, things happen. The dust hasn’t settled yet on this new one, so it’s too soon to know what its real impact will be.
People have always wanted to be titillated (who can resist looking at the “personal life” section in Wikipedia articles?). People also want truthful information (even if it’s hard to swallow when it goes against preconceived beliefs) and, to some degree, a deeper understanding of the issues in the world around them. True, social media seems to privilege unfounded opinions rather than deep thinking – but people have always wanted that, if not just that.
Lean’s vision is that of turning everyone into a problem solver by fostering deeper thinking and asking “why?” until one surfaces the hidden mechanisms that underlay events. Not surprisingly, the click-bait aspect of social media might feel to many like a step in the wrong direction. Quick conclusions, memes, and even Medium articles are not much use to deepen one’s thinking – you’ve got to read through a book and follow the author’s logic to actually grok it and assimilate it with your own views.
As often is, value to customers is hard to narrow down to one thing because it’s contextual: the same person will enjoy being entertained by a juicy piece of gossip at one moment and being informed with real facts the next, and then spend some time mulling issues they’re interested in by reading in-depth publications, such as industry journals or books. Yes, social media is currently driving communication to quick-and-superficial rather than deep and fact-checked, but it’s early days yet and we don’t know what the younger Internet native generations are going to do with the tools they are given.
RP: Personally, despite the plethora of news channels we can choose from, I don’t feel like the general public is necessarily more informed than before. Covid-19 is the latest example: we have been bombarded with numbers and information for months now, yet actually understanding what’s happening is harder than one thinks. Is there such a thing as too much information? We know there is in companies. Lean teaches us it’s important to provide the right information to people at the right time. Thoughts?
MB: I suspect the 24-hour news cycle is the problem here. To catch the public’s attention, broadcasters have to 1) say something every day and 2) differentiate from the rest of what is said that day – without having the time or the resources to do in-depth research or groundwork. It looks like old-time reporters, with sources and interviews notes, are being replaced by web crawlers.
Social media shifted the media away from content and towards connections. This makes it more captivating because of its relentless “read me” appeal, but the downside is information bubbles – all media in one category tend to converge very quickly to a consensus view, and then change it just as fast. This is why, as users, we find it confusing. It’s not that they all say something different (very few people read a broad spectrum of opinions); it’s more that they all say one thing one day and another the next.
In cybernetics terms, this creates a phenomenon called thrashing: information arrives faster than the system can change. As a result, we feel overwhelmed and rather than analyze the underlying mechanisms, we throw in our lot with one action or the next, just to do something. Increased connection should have opened up an area of diverse intelligible points of view, but so far the opposite seems to be happening: we protect ourselves from constant change by hanging on to our opinions and finding facts or ideas that justify them on the web.
The lean lesson to look at information flows is all the more vital: what information do you need to decide things concretely? Where does it come from? How do you structure your information flows? Personally, I tend to look for professional articles that I don’t understand fully but that give me a better idea of where to look for credible information.
In my mind, to counterbalance the non-stop, addictive nature of social media we need to deliberately design our information flows. For instance, most of the successful lean leaders I know are great readers (and sharers) of books – anything that gives your mind, the reaction machine, a pause and lets you consider things more deeply.
RP: Another fairly recent phenomenon is that of “citizen journalism”. While it’s great to empower the individual and encourage them to document what’s happening and develop critical thinking, there is a question about the role of the experts in all this. Lean gives everyone a voice, but does it mean everyone can or should be an expert?
MB: Giving a voice to the voiceless has been a major step forward. One of lean’s big fights is to make organizations customer-centric as opposed to institution-centric (doing all we can to preserve the organization as it currently is). In very practical terms, large outfits have woken up to the power of a negative Google or Twitter review and are now paying a lot more attention to what customers actually say. Social movements such as Occupy Wall Street, MeToo, Climate Strikes or Black Lives Matter exist because people can document what they see first-hand and share it easily. Anyone has an opportunity to form an opinion and comment – what you make of what they say is up to you.
Very quickly, powerful organizations or groups found that it was easier to deal with the messaging than to actually respond to criticism by actually fixing the problem (to be fair, they had a good previous practice with marketing), which has accelerated the contest of narratives and storytelling rather than fact-finding. Oddly, empowering individuals has also allowed Big Business to spin shamelessly with the hope that in-depth reporting would be drowned in the confusion – which often happens. This is true until tipping point events (completely unpredicted and unpredictable) shift the debate one way or the other.
The second unexpected drawback of opening media platforms to individual opinions is the surprising extent to which human beings are fascinated by the rich and powerful. Rather than look for facts or explanations, it’s human nature to look to high-visibility personalities and listen to what they have to say about it regardless of whether they are competent on the topic. This has pushed politicians away from the insider/deal-maker ideal towards the media star strongman type – which is manifestly bad news. Truth is many, many people actively seek authoritarian leaders only to suffer the consequences, and rarely link one to the other. Clearly, some painful lessons from World War 2 are being forgotten.
The thing about experts is that they tend to be very good at explaining the current situation and rather bad at predicting what happens next. Groups of well-informed curious people are noticeably better at predicting evolutions. In this respect, lean is very useful because it teaches you to focus on a consensus on the problem – not solutions. This simple reframe allows you to hear various opinions with curiosity without trying to draw any definitive conclusions just yet. Understanding situations as problems takes you away from habitual thinking and empowers you to think for yourself and forge your own understanding of confusing, changing messes. It’s a lean trick you learn through practice, and it’s really useful in the current environment.
RP: Every industry is at risk of being disrupted. The media has been disrupted too, like you said, by social media platforms taking the world by storm. Not only have newspapers and magazines often had to accelerate their move to digital, but the content they now provide caters more and more to social media users with (it is said) a short attention span. Yet, the media has a vital role to play in society and a clear responsibility. What needs to change in the mass-media world? Can lean help?
MB: I was reading the other day about how old Hollywood is being disrupted by streaming and how film bosses are being replaced by Silicon Valley executive. Clearly, the disruption is far from over. And yes, new content providers like Quibi are going for shorter and faster. But I’m not sure attention span is actually shorter – this is precisely the kind of idea that floats around the web because it makes intuitive sense for which there is, however, little empirical evidence. What has happened for sure is a vast increase of attention-seeking content. People are quicker to judge whether this is interesting or not.
A great part of the content on offer now barely merits more than a glance. The evolution is very clear in books. The pressure on price has made publishers get rid of their editing staff and all the various professions that made a book a good book – not a collection of Linkedin posts. Many books I read now are made to be skimmed through – I’m happy to read a long, difficult interesting book, it’s just that I don’t come across so many.
From a lean point of view, the issue here is one of line-up. Toyota drove GM to bankruptcy because GM kept retreating away from difficult segments like small cars to juicy segments like SUVs. Toyota pursued them not by rationalizing their line-up but by extending it (and having the flexibility not to carry the inventory penalty most mass-manufacturers accumulate). People want different things. More to the point, the same person will want different things at different times.
Some publications, such as The New Yorker, have retained readers’ attention with long, researched, thoughtful pieces, just as some others have become meme-machines. You certainly have done a great job of keeping Planet Lean both informative and thought inspiring. I believe the current danger is more in assuming that one model is winning on another – this is far from clear, but shoot-from-the-hip decision-making is back in fashion along with the rest of social media impact (mostly caused, in my opinion, not by a wealth of channels, but as conflicting messages in the same channels).
The real challenge for the media is the same as for every other industry: dealing with an acceleration in fashion thinking. Back in the 1990s, management fashions used to last four to six years. These days, ideas come and go every quarter, so fast it’s become hard to keep track. A new feature born of the Internet is that everything printed is still on hand, at all times, so rather than pass from one fashionable approach to the other, all methods are available in parallel. This combined with the quick and contradictory changes in opinion of the 24-hour news cycle makes it very difficult to orient. In this context, what lean offers is to go back to the gemba, see first-hand and think for yourself rather than getting caught up in the apparent consensus on this or that.
Yes, thoughtful content is competing with brainless, titillating gossip. But then again, it always has, although maybe not so close to each other on our mental shelf. My Twitter feed, for instance, can spit at me an in-depth piece and then the silliest cat video – side by side, which makes it confusing. Yes, content pieces will have to work to be more riveting. But ultimately, I believe our core issue is learning to manage our own information feed better. Most of us grew up with established channels feeding us what to think – now we have to deal with real freedom, and the need to choose who to listen to. We have an opportunity to pull the news we want and we should make the most of it! You could imagine drawing your own MIFA map of which news you need to decide what, rather than idly browse your habitual social media.
There is no debate that surprise and smut are part of the attractiveness of social media, and one can easily glide from one tweet to the next, one post to the next, being entertained and purposeless. But if we’re serious about our information needs, this is a very poor strategy. With a bit of clever media source engineering, we can quickly improve our incoming information flows.
Yet a deeper problem is that facts without theory don’t deliver understanding. Our challenge is to teach our kids to think for themselves by alternating between facts, context and theory. Facts need to be put in context to be meaningful, context needs to be looked at with a theory to make sense. Then theory and context can be confronted again to more facts – true understanding rises from the interplay of facts, theory and context – and for adults, first-hand experimentation. This is what good teachers do in class, blend facts context and theory into “I get it!”’ moments. Social media side-steps this mental hard work because it delivers ready-to-consume conclusions (advice, opinions, statements, etc.) The mind works as a muscle – you need to practice to have it work seamlessly. Reasoning needs daily practice, and social media is a cop out, where you give your mind the illusion it is learning things when it is in fact just spectating. I fear we have a real learning challenge on our mind – not learning new facts, but the disciplined process of willful learning and deep understanding. In this respect, the lean approach to problem solving and learning is incredibly useful. Asking “why?” a second, then a third time to look for root causes is never spontaneous – it has to be learned.
Michael Ballé is a lean author, executive coach and co-founder of Institut Lean France.