Bad news should travel faster than good news

I love this phrase. It was a core principle of Rob Glaser’s at RealNetworks, and I think I must say it to myself or repeat it to someone nearly every day. It’s simple, true, and universal. It applies to work, life, relationships, everywhere.  It’s a core principle that cements the relationship with my partners.

I also love noticing how other people have internalized this principle. The CEO of one of my companies is an incredibly experienced and pragmatic executive who articulates the essence of this phrase another way: that bad news and good news are just different types of data, and just data.  You can’t make good, sound decisions with only half the data. In fact, you will consistently make poor decisions with half the data.

She creates a culture on her teams of “no cost to sharing bad news, and the more rapidly the better”. There’s a second-order benefit too. By treating bad news as data, you build trust within the team, and you shift the focus off the news, and onto what can be done, and how should the team or person respond.  This is easy to say, and really, really hard to put into action.

It also helps you appreciate good news more lucidly. When an executive only tells me what’s working well, the great forecast, the customer wins, part of my mind spins up, wondering “what’s he/she not telling me, because nothing ever goes well all the time.” It gradually deafens my ability to listen to the good news.

Conversely, when someone walks me through what’s gone wrong or what he/she is struggling with, when we get to the good news, I listen so much more closely, because it’s so much more credible. It also tells me a lot about the executive. I know I’m having a real conversation, that I’m not being sold to. 

But this isn’t just about work, it’s about life.  For example, putting into action with your children follows a similar trajectory.  Once my children entered school, and report cards started coming home, we applied the same approach the CEO at my company has with her team.  My children have been told that “this is just a collection of data that will help you and us understand where you need to apply your attention in the next grading period” and “Let’s not focus on the grade itself, but on whether you and we feel you’re working to your potential”. 

My two oldest are in 10th and 8th grade now, where grades matter a lot, and not surprisingly these two children respond quite differently to reviewing “the data”.  The oldest has found it easier to respond matter-of-factly while her younger brother has been less comfortable engaging in a discussion.  There are some likely “birth order” effects going on here, but those aside, he’s struggled to not be defensive…and it’s not about raw intelligence; both of them are at or near the tops of their classes.

So, last month when reviewing the interim grade reports, my son’s math grade had really taken a tumble, it was clear that he was struggling.  But he so didn’t want to examine why.  He wanted to focus on the courses where he was doing well, and pushed back in ways only a 14 year-old can do about applying some objective scrutiny on the basis of his math grade.  But, I guess he listened more than I realized.

A few days later, he walks up to me and says “I’ve got a big math test coming up, and I think I need help with some of this, I just don’t get it.”  We spent the next two nights working together going through the finer points of the standard, point-slope, and slope-intercept formulas with him. 

It was a lot of work, but the transformation was palpable.  He seemed to have turned this corner and saw/felt the benefit of not judging the data, but using it.  By the time we were done, he was confident and relaxed for his test, and he did just fine, better than he expected.

Then again, of course he did, he got to look at all the data.

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3 Responses to “Bad news should travel faster than good news”

  1. » Thanks to TechFlash for the pointer | One Big Idea Says:

    […] Open Ambition: “Bad news should travel faster than good news” […]

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  2. Lots of low cost experiments « Open Ambition Says:

    […] The key is understanding where in your business you can afford to routinely experience failure, and where failure has more costly significance.  You need internal processes that measure performance, coupled with a culture that has a pretty solid foundation of trust – where anyone and everyone feels comfortable taking a risk, and reporting the results as data.  I wrote on this earlier, it’s a culture where bad news has got to travel faster than good news. […]

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  3. Alyson Button Stone Says:

    Peter, you would love my boss (the CEO of 1000 Markets). He is building a great company on principles I have read in two of your blog posts. He is a person who puts professional and personal ethics above all (see Entellium post) and is also always encouraging his team to risk failure and know that it’s okay to have setbacks.

    You know, other bosses I have had in the past have said things like that, but they haven’t really meant it–haven’t really carried through on tolerating experimentation unless it was practically guaranteed to work.

    As an employee, it makes such a difference to how you see your role in the Company when you have the feeling that the boss “has your back.” I come to this job relatively late in my working life, and I am so glad to see that you applaud this outlook of facing down demons head-on. It’s a liberating way to lead. I did it as a parent and it was so effective. Why not in business, too?

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