in Business Design

RealNetworks and The Trap of Binary Thinking

While I was researching my book Why We Fail: Learning from Experience Design Failures I spent some time reading about people’s experience with RealNetworks, particularly the RealPlayer, and wondering if they were worthy of inclusion in the book, particularly the don’t be evil chapter. At that point there was no smoking gun, no hard evidence that Real intentionally did the wrong thing.

But this week a story was published which confirmed my suspicions. It’s called The Graph That Changed Me. Here’s an excerpt:

One day my manager showed me a horrible graph. It was pretty simple: the graph was steady, then it dropped straight down, then after a short period, the line shot straight back up and stayed level again:

Artist’s rendering of why you probably don’t like RealPlayer much
“That’s what happens when we do the right thing”, he said while pointing at the drop, “and that’s how much money we lose. We tried it just to see how bad it was for our bottom line. And this is what the data tells us.”

“Wow,” I said, taken aback. My employer clearly had two options: “do the right thing” or “be profitable”. That was the position they had maneuvered themselves into through a series of bad management decisions.

That “series of bad management decisions” may involve a slippery slope of subtle temptations and minor rationalizations, not one big bad decision to be evil. But having been there I know it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of binary thinking. You can hear it in that story:

two options: “do the right thing” or “be profitable”.

Design thinking is abductive, inventing new options to find new and better solutions to problems. In the universe of all possible businesses, were there more options than just “do the right thing” or “be profitable”? Of course. We just need to be willing to try harder, apply our creativity, and make “do the right thing and be profitable” two constraints of the design problem.