On Rumors

I often get people asking about this or that rumor.  Invariably my response is, “I’m sure it is true but I wouldn’t worry about it”.  This blog explains that perspective and has nothing to do with any specific rumor.  I hope it will help reduce your anxiety the next time you find yourself confronted with a wave of rumors.

Rumors in the workplace are as common in corporate America as conference rooms and coffee machines.  Sometimes there are more and sometimes there are fewer but, like the poor, they are with us always.  When I started in the business, I got pretty wrapped up in the rumor trade, cultivating good sources, tracking the latest gossip and even trying to read the tea leaves (“Did you notice who sat next to whom at that meeting?”).  I got excited when rumors were positive about things that affected me and upset when their future was uncertain.  Most of us don’t like change as it brings uncertainty so rumors can be a source of distraction and frustration.  I’d worry about my career, my paycheck, my ability to pay the mortgage and stay in our house.  As I advanced in my career and got to be more involved with senior leaders in their decision making process, I gained a different perspective on rumors.  I thought I would share that perspective with you so that it might help reduce the associated anxiety and allow you can avoid wasting time, energy or emotion when the next rumor comes your way.

Fact: Most rumors are true.

Yup, that’s right, most rumors are true.  Even when the rumors contradict each other they are true.  The reason for this is that most rumors are of the form, “X is considering doing Y“.  The key is the word is considering.  Well guess what?  That is the job of leaders and executives – they consider.  We constantly consider as many possibilities and scenarios as possible and then game out our options, potential responses and probable outcomes for the business and the people involved.  Sometimes those possibilities and scenarios are positive ones but for those of us in the Andy Grove, “Only the Paranoid Survive” camp, we usually game out the worst-case scenarios.

  • Maybe we should go big in this area and increase engineering by 30 heads, where would we cut to free 30 heads and what that do to our business?”
  • “Maybe we should move x to/from another group for greater synergies, what are the issues?”
  • “Next year we going to have a larger/smaller budget for heads/contractors/hardware/…, come up with a list of possible things we could do to respond and then let’s consider a set of factors that we’ll judge those scenarios against and prioritize accordingly.”
  • “What would we do if our suppliers pursued a forward-integration strategy?”
  • “Maybe we should get out of that business and sell off our engineers for medical experiments – check the spot price of kidneys.”

Great leaders constantly consider a wide set of options – that is core to being a leader.

The next thing to understand is that great leaders use fence-posting.  Fence-posting (or limit-testing) is when you take parameters to the extremes to force a hard conversation and uncover the underlying physics of a situation or principles that you will use when solving a problem.  For example, every organization deals with the issue, “we need to reduce X by Y% next year“.  When Y is a realistic number (which is generally relatively small), it is easy to avoid the hard conversation by peanut-buttering the cut.  This is where you spread out the cut, reducing everything by a little.  This makes it easy to deal with pushback from your people.  You can easily defend your decision by saying that everyone has to tighten their belts a little and no one was spared from the sacrifice.  Sometimes this is the right thing to do but often it is better to cut something entirely which potentially frees up additional resources which can then be used to strengthen the remaining projects.  The way you get to that conversation is by fence-posting.  You ask the question, “What would we do if the request was to reduce X by 2Y or 3Y or 5Y next year?”   When an executive throws that question to their staff, you get a pretty engaged and creative conversation.  Fence-posting forces people to get clear and crisp about their priorities.  Once you have those in focus, you can bring them to bear responding to the actual situation.

Fence-posting is a great planning technique but just consider its effect on the rumor mill.  During fenceposting you consider a wide range of dramatic options but in the end, you typically end up doing something pretty undramatic.  That said, when portions of the conversation get retold to people who were not involved, rumors spread like wildfire.  Imagine the anxiety you’d have if you heard your management chain was considering selling you off for medical experiments!  You’d be crazy not to be concerned.  And yes – the rumors will be true – they did consider doing all those things.  They just didn’t do them.

I heard that during the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy had a group of people study whether to engage in an all-out first strike nuclear war against the USSR.  They considered it and came back and recommended against it and obviously that recommendation was accepted.  Some people hear this and are totally freaked out – “WHAT? We considered initiating a nuclear war?!?“.   Having been a leader for a while and attended lots of brainstorming sessions, I heard this and my reaction was, “Sure – that only makes sense.  I’m glad that they considered the options and I’m they didn’t do it.”

So in the end, it is hard not to get engaged when you hear a rumor that affects your project but if and when it happens, take it with a grain of salt.  It is probably true that people considered that as well as a range of other options but they probably won’t happen either.  Wild rumors could really just be a sign of a healthy, vibrant decision making process.  Of course they could also be a sign of a random feckless management team.  One way or the other, you are generally best off reminding yourself that leaders consider a wide range of choices and trying to ignore the rumor and focus on your job and then adjusting if/when a change is made.  It is hard to do but it is worthy trying.

3 thoughts on “On Rumors

  1. Here is an example of my point.

    I can guarantee you that all the countries involved are planning what to do if the Euro collapses. Even if they are 100.0% committed to doing whatever it takes to save the Euro – they STILL need to be planning what to do if it collapses. Do to anything else would be malfeasance. Of course the probably means that some aren’t doing it. 🙂

    Jeffrey Snover

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