“Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later that debt is paid.”
-- Valery Legasov, chief of the commission investigating the Chernobyl disaster, in HBO’s Chernobyl
Here’s a description of a company that may sound familiar:
Behind the efforts of an intuitive, dynamic leadership team who is excellent at selling, the company enjoys early growth, enough to invite substantial investment or acquisition.
The new shareholders are excited, they expect growth to accelerate when their cash infusion is put to work. They believe the likelihood of a substantial return on their investment is strong.
But expectations are not met.
The sales team is reporting a slowdown in their pipeline. Not only are they closing fewer deals, but marketing is sending them fewer prospects.
Marketing and sales look at the product team and say, “Tell me you have something exciting on your road map for us to sell!” The reply is a litany of optimizations to their existing product. Marketing has little confidence that these iterations will generate interest from new customers. Product agrees and laments that the executive team asked them to prioritize the low-hanging fruit.
Together, the teams march to the c-suite with a compelling argument for a research budget.
Sales says, “We don’t have anyone that’s excited to make a purchase.”
Marketing says, “Our lead gen rate is declining.”
Product says, “We’ve optimized our product but it doesn’t seem to make a difference.”
They say they need to find out what customers are really looking for. They want to know if they have product/market fit and the slowdown is a blip on the radar or if they need to innovate their messaging or product or both. The research will give them evidence.
“You don’t need that!” says the CEO who spearheaded the early growth, “I sold our product to our existing customers. They are your proof! It’s impossible that there aren’t more people who need our product. You just need to turn their light bulbs on!”
Three months later, the trends have not reversed and the conversation repeats itself. This time the executive team is open to research because now the board is on their case to accelerate growth and is questioning the current plan. They have their own pressures to generate a return on their investment.
The CEO approves the research but says, “Make sure you include our existing customers and warm leads in the research.”
When the results come back, the product team points to research subjects that say, “We are not focused on the problem you solve; we have no budget to address it; it’s really not an issue for us.” The product team’s interpretation is, “we better go find another problem to solve that is pressing.”
The CEO points to the small sample of existing customers and warm leads and says, “But what about these people? They are validating that our current plan is the right one. Stay the course.”
Six months later, there is a new CEO.
The quote at the beginning of this post refers to the USSR’s alleged culture of prioritizing their global reputation above the truth. That culture trickled-down to the staff of the Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Plant at Chernobyl.
The show opens in the aftermath of an explosion in the plant’s reactor core. The management on duty refuses to believe that the reactor has exploded in spite of all evidence to the contrary. As the staff reports evidence of the explosion to management, the denials continue.
Here’s how Craig Mazin (Chernobyl’s screenwriter and showrunner) writes one particularly stark moment of denial. In this scene (p. 46 of the screenplay), Sitnikov works for Dyatlov, the manager on-call during the explosion.
SITNIKOV: I walked around the exterior of building 4. I think there's graphite. In the rubble.
DYATLOV: You didn't see graphite.
SITNIKOV: I did.
DYATLOV: You didn't. YOU DIDN'T. Because it's NOT THERE
The only way for graphite to get to the exterior of the building is for the reactor core to explode. However, built correctly, it would have been “impossible” for the reactor core to explode. An explosion would indicate that someone had made a mistake and done their job poorly. In the Soviet culture, it was more important to appear flawless than to own-up to the mistake and fix the problem.
In fact, we learn later in the series (SPOILER ALERT!), that the plant was built incorrectly. Because of a design flaw and a poor choice of materials, the failsafe mechanism that would have enabled the Chernobyl staff to shut the plant down and avoid the explosion, did not work. Even worse, Soviet physicists and officials were aware of the flaw, but hid it.
Hiding the truth caused tens of thousands of deaths according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, with a study later conducted by Greenpeace that estimated an additional 10,000 - 200,000 deaths in the years following.
Eventually, the truth bore out.
Organizations that operate from a place of fear, whose leaders reinforce their own beliefs and whatever will make them look good, rather than leading the search for truth, sit on a ticking time bomb.
It can be scary to admit mistakes and take the sometimes drastic actions to correct them. What will your boss think? What will your team think when they find out that they’ve been working against an exhausted plan?
Most likely, they will be happy you’ve realized it’s time to change directions. Often the last person to realize a plan has lived out its useful life is the very person who devised it. Everyone else already knows.
It’s important to go out and figure out what your true market is, how big it is, and whether or not your current product can seize the opportunities in it. The market and the truth will always win. And no matter how much you love your product for helping you get that early growth, your customers don’t want it. They want to get their job done.
You know what’s more expensive than doing the research to identify your customer’s unmet needs in their job-to-be-done? Continuing to market the wrong message and sell the wrong product.
You know what’s worse than owning up to incorrect assumptions? Dealing with the fallout.