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Chief Reality Officers: Who are They and Why Do we Need Them

If there’s one thing we can all agree about the tech industry is that it moves pretty fast. That’s why we constantly hear about new job titles such as DevOps engineer, Brand Evangelist and even Chief Happiness Officer. I’d like to propose adding one more role to this mess — behold, the Chief Reality Officer!
The main role of the CRO is to constantly be in touch with reality and remind everyone else of its existence.
I’ll try to illustrate what CROs do with a few examples.
Imagine a new feature is being launched and the adoption rate is well below expectations. The company’s open-space office is immediately filled with multiple theories explaining the low adoption rate and at least one “I told you so”. However, the CRO is the only one that thinks of reaching out to users that haven’t completed the activation funnel. Note that the CRO isn’t a UX researcher.
He didn’t necessarily master the delicate art of qualitative research — he simply thought of talking to people to have a better sense of reality.
Here’s another example. A support ticket comes in one day reporting a bug. Turns out that’s not actually a bug, but a feature that isn’t supported on the Internet Explorer browser. The support ticket is closed and no one thinks of challenging the company’s assumption that no one uses Internet Explorer anymore.
No one except the CRO, that finds out 30% of users actually do use Internet Explorer. Again, note that the CRO isn’t a Product Analyst. He isn’t necessarily a “numbers guy” that can create fancy charts — he simply wanted to check the common assumption.
By now you might be asking yourself — isn’t CRO just a fancy title for common sense? Why, yes. Yes it is, but let me ask you right back — how come common sense is so rare? The examples above actually happened and involved a bunch of highly intelligent people in 2 successful startups. In both cases, almost no one considered checking in with reality. Why is that?
Two reasons come to mind. One is related to the nature of software companies in general and the second one is about startups in particular.
Software companies differ from, say, ice-cream shops, in that it sells bits not atoms. When an ice-cream shop comes up with the great idea of a “cold pizza” flavored ice-cream, the people who work in that shop can immediately see the faces clients make when they first try out this new flavor.
At the end of the day, they have to physically throw out an almost-full container of ice-cream no one wanted. For them, reality is unavoidable. It’s right there in front of their eyes. That is not the case for people who work in software.
Nothing happens in their immediate perceived reality when a user walks away from the product with disgust.
I realize that explanation may sound overly simplistic, since software companies are filled with highly intelligent people that mastered object permanence many years ago and can easily understand that things exist even if they don’t see them right now.
However, those highly intelligent people are mostly human beings and as such their brains are wired to react to what is currently in front of them. Don’t take my word for it — here’s Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman talk about the incredible power of the “what you see is all there is” bias.
The second reason we need CROs is related to the nature of startups. Almost by definition, a startup is built to focus on the promise of tomorrow rather than the reality of today.
From day 1, the founding team needs to sell their vision to investors, first clients and early-stage employees. In order to succeed they had to power through a lot of naysayers that told them their idea would never work and develop their own reality distortion field.
Skip forward to a post-A startup with 25+ employees, those founders feel pretty vindicated and learned that “sticking to your guns” is an effective tactic that can beat the gloomy statistic of startups’ failure rate. That feeling of “there can be miracles when you believe” ends up being an integral part of the company culture and translates to “don’t try to disprove our shared beliefs”.
For those two reasons, startups need people who will constantly keep an eye on reality (you know, that thing happening outside the office). Ideally, everyone working in the company has or develops the tendency to think critically.
Here are a few ways to do that. We can ask people with feature ideas to list reasons why would their idea fail instead of why it would be totally awesome (“trust me I’m never wrong about these things”).
We can also use public forums to talk about company failures that resulted from misconceptions that have blown up. Recognising failure can lead to caution that leads to skepticism and critical thinking.
Disclaimer: those tactics are not without risk, as they go against the inherent company culture mentioned above. When the going gets rough, remind yourself and others around you that reality might not always be a happy place to be in, but that’s the only reality we have.

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October 7th, 2019

Such a good observation!

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