At one point, I worked for a company that was creating an in-vehicle computing platform. The concept was that your PDA (at the time this would be their Palm Pilots) could plug into a cradle in your car and, as you drove, magic would happen. You could get stock market reports (this was very important then), maps, weather reports, and your e-mail.
They recruited me away from a job I could have had for life by telling me wonderful things about my new professional life in this bold new company. The CEO had grown and sold two other start ups and this was going to be his third home-run. The CTO was a whiz with a golden touch.
I was being hired to be the liaison between this company and local or state governments – basically to build the first central repository of real-time traffic data in the US. There was tremendous upside and absolutely no risk. What could possibly go wrong?
Weeks went by at my new company. The pace was frenetic. Everyone talked about how amazing the product was. Daily system architecture meetings were filled with manic white-board scribbling. I was furiously working away on my part. We had drawings, schematics, mock-ups.
Today, the magic they were trying to launch has been fairly well implemented. The goal was to say things to your car like, “Show me the best way to get home and avoid traffic.” or “Get me to the nearest coffee shop, but it needs wifi.” Today, 12 years later, you can give some simple voice commands. In 2000, this tech simply did not exist – but no one told the workers at my startup that.
We had planned to launch our wonder-device at the end of the year. It was nearing Thanksgiving. They kept promising to show the device to me and others in the company. Excitement was growing. We were all ready to put these things in our cars.
Finally, we had a demonstration of our device. I walked up to it and commanded “show me traffic for Seattle.” Nothing happened. Someone next to me said, “It only works for his voice.” and pointed to the person next to me.
That man then said, “Up … Up … Select …. Up ….. right … select” ….. “SELECT!!!” … “SELECT!!!!!”. When it didn’t select, he pushed the reset button. “It’s not fully trained,” he said.
The system could barely understand simple commands to navigate menus in a quiet room, let alone complex voice commands in a noisy car. Rather than parse complex sentences, this had to be trained for a handful of common words. I had been lied to.
The shock was too great. I completely lost my composure. “THAT’S IT?!” There was no way this system could ever be ready to do anything at all. It was utter garbage.
No one else in my team could understand why I was upset. They looked at the barely functional prototype and insisted it would become market ready in a little over a month.
When I started working for the company there was about 60 of us. At the height of my time there, we had over 100 employees. When I was laid off we had slightly more than 25. As people left, they were sad that they would not be able to see the awesome launch at the end of the year.
I was there 5 weeks.
The good professionals at this company were victims of several cognitive biases. Let’s examine a few.
The Bandwagon Effect is basically groupthink. People in a group that see others believing something tend to give their compatriots the benefit of the doubt and, soon enough, begin believing it themselves. In this case, people, including myself, assumed that the management of the company was truthful. On that, everyone built up their expectations of what was possible – even though most of them must have known on some level that the technology of the day would not support what was being promised.
What follows groupthink is the institutionalization of the group thought. The Availability Cascade is a system where a group’s collective belief (in this case a car you could talk to) gains credibility as people repeat the promise. Everyone at the company was caught neck-deep in the availability cascade.
And oddly enough, simple old Wishful Thinking plays a role here. The people at my company had been steeped in years of dot com fairy tales. We all would have jumped on a bandwagon and promoted a cascade that promised us each millions.
When we are planning, we are creating expectations. This is normal, expected, and even positive. But as we move forward in projects, we as actors really want them to succeed. The opportunities for the Bandwagon Effect, Availability Cascade, and Wishful Thinking to sway our decision making are many and can be insidious.