There is a fragmented, truthless[1] world that directly threatens your enterprise, career, and future.

  • You may think you know all about groups that can’t decipher fact from fiction, that trust only fake news, and live in a bizarro world. But you don’t.
  • You may think you are immune to their impacts. You’re not.
  • You may believe this only happens in social media and out on the Internet, not inside your business. But that’s strike three. You’re out. Game over.

This piece has four parts: a prolog, a primer on how and why a world without truth functions, predictions, and advice on dealing with tendrils inside your enterprise.

Prologue

I started this work to answer the question: How does what we know about group polarization on the Internet impact enterprises?

Cass Sunstein of Harvard predicted the Internet-social-software problem in 2001: group isolation, fragmentation, and polarization[2].

“The great informational advantages of the Internet will not broaden users’ horizons; they may narrow them. Moreover, users will begin to form groups on the Internet only with those who share their views, and this will lead to the fractionation known as group polarization.”

This pattern has been going on for centuries, but the Internet dramatically accelerates the process. And people are amplifying the acceleration via fake news on the Internet in particular[3].

You can find polarized groups at all points of the opinion compass. They’re not limited to any one viewpoint. Once fragmented, isolated, and polarized, these groups represent a world without truth because their members are unwilling to openly engage with the outside world.

How does this relate to enterprise executives like you, and what should you do about it?

This year, Facebook, Google, and Apple employees have gone public with significant complaints about their employer’s behavior.

There are also less-public examples illustrating negative impacts on productivity, sales volumes, morale, resilience, and turnover. You can find this in later sections of this paper, particularly the trade-offs discussions.

More background

The war against truth isn’t new. It likely emerged with human language around 150,000 years ago[4] , but the Internet’s made it far more difficult to deal with. There are partisans around every corner, sniping at opposition forces, each with their own custom, fake news, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. And, often, it’s not a war against truth. It’s a war between various groups who believe theirs is the only truth, and it’s the others who are miscreants and liars.

Hundreds of millions of people unknowingly adopt billions of lies as the truth. They will not pay attention to contrary evidence. They’re already living in a world without truth, the world of Akira Kurosawa’s[5] 1950 award-winning film, Rashomon[6], where the very idea of objective reality is under attack.

The public ties the problem of fake news to politics, social software, and the media, but plenty of related and harmful untruths are rumbling around everywhere, including within enterprises of all forms and sizes, and they can directly impact and undermine your success.

Primer

The world without truth did not start with the Internet.

The relatively common American notion of a cultural melting pot[7] holds that people’s views become more homogeneous over time and generations. It predicts a homogenous shared culture in which most people eventually share values and beliefs, hold to common aims, follow similar lifestyles, and thus behave in similar ways.

Maybe not.

In Beyond the Melting Pot (1963)[8], Glazer and Moynihan suggested that the melting pot wasn’t quite working.

In a seminal 1973 paper on what has become known as “wicked problems,” Rittel and Webber[9] wrote

“The melting pot never worked for large numbers of immigrants to America.

The unitary conception of “The American Way of Life” is now giving way to a recognition that there are numerous ways of life that are also American. It was a pre-industrial society that was culturally homogeneous. The industrial age greatly expanded cultural diversity. Post-industrial society is likely to be far more differentiated than any in all of history.”

Rittel and Webber went further, declaring

“The high-scale societies of the Western world are becoming increasingly heterogeneous. They are becoming increasingly differentiated, comprising thousands of minority groups, each joined around common interests, common value systems, and shared stylistic preferences that differ from those of other groups.

As the sheer volume of information and knowledge increases, as technological developments further expand the range of options, and as awareness of the liberty to deviate and differentiate spreads, more variations are possible.

Rising affluence or, even more, growing desire for at least subcultural identity induces groups to exploit those options and to invent new ones. We almost dare say that irregular cultural permutations are becoming the rule.”

The Internet has delivered – and continues to exploit – Rittel and Webber’s 1973 vision.

At a magnitude they didn’t seem to expect, fake news, falsehoods, untruths (lies) now have an ever-greater ability to dominate because:

    • Falsehoods travel faster than truth[10], trampling truth in the process.
    • Cognitive biases shape most decision-making[11].
    • Social support matters. People gravitate to cliques that reinforce their beliefs[12].
    • Technology (AI) can’t discern fact from fiction (e.g., Facebook tried and failed[13].)
    • “Everyone has the right to be an expert” is a commonly held fiction.
    • Science seeds some of the problems[14]: Successful replication is becoming increasingly rare, and, by continually evolving, science creates targets of opportunity for its critics.
    • Abject denial of the death of truth makes the issue worse
    • Money, ego, and greed are funding shaky data, misleading analysis, and continuing tsunamis of hype[15].

In this fragmented, unharmonious world, the world without truth, there are significant implications for your business, career, family, friendships, and society.

You have to experience this personally to be able to internalize it.

    1. Explore sites like Reddit, Facebook, and others more specific to your industry.
    2. Look for private cliques with strong opinions about your enterprise, competitors, suppliers, markets, and customers.
    3. Immerse yourself in the cliques’ thinking. Which ones see outsiders as defective, deranged, or brainwashed as they defend their own inaccurate version of the truth?
    4. Seek out your antagonists. Can’t find them? Look harder to see what the other sides say about you!

Now generalize this to your business. Ask yourself what happens to your business if

    • Sales and marketing do not buy into your competitive positioning or sales targets?
    • Customer service employees hate their job?
    • Internal professionals are outraged at allegedly unethical senior executive behavior?
    • Rank and file employees, believing they’re fighting a losing war, rush for the exits?

Untruths aren’t always made up out of “thin air.” They have roots in verifiable facts, facts that could be out of date or misinterpreted.

Beliefs can become untrue by being out of date.

In his work on disruptive innovation, Clayton Christenson[16] wrote about large successful companies being felled by upstarts because the incumbents were too wedded to their existing customers and products.

Sales and customer unwillingness to move to dramatically newer products killed timesharing in the early 1990s, a classic case of sellers and buyers refusing to recognize the truth of where the IT industry was going[17].

In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote of subjective resistance, depriving innovators of the resources to disruptively advance their disciplines[18].

Failing to let go of previously successful approaches is evidence of the death of truth.

Predictions

The world could not come together on obvious major threats like COVID, climate change, autocracy, or inequality. Instead, the social discourse will continue to fragment.

Over the next decade:

    1. Communities will further fragment as they expand geometrically in number.
    2. Fringe Chaos: “Irregular cultural permutations will become the rule.”
    3. Conditions inside your enterprise will mirror the external truthless disarray unless you take significant steps to avoid it.

How to begin tackling a world without truth inside your enterprise

What can you do about all of this?

Assume that nuance and complex trade-offs are essential. Turn to Deming’s Total Quality Management (TQM[19]) and the discipline of Design Thinking[20] for guidance.

There is no single perfect answer for wickedly tricky problems – but there can be reasonable approximations that constitute progress.[21]

A recent HBR[22] article on Using Design Thinking to Improve Worker Safety in Manufacturing[23] can be adapted to help employees escape from an employment-related world of falsehoods, a world without truth.

Six steps to take

    1. Explore and discover

A world without truth is also a world without trust, and trust is the lubricant that makes societies and economies work.

If you believe there are no problems with trust or truth in your enterprise, why do you think that? How certain are you?

Test the reality and truthiness[24] of your assumptions.

      • Check your year-over-year glassdoor.com ratings, including their “Pro” and “Con” text summaries[25]. Compare them to the glassdoor ratings for other firms in your industry.
      • Do you periodically run anonymized employee engagement surveys? How do you follow up on them? What problems have they identified?
      • Have you brought in experienced outsiders to interview employees to discover and qualify what trust or truth problems might exist?
      • What are people (employees and outsiders) saying about your organization in non-company forums?
      • Where in your organization are there most likely pockets of distrust? Start by looking at the most obvious potential sore spots such as these (but don’t limit yourself to this list):
        • Appearances of discrimination based on age, seniority, national origin, race, gender, gender identification, disabilities, and religion
        • Employees acquired via merger and acquisition activity versus those who are long time natives of the firm
        • Different employee-enterprise business relationship groups, e.g., board members, senior executives, managing partners, 1099 or contract employees, employees of contractors
        • Different compensation plans for the same work (e.g., as found in some manufacturing firms seeking to reduce overall long-term labor costs by establishing new pay bands for new employees.)
        • Employees who may be considering leaving[26].

Negative feelings

      • What might management be doing that heightens negative feelings?
      • Where might greater transparency, openness, and engagement help?

Deming’s Total Quality Management (TQM) approach empowered everyone to interrupt the assembly line when they saw a quality problem. Using that as a broadly applicable metaphor:

      • Do individual contributors speak truth to power and survive?
      • Can any employee stop the process if they see a quality problem?
      • When can approved running processes be interrupted? By whom?
      • Is this part of your enterprise culture? Do you encourage employees to internalize it?

How broadly or narrowly should decision rights be distributed?

Point: Empowering everyone to speak truth to power challenges the decision rights reserved to the few. However, it can enable the enterprise to respond more rapidly to unanticipated changes in the environment.

Counterpoint: Constraining decision rights may ensure maximum efficiency at the cost of resilience and collective agreement. Locked-down decision rights also reinforce the perceived power of senior executives’ decision-making.

    1. Evaluate and set inspirational goals (more trade-offs to consider.)

These trade-offs require nuance to find the right target setpoints. Consider the points and counterpoints.

    • Trust, empathy, and fairness.

Point: These properties are interrelated. Without trust, people can’t agree on truths. Without empathy, there is little trust. Without a sense of fairness, there’s no empathy, trust, or shared truths. Fairness underlies ethics[27].

Counterpoint: Blind allegiance may maximize efficiency if leadership is persistently “spot on.” It can also be necessary under certain “emergency” conditions. But most organizations should not be operating in emergency mode all the time.

    • Transparency, openness, and engagement versus secrecy, privacy, and protection.

Point: Transparency conflicts with security, privacy, and protection. Openness exposes corporate jewels to theft, and privacy and security conflict with transparency.

Without transparency and openness, it’s hard to achieve broad engagement and consensus. That fosters distrust and squelches any sense of commonly held truths.

Counterpoint: Maximizing security secures the enterprise’s assets.

    • Social responsibility and the public good versus maximizing private return

Point: Underlying many of these trade-offs is a strain between private returns and the public good.

Counterpoint: The primary focus of the enterprise should be private returns to shareholders.

Again, a nuanced view makes sense for most enterprises.

    1. Empathy

Approach others with your inspirational thinking in mind to draw out their wants, needs, fears, and anxieties. Work to understand how they think about the world and what’s important to them. Include psychological and emotional needs as well as their history.

See https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/stage-1-in-the-design-thinking-process-empathise-with-your-users

    1. Seek out the “wickedly difficult” problems to address.

Don’t settle only for the tame and well-defined problem sets. See Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Rittel and Webber, 1973.

    1. Ideate Solutions.

Ideation should drive the evolution of both problem statements and solutions. Include divergent thinking with divergent groups of people, seeking “out of the box” approaches, and convergent thinking, narrowing the solution to a high impact subset of the alternatives considered.

    1. Prototyping and testing.

In the current vernacular, create the minimum viable solution for the critical wickedly difficult problems and test, adjust or pivot, test again and move forward.

This six-step pattern draws on various examples of design thinking, a process that aims to foster innovation on difficult problems.

If you have no experience applying the design thinking methodology, find someone with experience to help.

[1] The phrase “world without truth” is shorthand for a behaviorally defined situation where there are multiple, polarized cliques that are intentionally isolated from each other intellectually and unwilling to try to close the gaps with each other. Because of their behavior, they are unable to objectively determine what’s true and what isn’t. A world absolutely without truth is like absolute zero in physics or chemistry: no motion, no mutually agreed-upon truths. We’re not there. But there are many places that appear to be worlds without truth. It’s possible to have a world with truth even though not all truths agreed upon are correct. For example, in the sciences, there are many truths that have been agreed to based on open access to the means and the data which determines the truth. Independent replication is an important bulwark of scientific truth even though, as it turns, some of these truths are wrong and will need to be restated based on new research. A world without truth, if broad and deep enough, can create a world without trust and a world without trust can deepen a world without truth. The two feed off each other. In this piece, I am taking no position on epistemology (the philosophy of knowledge), objective versus subjective truth, or the concept of individual relativity, where whatever individuals deem to be the truth, is true.

[2] Sunstein also opined that the Internet’s ability to reinforce narrow interests encourages self-insulation which, in turn, leads to group polarization and cultural balkanization. For an extended discussion of fragmentation and the Internet, see Cass R. Sunstein, Deliberative Trouble? Why Groups Go To Extremes, 110 YALE L.J. 71 (2000)

[3] Other media such as radio, television, and print media also contribute to this problem.

[4] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origin_of_language

[5] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Akira_Kurosawa

[6] See https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0042876/

[7] “The melting pot is a monocultural metaphor for a heterogeneous society becoming more homogeneous, the different elements “melting together” with a common culture; an alternative being a homogeneous society becoming more heterogeneous through the influx of foreign elements with different cultural backgrounds, possessing the potential to create disharmony within the previous culture. Historically, it is often used to describe the cultural integration of immigrants to the United States.” Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melting_pot. The term was popularized in the early part of the 1900s.

[8] Glazer, N., & Moynihan, D. P. (1963). Beyond the melting pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish of New York City. Massachusetts Inst. Technology Pres.

[9] Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, https://urbanpolicy.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Rittel+Webber_1973_PolicySciences4-2.pdf

[10]  Lies spread faster than truth. See http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6380/1146 and https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/we-finally-know-for-sure-that-lies-spread-faster-than-the-truth-this-might-be-why/2018/03/14/92ab1aae-27a6-11e8-bc72-077aa4dab9ef_story.html

[11] According to Wikipedia, “A cognitive bias is a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgment. Individuals create their own “subjective reality” from their perception of the input. An individual’s construction of reality, not the objective input, may dictate their behavior in the world. Thus, cognitive biases may sometimes lead to perceptual distortion, inaccurate judgment, illogical interpretation, or what is broadly called irrationality…A continually evolving list of cognitive biases has been identified over the last six decades of research on human judgment and decision-making in cognitive science, social psychology, and behavioral economics.” Not all instances of active cognitive biases are negative. Some can be quite adaptive. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias.

[12] This is referred to as “selective exposure,” research on which has a long history, going back to the 1950s or earlier. See Reflecting on Six Decades of Selective Exposure Research: Progress, Challenges, and Opportunities” https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1751-9004.2007.00060.x

[13] “On hate speech, the documents show, Facebook employees have estimated the company removes only a sliver of the posts that violate its rules—a low-single-digit percent, they say. When Facebook’s algorithms aren’t certain enough that content violates the rules to delete it, the platform shows that material to users less often—but the accounts that posted the material go unpunished. … The problem is that we do not and possibly never will have a [13] model that captures even a majority of integrity harms, particularly in sensitive areas,” wrote a senior engineer and research scientist in a mid-2019 note. He estimated the company’s automated systems removed posts that generated just 2% of the views of hate speech on the platform that violated its rules. “Recent estimates suggest that unless there is a major change in strategy, it will be very difficult to improve this beyond 10-20% in the short-medium term,” he wrote. See https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-ai-enforce-rules-engineers-doubtful-artificial-intelligence-11634338184?tpcc=nleyeonai

[14] See https://thansyn.com/tech-hype-it-begins-in-science/ and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Replication_crisis.

[15]

Confronted with too much tech FUD and FOMO?

[16] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clayton_Christensen.

[17] For example, from the mid-1970s onward, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) build many distributed logic, client/server systems, desktop microcomputers, and, starting in the early 1980s, PCs. Their sales organization found it far easier to soft-pedal those offerings when calling on most customers since their customers continued to focus on large-scale timesharing systems. While not the only flaw of DEC, this contributed to the death of the firm in the 1990s.

[18] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Kuhn While Kuhn’s focus was on the philosophy of science, the implications of many of his observations apply to almost all social pursuits.

[19] See https://www.bl.uk/people/w-edwards-deming

[20] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_thinking and https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/design-thinking-explained

[21] Rittel and Weber (1973) proposed ten key properties of wicked problems.

    1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.
    2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
    3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad.
    4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.
    5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot” operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.
    6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.
    7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.
    8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.
    9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.
    10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

[22] Harvard Business Review

[23] See https://hbr.org/2021/11/using-design-thinking-to-improve-worker-safety-in-manufacturing?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_campaign=dailyalert_notactsubs&deliveryName=DM159112

[24] Truthiness: “A truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something not because of supporting facts or evidence but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/truthiness

[25] Go to https://www.glassdoor.com/member/home/index.htm and search for reviews of your company. Look for changes over time. Examine the summary “Pros” and “Cons” text strings assembled by the site, e.g., “Employee friendly work environment” and “Work-life balance is highly variable.”

[26] Retention is often a double-edged sword. See https://www.zdnet.com/article/managers-arent-worried-about-keeping-their-it-workers-happy-thats-bad-for-everyone/

[27] “To build a trust-based culture, everyone in the company must demonstrate commitment.” Source:  https://www.fastcompany.com/90696051/3-simple-ways-to-cultivate-trust-among-your-entire-team.