On Pushing Back Against Obviously Bad Ideas

“What the heck is this?”

It’s late 2000, and I’m staring at a mystery package. An anonymous cardboard box that showed up in my mailbox one afternoon. Inside is a cat-shaped wand, with a light source where its esophagus ought to be and a PS/2 cable crammed up its rear. I am looking at the print world’s latest attempt to grapple with its new online reality. They’re calling it a CueCat.

It might as well be a battery-powered kick to the crotch for all the good it’s going to do them.

Switch gears. Jump forward. It’s 2007 and a glance through the current Columbia Journalism Review shows that the ghost of this folly lingers on even today. That’s frequently the case with ideas this bad.

“Damage Report”, a telling article by Craig Flournoy and Tracy Everbach, is worth a look whether or not you work in the news business. Flournoy and Everbach detail the continued fall from grace of the Dallas Morning News, a paper that within the space of a decade went from lining its litter box with Pultizers to hemorrhaging some 200 editorial staffers.

Topping a litany of fuzzy-headed moves by the paper’s parent company, Belo Corp., was a $37 million investment in the CueCat. $37 million. While I knew the CueCat story (mainly as the butt of tech jokes) this is the first time I’ve seen a dollar amount pegged to the calamity.

For those not familiar with the publishing industry let me just tell you that’s a lot of scratch. There are perfectly fine news organizations that lack operating budgets that large. And the Belo folks blew every last cent on a barcode reader. Someone had a serious jones for this thing, and it helped give the entire organization a solid nudge down the road to ruin.

All of which leads me to my point. The CueCat was a seriously, fundamentally, obviously flawed idea. One that folks should have been doing flying tackles to keep from getting out the door. Yes Virginia, there really are such things as bad ideas—your teachers lied. And some of the real stinkers can do an awful lot of lasting damage before they’re done.

No, I’m not saying avoid radically odd, wonderfully divergent new ideas. Far from it. To do anything truly new is to risk some degree of failure. What I’m condemning is the sort of organizational complacency that lets obvious clunkers like the CueCat slip by. The sort of complacency that’s complicit in bad ideas through silence.

We’ve all seen it. There are plenty of companies filled with workers that look the other way, avoiding confrontation when the braying office jackass is stumping for the suicidal. There’s an underlying assumption often deployed that everything will “just be okay”’ anyway, so why bother? Without discussion the loudest voice wins, regardless of merit. The veil goes down, hands are washed and people take a pass on reasoned protest all for the sake of having a more pleasant day.

Well, life isn’t for the faint of heart. When you see a CueCat, push back (tactfully).

Being the gadfly isn’t easy or fun, and it may even occasionally keep you from being the belle of the ball. But without it truly awful, destructive ideas are free to jump over the transom and morph into monsters. It’s a play on the old, “If not me, who? If not now, when?” saw. Don’t be complacent. Don’t be complicit.

Take that bad idea out behind the shed and put it out of its misery. The job you save may be your own.