If you were to see a newspaper headline such as “Breathing Jumps in Beijing, Even with Pollution,” you’d think it awfully odd. After all, Beijing’s population is rising, and everyone breathes as long as they can. More people, more breathing. Pollution doesn’t diminish breathing’s popularity.
You’d be right that such a headline would be odd, even if the headline appeared in one of the world’s great newspapers; say, the New York Times. Yet exactly that oddity appeared, in the Times, when 2015 was still crisp and new: “2014 Auto Sales Jump in U.S., Even With Recalls.”
Don’t worry. This essay isn’t about illogic in journalism. It’s about illogic that pollutes business, too. It’s about a dragon I thought I slew not long ago in Success Is In a Word. (Another headline: “World Doesn’t Heed Indignant Strategist.”)
The NYT article starts like this;
“When the history of the contemporary auto industry is written, 2014 will go down as a year of contrasts. Deluged by safety recalls, auto manufacturers faced the ire of regulators and consumers. Yet, buyers did not stay away and instead gave the American auto industry its best sales year in nearly a decade.”
The notion seems consistent with historical data, too. In the 1970s, for example, General Motors drastically reduced the number of defects in vehicles it sold. During the same period, GM lost about five points of market share. It’s obvious: GM should have restored the defects to regain its market share.
Also, people should stop taking painkillers. Painkillers obviously cause pain. We know that because we have less pain when we stop taking painkillers.
To be fair, the NYT article goes on to say that there are multiple reasons why more autos were sold in 2014 than in any year since 2006: “a rebounding economy, increasing consumer confidence, falling gas prices and cheap leases all helped unleash pent-up demand.” It’s just that pesky headline, and it’s just that that pesky headline isn’t so different from the way people warp otherwise blameless data.
Beijing’s population of breathers is growing even with awful air pollution. Of course, that’s not because air pollution causes babies to be born or the elderly not to die. It’s because the influx of new, breathing residents masks the premature deaths caused by the pollution. By my rough calculations, Beijing’s annual increase in population is about seven times its annual premature deaths.
This essay is not about Beijing or Detroit. It is about logic and leadership. “We had a great year despite…” grants us permission to ignore problems. Sure, this or that went wrong, but how important could this or that have been when we’re living happily ever after?
Logic may seem an unaffordable luxury or a time-consuming distraction. Some consider it a last resort. But remember, you don’t get to recall a competitive strategy. If you get your strategy wrong, you get recalled.
Here’s a handy headline test. (It might also work in strategy reviews.) It’s free and you don’t need an app. Just turn the headline around and see if you believe it. Do you believe that the auto industry would have done even better if it had aroused even more ire and issued even more recalls? Would more pollution cause more breathing in Beijing?