Hidden Narratives

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 7 min read

Today, let’s talk about hidden narratives. In both business and life, the stories we can’t see can be more important than the ones we can.

  • It’s the customer who is so pissed off that they never come back, and doesn’t write a review or take your calls, so you don’t know why.
  • It’s picking one job candidate over another because you have a gut feeling, even though that gut feeling comes from an unconscious bias toward people who look like you.
  • It’s eating way too many snacks in the evening, but feeling justified because you ran a mile yesterday.

In each of these cases, there’s a hidden story that helps to explain all of these events.

Today, I got an email notice that made me recognize that Google is suffering from a massive problem of failing to see a hidden narrative. Obviously, they’re doing just fine, so this isn’t a post for you to feel sympathy toward them. Instead, I want to use Google to illustrate how easily we can unintentionally become the authors of the hidden narratives that undermine our success.

OK, Google. Define Consistency

Aside from Google Search, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Youtube, I don’t think I’ll ever trust a single Google product. In this case, I’m not talking about trust from a privacy perspective…that’s a topic for another time. I simply mean that I don’t know if it will be around once I get used to using it.

Google is killing products without realizing that it is their tendency to kill products that stops people from adopting it in the future.

I miss Google Reader

Take Google Reader, a very popular RSS Reader back in the day that was unilaterally discontinued in 2013. It was beloved by those who used it, likely cost “almost nothing” to run, and provided more than enough opportunities for advertising to make it viable, profitable, and another way to collect valuable user data. But, Google just decided to kill it. It killed a popular application…for (seemingly) no reason. The irony is that their stated reason was declining usage.

As a loyal and avid user, I couldn’t understand it, and I became a little more wary of investing my time in other applications.

I miss Google Trips

Google Trips was an app I began using while traveling parts of Asia. It was a really well put together app that integrated with Google Maps and allowed me to build a list of things to do and places to eat. I used it extensively over TripAdvisor and Yelp due to it’s clean interface and Google integration.

Google killed it in 2019. It killed a useful application…for (seemingly) no reason. Another example of an application that I put a lot of work into that no longer exists.

As a loyal and avid user, I couldn’t understand it, and I became a little more wary of investing my time in other applications.

But, what we really need to talk about is messaging…

For every Google+ and Google URL shortener that came and went too fast, Google has had no greater failure than their epic disaster of instant messaging.

At one point, Google Chat (GChat) / Google Talk (GTalk), was the undisputed king of instant messaging. Then…

  • Hangouts and Hangouts on Air (soon to be deceased)
  • Android Messenger
  • Allo (deceased)
  • Duo
  • Google Voice (ignored)
  • …and now, Meet

Amidst these different messaging platforms are products that were killed and products that were ignored all while duplicating, fragmenting, and confusing everyone about what the hell they should even be using or why.

I loved Google Chat but for some strange reason it got renamed Hangouts. At the time, I was using an Android phone which had Android Messenger but Google also had Hangouts which had both IM and SMS. So, the two apps were competing. Soon after, they introduced Allo (IM) and Duo (Video chat) to compete with their other apps. Then they killed off Allo but kept Duo, and then killed Hangouts on Air but renamed Hangouts to Meet.

This remarkable fall from grace is shameful. Their continuing efforts to “fix” the problem that they created by using the same tactics that created the problem is laughable, at best, and inexcusable, at worst.

We’re not lab rats

During the period where Google was whiteboarding new names for existing products that do functionally the same thing as the last thing, the world adopted Zoom and Facebook messenger, WhatsApp and text messaging.

This morning I got an email that Currents will be replacing Google+.

Currents is a late entrant to the work place communications party where Slack is king and Microsoft Teams is making strides.

Quite frankly, who cares? Why should anyone use whatever tool they come up with or rename next? Why risk doing all of the work of trying to move your network someplace new?

THAT, is the hidden narrative problem Google has created and continues to make worse. The narrative is:

“Google doesn’t commit to their products, so why should I? They’ll probably shut it down and make more work for me later.”

Unfortunately, Google just seems to see “declining usage” or lackluster adoption. They probably wonder why, but never seem to learn. So, they rename or sunset the product and the whole cycle starts over and the hole gets deeper.

RIP Inbox

So, now we circle back to you

Where are you struggling? What part of your life or business are you seeking to make progress with little success? Are you having problems with your clients? Are you having trouble with your spouse? Are you struggling to close new business opportunities?

All of these are opportunities to hunt down hidden narratives. If you sense a pattern developing, don’t stop with the obvious reasons. Look for the possible hidden causes.

Let’s say it’s closing new business opportunities.

First, start by stating the problem and listing out all of the obvious reasons. You might say…

  • “Their budget is too tight.”
  • “They’re unsophisticated and don’t understand the value.”
  • “They’re just tire kickers and not serious.”

All of those might be true, but dig deeper. Write out everything that might seem obvious and then start reaching a little bit. You might get to a point where you start thinking of reasons are are much more nuanced.

  • “I wanted this client really badly, maybe I came off as needy. That changed the way they looked at me and lowered my status and value in their mind. They lost confidence that I could deliver because if I need the work that badly, maybe I’m not that good.”
  • “I pushed too hard for the sale and it made them feel pressured and indecisive.”
  • “I didn’t ask for the sale and let the temperature of the moment cool off which let them walk away form the deal table to think about it and eventually get distracted by other things.”
  • “They were really interested and seemed ready to sign but then I kept explaining things and they began to seem confused and pull back.”
  • “I’m not sure that I can deliver on these opportunities. Maybe the client could sense that.”

All of these are far more useful stories than the obvious ones and could very well be the secret to your eventual success.

Well…you could just ask

What’s hidden doesn’t actually have to be. The easiest way to find out, is to ask. Some people will tell you, others won’t. If you can be humble, vulnerable, and willing to change, you may be able to tease out the hidden narratives you need to help you improve.

It’s easy to say your team is lazy. It’s much harder to confront that you are a chaotic mess of a leader who makes people fear for their job or confuses their priorities.

It’s easier to say that adoption was lackluster. It’s much harder to confront that it’s your own actions that are causing it.

You can do what’s easy, or you can try to address the underlying problem.

The important thing is to not let your assumptions give you the easy way out. Look for the hidden narratives so you don’t end up like Google’s graveyard.

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