Businesses die because of Shiny Object Syndrome

Ted Bauer
Ted Bauer
Nov 11, 2019 · 4 min read
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You probably have a vague idea what “Shiny Object Syndrome” is, but we can clarify. It’s a work culture where it’s always about the next thing, and priority walks out the door 744 times per day. Unfortunately, in the modern era, Shiny Object Syndrome is normative at most workplaces.

Why? In the simplest terms: the people who run companies these days are generally judged on growth. That seems to matter more than virtually anything else, including — somehow — actual profits. When you over-focus on growth, you are constantly in this zone where you need new ideas, because any new idea could theoretically become a revenue stream. This is a direct cousin of Shiny Object Syndrome.

Simple example: a company makes chairs. Good, sturdy, well-reviewed chairs. Suddenly, they’re making forks and spoons. That’s different than chairs, and their forks aren’t anything super awesome. Why are they making forks and diverting attention and resources from chairs? Because someone told them there was money in forks, and they chased it. But now, over time, the chairs will suffer a little bit. The core is weakened in an effort to hit some moving growth target.

Shiny Object Syndrome.

Shiny Object Syndrome and irony with Jeff Weiner

Here is Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, speaking to Stanford Business School students. He talks about Shiny Object Syndrome — I will pull quote it below — but I laughed out loud when I read this. LinkedIn loves themselves some Shiny Object Syndrome. They’re seemingly always rolling out new features, 3/4 of which are useless drivel.

Here’s the pull quote:

But companies that have defined their core value proposition sometimes move away from it when they experience what Weiner calls hyper growth. “They draw resources away from the core too quickly in pursuit of the next bright shiny object,” he says.

As a result, the company becomes vulnerable to competitors that go after its core: “And you’re in a position where you have to react to the competition now, and you have to draw resources away from that growth opportunity back to your core.” Not only does that dynamic damage a company’s market position, it makes employees feel stressed and “whipsawed,” Weiner says.


The sense of urgency run-around

We’ve all worked in places with a middle manager who looks like this dude:

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You know this dude does nothing all day except cripple the bottom line of the company, but he out-ranks you. In hierarchy, that’s what matters. So this dude rolls up on you and says “Hey [name], we’ve got a new directive on those forks. It’s a real sense of urgency project. I need you on that now.”

You completely pivot off what you were doing — all too common in workplaces now — and get after these forks. About 1 hour and 17 minutes later, Mr. Soon To Be Automated By A Microsoft Product comes back to your desk. Now he’s like “Hey [name], we’re back on the chairs. Real urgency here. Gotta get the chairs out the door.”

You can replace “chairs” and “forks” with virtually any two products or services and that is work for a lot of people. Shiny Object Syndrome, driven by a presumed sense of urgency. That’s work for many of us.

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You think this doesn’t impact employee turnover?

Of course it does. If your organization is a giant dog and pony show of various competing priorities with no clear winner, of course people will get burned out. Executives can only chase the next dime for so long before they even get burned out on it and start focusing on core business services a bit more. But as long as the top top dogs — “the stakeholders” — want to see that growth, well, then Shiny Object Syndrome will persist.

Can we defeat Shiny Object Syndrome?

In a company directed to focus on growth with money-grubbers at the helm? Never. It would be impossible.

In a more logical company that just wants to do good work and provide well for the people that choose to work there? Of course. It’s definitely possible therein.

Shiny Object Syndrome is tied to chasing money. That’s all it is. So if your culture is about chasing money, well, your culture will be one of Shiny Object Syndrome. The thing we all know but don’t discuss about chasing money? That money doesn’t get distributed to everyone. It flows to the top of a company and stays there. Hopefully someday you get minted as “Chief Strategy Officer.” But if you don’t — or until you do — keep your eye on the next shiny object, because you’ll need to chase it, knock it down, and get it out the door.

What else you got on Shiny Object Syndrome?

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