CXO

Tesla review flap teaches IT leaders the right way to 'eat crow'

A Tesla review reminds IT leaders about the risks of making careless or overly enthusiastic proclamations. Here's how to avoid that danger, or mitigate the damage should it occur.

2015 Tesla Model S P85D
Image: Josh Miller/CNET

Few major purchases were completed in our household when I was a boy without my father consulting Consumer Reports magazine. Consumer Reports reviewed everything from lawnmowers to dishwashers to automobiles, and since it didn't accept advertising, it was perceived as a reliable source of sound buying advice.

As a teenager with more time than sense or money, I remember poring over Consumer Reports reviews to determine the reliability of a 10-year-old Porsche with 300K miles that was in my price range, or whether I could convince my parents a Mazda RX-7 with "minor damage" was safe for their teenage son based on the Consumer Reports safety ratings.

The Tesla Model S review hubbub

A September 2015 review of the Tesla Model S raised eyebrows for its gushing praise and headline that the car was so excellent it "broke" the Consumer Reports scoring scale, a feat never before achieved. To the chagrin of my wife, I harbor a desire for a Model S of my own, but as a fan of the vehicle I was suspicious that Consumer Reports would sing such lofty praises of a wildly complicated, expensive automobile from what's essentially a startup.

Sure enough, in October 2015 Consumer Reports published an article removing the Tesla from its Recommended list based on excessive reliability issues, mostly stemming from the novel and highly complex features of the car. Love or hate the Tesla, Consumer Reports's reputation is taking a well-deserved hit for its change in tune.

You're the Consumer Reports of corporate technology

Like it or not, most IT leaders are regarded as a Consumer Reports-esque source for their companies when it comes to technology. You're expected to remain an unbiased source of comparative information about tech products and trends, and to apply a carefully formulated, scientific approach to how you evaluate products and services. This is not a realistic expectation, especially as IT leaders must rapidly evaluate emerging technologies that have little track record and minimal background information beyond what's published by the vendor or an analyst organization, and that's anything but unbiased.

While it can seem daunting to be regarded as an unbiased arbitrator of significant pools of company money, cultivating this trust will make you a more effective IT leader in the long run. With trust established, it's easier to change direction on a wayward investment, ensure spending dovetails with your long-term strategy, or convincing peers to make a big bet on a technology investment that offers significant upside.

Tips on giving tech recommendations

Be consistent in your tone

What was perhaps most shocking about the Consumer Reports Tesla flap was the overabundance and uncharacteristic praise of a particular product.

Just as Consumer Reports readers expect a certain tone, your peers will expect a consistent tone from your recommendations, and become curious should you venture outside the tenor of your usual recommendations. If you're breathlessly enthusiastic about every new technology that crosses your desk, a mutedly positive review of a technology might be regarded as a recommendation to steer clear. Strive to provide recommendations in the context of your environment, and highlight any information that's causing you to be more positive or negative versus past opinions.

Provide thoughtful caveats

No one likes a product review that's blatantly biased, and your peers will quickly lose faith in your recommendations if they have more caveats than the fine print in most Terms of Service agreements.

Apply caveats thoughtfully. For instance, an exciting and beneficial technology may provide competitive advantage if it's new on the market, but it also introduces some risk because it hasn't been vetted.

Caveats can be just as notable for their absence, as evidenced by the Consumer Reports initial review of the Model S. Even the greatest fan of the Tesla can conclude that the car pushes the technical envelope, and thus risks long-term reliability.

Monitor what you recommend

Remember to monitor the technologies you've recommended, and note trends that impact the long-term viability of a technology. Few people expect today's leading technologies to remain in their positions indefinitely, so even if a high-flying product or service that received glowing reviews from you changes course, you'll ultimately gain credibility by highlighting the market shifts that are causing you to revisit your recommendation.

What to do if you have to "eat crow"

The expression of "eating crow" suggests being forced to "eat" a foul-tasting meal, just as one might be disgusted by the "foul" task of having to rescind a previous comment. Like all negative experiences, the best way to eat crow is to avoid making a poorly considered recommendation in the first place.

However, should you find yourself faced with a steaming metaphorical "crow," take time to articulate what went wrong with your initial recommendation. Rather than attempting to hide behind a technicality or external circumstances, admit where your review methodology failed and the lessons learned. Be thoughtful and forthright, and expect some questioning around your evaluation and decision making processes in the near future.

Resist the temptation to never take a stand or propose a definitive recommendation as a result of having to eat crow. If your future suggestions are so heavily caveated and noncommittal as to be useless, rather than having to eat crow in the future, you'll be consigned to an even worse fate: irrelevancy.

Also see

Note: TechRepublic and ZDNet are CBS Interactive properties.

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox