Saturday, March 28, 2015

Walking It Back

One of the hardest things to do is to actually say something. That's as opposed to saying nothing, which is what most people prefer to do. Saying something means having to take a stand, make a pronouncement or state a point of view, and that puts you on the record. If you're a politician, it means saying "This is what I believe in." If you're the CFO of a company, it means saying "This is how much money we're going to make." And if you're introducing a new product or service, it means saying "This is what it can do for you."  

And while you might be right, the possibility exists that you might also be wrong, or have a change of heart or mind. And that means you will have to reverse course. In politics, they call this "walking it back." The most benign way of describing this change is to say your position is "evolving." That is, because of updated information or circumstances, your stance is following a natural progression to a different state, whether the topic is same-sex marriage or climate change. Looked at less charitably, some might say you are flip-flopping, the most famous formulation being John Kerry's "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

The past few weeks saw two especially good examples of this, one deliberate, one not so much. In the first, Benjamin Netanyahu won reelection to a fourth term. In the waning days of the campaign, he said emphatically that he was against a two-state solution to the Palestinian question, and there would never be a Palestinian state under his watch. All well and good, he is entitled to his opinion. Only it was directly against him saying he was for such a proposal a few years ago. And then just 2 days after the election, he said he really didn't mean what he said when he said it, and appeared to revert to his pre-election viewpoint. So depending upon your preference, it was a flip-flop-flip or a flop-flip-flop, or alternately, he evolved than devolved. The more partisan among us might say he was simply lying, though on which side of equation is the question.

Then you have the case of Ryanair. The upstart Irish discount airline made headlines when it announced its new transatlantic service, including a possible promotional fare of $10. It got a lot of press, and certainly seemed in character with the company's aggressive marketing campaigns. But no sooner had the ink dried on the press release than the company called the plane back to the gate. They said that while we would like to do that sometime in the future, there is a slight gap between "like to do it" and "making it a part of our strategic plan and appropriating the millions of dollars required to make it happen." Or as CEO Michael O'Leary said, "We screwed up."

However, I would propose that the yardstick by which these reversals were measured is the problem, not the reversals themselves. Regardless of the reason or intention, sure, if you judge them by the objective measure of "mean what you say" or "taking a stand" they do indeed look like they changed course. But our world is increasingly defined by technology, and a concept called "beta." That is the idea that nothing is ever really final, everything is a work-in-progress, and all is continuously improving based on user feedback. We have come to accept that and even expect it from the apps that run our lives; why should we not do the same for the people and institutions which do the same?

Just as Watergate was not about the crime but the cover-up, so is changing your position not about the change itself but how and why you explain it. Speaking for myself, it seems to me that we want people to examine all the facts, and then be willing to change their position without fear of looking like they erred. And I'm OK with that whether I agree with the position or not. What I don't want them to do is try and convince me they never really changed or meant to change. Were Napoleon around today, I'd be fine with him saying he was retreating from Moscow. Just don't try and spin it that you're advancing on Paris.


Marc Wollin of Bedford thinks changing your mind about something is OK. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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