The Bozo Bit Dilemma – Geof Lory

Several years ago I worked with Jim McCarthy (formerly of Microsoft, now of McCarthy Technologies). Jim was one of the first pundits on the Microsoft Solutions Framework, Microsoft’s iterative approach to creating software. His book Dynamics of Software Development proposed more than 50 rules for developing great software on time. A big part of what I found valuable about MSF and Jim’s writings was their focus on people over process. Like the first value of the Agile Manifesto, most of Jim’s rules revolved around Individuals and Interactions over Tools and Processes. Keep in mind, this was in the mid-90s, before the term Agile was even uttered in software development.

Since I do a lot of work with teams, and particularly Agile teams, many of Jim’s “rules” have stuck with me — most notably, the one referenced on the cover of his book, “Don’t flip the Bozo bit.” Besides being a curiously entertaining reference to a comical character, there is a lot of wisdom in this simple statement. A deeper understanding of it could help you get the most out of your relationships with team members, and maybe even turn dysfunctional behavior into greatness.

What Exactly Is the Bozo Bit?
Whether you know it or not, you have a Bozo Bit in your brain for everyone you know or come to experience in some way. The Bozo Bit, as a binary digit, can be set to True or False, On or Off. True means you do think they are a Bozo (as in Bozo the Clown). False means that you do not think that person is a Bozo, which is the default setting for most people when they first meet someone. (If that is not the case for you, please stop reading this and seek help elsewhere. I’ve just flipped the Bozo Bit on you.)

Since this is an emotional switch with only two settings, changing the setting from False to True is considered “flipping the Bozo Bit.” Once you flip the Bozo Bit on someone, you have basically determined that they are a clown. They can’t be taken seriously, and any input they might provide can be simply dismissed as irrelevant, if not totally stupid. At the very least, you have decided they can be safely ignored.

A Current Events Example
Think about the current political debates and the words and actions of your least favorite candidate. My guess is, like me, you have probably flipped the Bozo Bit on at least one of them, hopefully the one you are not voting for. When some candidate makes an outlandish political claim or foolish comment and you can’t imagine anyone would say or do that publicly, you immediately flip the Bozo Bit on them. Anything they say or do from that point on is just a joke. You no longer take them seriously.

While this type of clownish behavior might be good food for the late night comedy show hosts, flipping the Bozo Bit on those you interact with on a daily basis — your customers and team members — can be detrimental. When someone ticks you off or is blatantly mistaken (or both), it’s easy and tempting to simply give yourself the permission to disregard all their input in the future by flipping their Bozo Bit to True. Doesn’t that feel good?

Why We Flip the Bozo Bit
On the surface, flipping seems like a simple evolutionary trick to save time. If someone is right only 10% of the time, would it be faster to ignore every statement they made, or faster to analyze each statement carefully in case this time is the 1 out of 10? It makes sense that it would be better to ignore everything that comes out of their mouth by just flipping the Bozo Bit. Done.

But by taking that lazy way out, you poison your relationship with them, and eventually the rest of your team interactions. Since you are no longer open to that person, you also cannot avail yourself of anything from that “Bozo” ever again. Minimizing potential is always a bad solution and inevitably diminishes the whole. McCarthy’s simple premise is that everyone has something to contribute, even those you consider to be Bozos. Don’t flip the Bozo Bit!

Problems with Flipping the Bit
In situations when you are forced to deal with a possible Bozo, flipping is used to filter out noise from your life. But the negative consequences of flipping the Bit are larger than the benefits of narrowing your informational focus.

  • First, it projects a very negative leadership shadow which can and will get in the way of fostering whole-team communication and participation, and implicitly encourages an atmosphere of cattiness, rumor-mongering and back-stabbing.
  • Second, it is the very embodiment of the logical fallacy known as the ad hominem attack: dismissing what someone says because of who they are rather than analyzing their statement’s logical pros and cons. It’s a negative cognitive bias, the opposite of the Halo Effect.
  • Third, it may be addressing the wrong problem. A fool with a good attitude isn’t a big problem, but fools with bad attitudes are. Flipping the bit universally and unfairly lumps the two together. Any attempt to fix the problem may address the wrong problem.
  • Finally, it doesn’t matter if someone is always wrong; if they’re that reliably wrong, they’re valuable. Hypothesize the opposite of what they say!

The wiser approach is actually to separate their behavior or words from your feelings about them as a person. Try to find insight even in what an apparent Bozo says. If nothing else comes to mind, use them as an opportunity to practice being more patient, compassionate, and understanding.

What If You Know You Have Flipped the Bozo Bit on Someone?
Once the Bozo Bit has been flipped, it’s almost a permanent situation. Once it’s on, it’s on. Unflipping the Bozo Bit is difficult because it requires a personal shift in perspective and behavior that feels wasteful and counter-intuitive. It requires that you reserve judgment in the interest of infinite hope. If you flip the Bozo Bit on someone, you basically end that relationship and create an antagonistic situation.

I have to admit, I am a judgmental person. I am practiced in filtering information to make prudent decisions. I am not a patient person and have rarely been accused of being compassionate (at least in a professional setting). As the saying goes, I don’t “suffer fools gladly.” My profession requires, and at times rewards these qualities. Unfortunately, those qualities also make me predisposed to hastily and happily flipping the Bozo Bit on people. I know this about me and I also know it doesn’t really work for me.

How to Unflip Someone’s Bozo Bit
I don’t really want to flip the Bozo Bit on people, I just do. And when I do, in the end, I lose. So, when I feel like I have flipped the bit on someone, or better yet, if I feel I’m going to, I try to remember three simple things: patience, understanding, and compassion.

Patience — Slow down. Urgency is a primary catalyst for flipping the Bozo Bit. If I can just take the need for speed out of the equation, I’m halfway there.
Understanding — Listen with an open and generous mindset. Everyone has a voice and something to offer. Don’t disrespect them and ignore them. Take the time to listen intently and try to understand.
Compassion — Step back and put yourself in their shoes. People do and say things for a reason. Showing some compassion for their situation and perspective not only engenders their respect, but helps you stay open to what they have to offer.

I always feel a sense of loss when I realize I have flipped the Bozo Bit on someone. It is time lost and an interaction I can’t recover; a lost opportunity. When I was raising my two daughters, I understood the value of patience, understanding, and compassion. I knew it was essential to developing them as people. If I see my job as a leader is to develop people, I need to remember that flipping the Bozo Bit on someone else in the end flips the Bit on me.

Jim McCarthy’s Rule #7 — Don’t flip the Bozo Bit.

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