The following post was drafted mere hours before the final twist to last week’s OpenAI drama, when Sam Altman was reinstated by the board as CEO on Tuesday. Regardless, much of the takeaways outlined are universal and reflect the impact of a chaotic, mismanaged episode, however brief, for the fledgling company that may reverberate for years to come if sound management and consistent communications efforts aren’t immediately enacted.
Just as the tech world began hunkering down in anticipation of its post-Thanksgiving food coma, OpenAI snuck in a last-minute shakeup that went completely unnoticed amongst the collective thud of laptops closing until after the holiday.
Well… not so fast.
Rather, Friday’s news that CEO Sam Altman had been fired led to a hair raising, head-scratching three-day tech-drama that ChatGPT 4 certainly couldn’t write, nor help to make any sense of. Thankfully, the MWW Tech Team is here to help.
We’ve combed through the breaking news, the soundbites, and the hot takes, to offer some early lessons as we watch the tech community, and beyond, grapple with the shakeup.
To say the reaction was hyperbolic would not be, well, a hyperbole. Even some of the most battle-hardened tech journalists declared the departure as more dramatic and chaotic than anything they’ve seen. Some even dubbed the weekend’s development as the beginning of “the AI wars,” foretelling ominous repercussions in the months and years to come.
While we’ve seen similar Machiavellian tech power plays in the distant, and not-too-distant past – Steve Jobs’ Apple exodus comes to mind, as does any given Tuesday for Elon Musk – watching a shakeup of this scale, at the very heart of today’s most cutting-edge, mysterious technology, drew the public’s collective attention in a Swiftie kind of way that will alter the fledgling sector for some time.
From a reputational standpoint, the unfolding events did not help to instill any much-needed faith in OpenAI or AI technology more broadly. More than ever, the category needs a collective campaign to help assuage fears and build consensus from all stakeholders involved, not least of which the American public.
The reaction to the mishap was quick from the PR world with many noting that whatever the internal issues at OpenAI, the optics are poor and that this is a perfect example of what happens when management loses its accountability. There are major immediate lessons to be learned.
A Prepared Message in Hand is Worth Three After the Fact
The tech world is littered with case studies and cautionary tales of nascent upstarts that imploded after basic management mistakes. For the fortunate ventures that survive these moments, it often leads to years of muddled messaging that reveals complete misalignment between all their stakeholders, employees, investors, and everyone else. This is extremely damaging to reputations and takes careful strategic communications planning and implementation to course correct, but that takes time – something that OpenAI might not have.
Keep the ‘Bore’ on the Board
In the world of tech governance, a healthy board is often a boring, overlooked piece of the equation. Many beyond its walls often don’t know what a board does beyond approving whatever it is they needed at quarterly meetings. This event once again highlights the urgent need for stable, responsible AI governance from the top down. If these organizations can’t ensure their boards are bulwarks against the chaos of the fast-paced innovation and all the ethical considerations, where will that stable, steady hand come from?
Internal Shapes External
As our era of radical transparency intermingles with the ongoing fight for top talent, leadership changes can’t be done on a whim. It’s hard to tell if OpenAI anticipated Altman’s popularity among the cohort of engineers and programmers – in the aftermath, Microsoft now stands to benefit as many jump ship to join Altman. Beyond the brain drain this will cause, the early AI stalwart suddenly looks like an also-ran as the entire AI market faces a realignment. OpenAI will need to do what it can to reinforce to its critical internal and external stakeholders that it will maintain its product and thought leadership in the space and attract and retain top talent.
Who knows, perhaps the new OpenAI regime can steady the ship and steer it through this tempest. The early consensus suggests that within the matter of a few hasty decisions OpenAI went from being the darling of the tech world into a death plunge with a new, familiar face in Microsoft now taking over the industry’s helm.
Whatever the outcome, the AI chaos once again proves that the delicate art of effective communications still requires a human touch.