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Thursday, April 19, 2020

Getting it wrong to get it right

Organizations (and people) who are afraid to make mistakes can neither live nor learn effectively.

Yesterday, I wrote about Professor Russell Ackoff’s interview with Peter Day, reported here on the BBC web site. In the second part of that interview, the topic shifts away from business schools towards another key question: how can you be successful if you ignore, or hide, or deny your mistakes? Aren’t mistakes the basis of virtually all learning? If you don’t learn from them, who or what will be able to teach you anything?
It sometimes seems that our society is obsessed with prying into the mistakes of others, but that isn’t really true. The media have a prurient fascination with the mistakes of the rich and famous—especially any that involve sex—and there are many who take an equally perverse joy in proving to themselves that those whom they secretly envy are, in reality, no better then they are. Yet the greatest effort goes into hiding mistakes, or denying their very existence, as if making a mistake were the most shameful of social diseases. Politicians, business leaders, the rich and famous, all spend lavishly on covering up their mistakes.

Our society's petty and mean-minded ways of dealing with mistakes, focused as they are on pointing to others’ misdemeanors, while carefully concealing or ignoring your own, are so common that we scarcely notice any more. Sadly, this is also the way that mistakes are treated in most organizations: as something to be ashamed of, to punish, and to conceal or deny whenever possible. Listen to Professor Ackoff:
You never learn by doing something right, because you already know how to do it. The only opportunity for learning is to identify mistakes and correct them. If you are in an organization which says that mistakes are a bad thing, learning is suppressed. So you either try to avoid mistakes, or if you make them, you shift blame to someone else.
The simplest way to avoid mistakes is to do nothing; or at least to do nothing new or different from the conventional. If you resolutely stick to whatever is the most obvious, the most orthodox, and the most common, you at least have the chance of deflecting criticism by the time-worn practice of pointing to everyone else and saying that they did the same. As Ackoff points out, organizations have elaborate measurement and recording systems to note even the slightest sins of commission—doing what you ought not to have done—and none at all to deal with the worst kind of mistakes in business: not doing what you should have.
The worst kind of mistake is not being wrong, but something you did not do that you should have done. Errors of omission are responsible for failures and bankruptcy.
I think that he is right about that. Following the herd and sticking to the conventional and orthodox makes you mediocre and pedestrian, but it takes a long time to bring your business to its knees. Missing opportunities, ignoring mistakes, staying complacent in the face of change, and suppressing new ideas will all ruin you faster and much more effectively.

Yet that is what so many organizations are doing. They’re so hell-bent on imitating others and avoiding risks that they take the biggest risk of all: ignoring reality.

Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other.

Deciding not to do something is just as much a decision as its opposite. Choosing to stay the same is a choice with as many consequences as choosing to change in some way. One merely feels more active than the other. In reality, both represent an equally significant response to events. If one is punishable, so should the other be. Of course, honest mistakes—those made despite every effort to get it right—are no more worthy of being punished than getting wet when it rains. Life is unpredictable and often cruel. Only the dead are free from further errors.

To learn fully from your own mistakes, you should make as careful a note of when you decided not to act as when you did. Refusing to act is still your choice, and you should trace its consequences carefully. If you don't, at least half the lessons life can teach you will never be recognized. Sometimes the greatest gamble of all is to refuse to throw the dice.

In my own experience, as you get older, you spend far more time aware of all the opportunities that you didn’t take, and the things that you didn’t do—and now wish that you had—than regretting the mistaken actions or choices that you did go through with. Though you know that many of those missed opportunities would not have worked out—that you would have suffered hurts you avoided and much pain and embarrassment—you become aware of what you have missed that was far more valuable: experiences that would have taught you lessons that now you can never learn.

Getting it right, in work or life, nearly always involves a great deal of getting it wrong as well. Success depends critically on how you face up to failure, take the lesson it offers, and start again. Opportunities missed are usually gone for ever. The road not taken never shows up on the map again.

That’s why rushing through life, obsessed with conventional success and fixated purely on material gain, may produce riches and fame, but very often misses out on happiness and contentment. The New Testament of Christians asks: “What shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet loses his soul?” You only have one trip around the sun. Use it well, or lose the chance of living and learning forever.



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