Five Questions That Can Save You From Messing Up

Posted on 05 August 2020

Success often hinges on avoiding unforced errors. Here’s how to do it.


What’s the cause of unforced errors in life and work? Not stopping to think. Going so fast that you don’t see the looming pothole until you hit it. When asked why they did something stupid, the commonest thing people say is: “It seemed like such a good idea at the time.” It did — because all they saw were their dreams of success, and they didn’t slow down enough to notice the risks that went along with them.

Today’s leadership role models tend to be aggressive by nature. They prefer the spectacular win over any series of small gains, even if it comes with far more risk. They want to be known as ‘winners’, not people who play safe. And, like all who have the power to recruit others, they tend to choose people in their own image: people whose strengths and weaknesses are very like their own. You can think of this like the emphasis on successful stock-picking that flew around before the dot-com bust. The supposed masters of this art were widely imitated, even though all the evidence is that even the most dedicated and professional of them cannot beat the market over the long term.

The truth is far more prosaic: in nearly every human activity, success depends more on avoiding unforced errors than flashes of brilliance. The one who doesn’t mess up, wins. The brilliant risk-taker produces occasional miracles, but they’re often out-weighed by all the mistakes that come along with that approach. Look back on your own career for a moment. Some of the bad times certainly won’t have been your fault; chance plays a huge part in events, personal and organizational. But how many times did you make some mistake that you know was perfectly avoidable — if only you’d seen it in time? How many unforced errors have caused you embarrassment, loss of credibility, or even more serious career set-backs?

The heart of the problem

Here’s the problem: Many successful people lose all their gains on subsequent actions and ventures into the unknown. They’re influenced more by their past success than rational estimates of what may lie ahead. They get delusions of grandeur. They rush into more risks than they can handle. They don’t stop to think and miss the obvious.

They also know that everyone else is watching them to see if they can pull it off a second time. Most high achievers fear failure — it’s what drove them to push so hard to win — and they fear it even more when it’s likely to take place publicly. They have to win and win again. Yet each big win brings the likelihood of a crash closer, even as it starts to lose its luster. For habitual winners, who are simply expected to win again, the only way to stay in the limelight is to make each win bigger and more risky than the last. It may make for good entertainment, but it’s a crazy way to run a business — or a career.

Why do so many people do it? Because they have been taught it’s the only way.

Five questions to keep you safe

Before jumping in, slow down and ask yourself these five questions. They’ll save your credibility — and your ass — nearly every time:

1. What assumptions am I making? Many, many unforced errors come from failing to recognize that certain assumptions are critical to a successful outcome. If you don’t spot the assumptions, you won’t test them to see if they’re valid. If they prove not to be, they’ll screw up all your efforts in a New York minute and you’ll look really, really stupid.

2. What is so obvious I’m not seeing it? Here’s a great example I picked up from the web. Someone was showing a visitor from a Third World country around a small town in America. They drove to a bank and stopped at the ATM in the drive-through section. The driver, hoping to impress the visitor, explained how the instructions were even printed in Braille alongside the written version. When the visitor roared with laughter, the driver was naturally miffed. “What’s funny about that?” the driver asked. “How many blind people are driving on the roads in America?” was the response. Duh!

3. What do I know, but am not acknowledging? It’s amazing how often people know what is likely to happen, but choose to shut their eyes to it. Facing your fears is usually the best way to overcome them. Taking time to consider what bad things could happen is the best way to avoid them. Closing your mind to anything except success is like driving with your eyes shut — it’s just a matter of time before you have an accident. The only question is how bad it will be.

4. If I hadn’t already committed myself, would I start this now? If I wasn’t already involved, would I still choose to be? Sometimes, the best option is to get out and put up with any embarrassment that causes you. It’s bound to be better than staying on a ship going full steam ahead for the rocks.

5. Is trying harder truly going to make any difference? It used to be said that all English people abroad followed the same sequence in dealing with a non-English-speaking foreigner: first, speak slower; then make suitable gestures; finally, shout. If that fails, shout louder. That’s what people do with projects that are going wrong: they keep on keeping on, trying harder and harder. Sadly, if the problem is intractable at the start, that won’t help one bit. Remember the saying about flogging a dead horse? Most companies are full of people flailing away madly at dead or dying beasts. Don’t join them.

Nothing can save you from mistakes like slowing down to think can. Nothing will push you into more of them than failing to do so. It’s your choice.

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This post was written by:

Carmine Coyote - who has written 251 posts on Slow Leadership.

Carmine Coyote is the founder and editor of Slow Leadership, with a career that stretches from early employment as an economist, through periods in government service, academia and several multinational companies, to retiring as CEO of a US consulting company and partner in a large business services firm. Carmine now lives in Arizona, but is British for all that.

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8 Comments For This Post

  1. Clif says:

    I send many of your posts to my management, hoping I get the timing and delivery right. I think you capture our common errors so well, and express the simple solutions very succinctly. Why is this so hard for folks?

  2. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks, Clif. I’m glad you enjoy what you read here — and I hope the folks you send the posts to enjoy them as well. Keep reading, my friend.

  3. Clif says:

    Years ago, during a period of extreme frustration with my greater “team,” I tried to boil my guidance down to a few simple principles in an e-mail:

    1. Communicate like a team: If there are hang ups with completing work, communicate them honestly and in a timely manner. (An absence of communication leaves folks to fill in the gaps with speculation).

    2. Delegate: If you can’t do a job, either admit it so folks can switch to their Plan B, or delegate the job to someone who can.

    3. Focus: Choose what you do to the extent you can; allocate your resources as if you really meant to accomplish your stated goals. The absence of an active choice is a choice - and a bad one at that; one that leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness that have compounding trickle-down effects.

    4. Practice triage: Let the hopeless cases die. Don’t injure all the others because you’re unwilling to admit some things aren’t worth fighting for. Sustaining effort on the hopeless only wastes resources that could have been allocated to something with a potentially positive outcome.

    Folks thought this was so significant they copied the note and passed it out at meetings. It is framed and placed on managers’ walls. And we still don’t do it. There are probably barriers I’m not yet aware of, or that I underestimate. To me, its just the efficient use of limited resources. Maybe thru repetition, we can get it right. I won’t give up.

  4. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for this, Clif. It’s a great list.

    Why don’t people do what it says? Because something else — some other felt need or urge — is stronger.

    Take item 3, for example. I suspect many people use both procrastination and muddled priorities as a way of avoiding tasks they fear will lead to failure and embarrassment. So long as something is still on your to-do list, maybe partly completed, you haven’t revealed whether or not you can actually accomplish it.

    That also links to item 2, where admitting you can’t do something — or truly can’t make the time — is seen as admitting to a weakness that may be criticized.

    My personal belief is that, however irrational some aspect of human behavior appears to be, there’s always a reason linked to getting something the person values — or avoiding something they fear. That’s how it is, whether they have admitted to themselves or not.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  5. Lee Cockerell says:

    Nice post…I worked for 41 years and found corporate America pretty disfunctional. It is true that there are few risk takers out there. Everyone seems to settle for being just good enough verses taking some risks and being great and perhaps even leaving a legacy. My biggest concern was always how disorganized people were. Most don’t have a strong personl system for getting it all done and doing it in the right order of importance. The world is full of people that use wishing, hoping and praying that things will get done or get better. On my own leadership blog one of my posts recently was title, “Think at least once a day.” Taking the time to think about all of the responsibilities we have signed up for are vital and also to “think” about what we should do today which will not pay off for 5, 10, 20 or 40 years from now. The problem is that common sense is not common practice. Thanks for the post…Lee

  6. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for the comment, Lee. I’m glad you enjoyed the article. My point is precisely the same as yours: thinking is engaged in all too rarely, being replaced with either mechanistic analysis (typically numerical) or hoping.

    Keep reading, my friend.

  7. Gibbo says:

    Hi Carmine

    Thank you for an enlightening post, which shone a very bright light on some of my own decisions (good and bad) over recent months.

    Thank you also for providing such an amazing resource on leadership. I have been a manager for a couple of years but have only recently begun understanding myself as a leader with the aid of resources such as this blog.

    Keep up the great work!

  8. Carmine Coyote says:

    Thanks for the comment, Gibbo. I appreciate it very much and am glad that you find the articles on Slow Leadership useful to you.

    Keep reading, my friend.

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