Just as differences do not automatically lead to conflicts, they don’t inevitably cause mistakes either. However, pushing ideas into feasible plans and on to development involves risks; that’s where potential mistakes occur. If most people already feel uncomfortable with voicing different opinions, proposals, or ideas, the discomfort increases with the higher risks that come with realizing such ideas or plans.
Consider this colossal mistake: “In 2011, H.P.’s directors unanimously approved the acquisition of the British software maker Autonomy for $11.1 billion, a deal that was considered wildly overpriced even at the time. Less than a year later, H.P. wrote off $8.8 billion of that and claimed it had been defrauded.” The presiding CEO of this purchase was Mr. Apotheker. His own appointment was also considered a dubious choice at the time, and later a mistake given the loss. A series of mistakes of such magnitude is bound to diminish even a giant like H.P.
Consider another proposal: Yahoo CEO, Marrisa Mayer’s recent decision to not just curtail, but eliminate telecommuting at Yahoo. All employees have to be physically stationed at the office now, with only occasional exceptions. It’s way too early to pass verdict on this decision.
Concerning the H.P. case of purchasing Autonomy, how could one avoid such a mistake? This isn’t like John Cleese’s guiding a missile by correcting multiple small mistakes (see below): You can’t buy several multibillion dollar companies and see which one would work out. Preventing this mistake, perhaps by reviewing options with a wide range of opinions and assessments in the boardroom prior to the purchase, would have served H.P. better. According to the article, the board rubber-stamped the purchase decision, just as it did the hiring of Mr. Apotheker. In Yahoo’s case, I contend that a more thoughtful approach might start with a trial run; it would serve both as a test as well as a signal to the workforce. Or, Ms. Mayer could experiment systematically: Allowing different groups to try out a few different combinations of telecommuting and office presence. Then, reassess the options after, say, six months. I wonder what other input she sought before making such a decision with potentially far-reaching impact.
Trying out different ideas could be costly, so, we minimize differences. If there are no differences, there won’t be trials, and there won’t be mistakes. But neither will there be new developments. That’s the “Quality Assurance” paradox. In areas where mistakes can cause loss of life, such as design flaws in nuclear reactors or buildings or airplanes, etc (but surely, there were mistakes before they found viable constructions?), preventing mistakes is essential, and preventing differences may be one method. But the vast majority of us benefit tremendously from the fruits of product development; and during the trajectory of developing some of these products, there must have been some mistakes. If we punish each and every one of these mistakes, assuming that even the minor mistakes were narrowly-averted catastrophes, we wouldn’t have progressed very far.
John Cleese, of Monty Python fame, presented a wonderful speech about mistakes. Here is a link to part of that otherwise copyrighted speech. He used the “Gordon the guided missile” children’s book as an illustration. On its way to the target, Gordon the missile’s built-in monitor signal has a constant feedback loop to see if it is on the right course. “A bit further up and a bit further to the left.” Or, “Must come down a bit and a foot to the right.” Along the way, each mistaken move receives correction and eventually the missile manages to avoid that “one mistake that would have really mattered: missing the target.”
A children’s book often offers the wisest lessons. Intuitively, some mistakes are more tolerable than others. How do we judge? Are we willing to accept mistakes by physicians? If not, are we saying that physicians can never make mistakes?
In the same TED Radio Hour, Brian Goldman, an ER doctor at Mount Sinai Toronto with more than 20 years service, shared some of his mistakes. His first mistake, during his residency, concerned an elderly woman whose shortness of breath was treated with medication to ease a presumed heart condition (which turned out not to be the case), and promptly discharged. Listen to the story for the details, but they’re immaterial to the point I am trying to make: Had the doctor kept the patient in the hospital, the staff would have been able to provide frequent feedback while monitoring the patient, not unlike guiding Gordon the guided missile. This doesn’t mean that the patient would be guaranteed a correct treatment, but she would have whole lot better odds in getting the right treatment. So, was it a mistake in the initial diagnosis? Or in the decision to sever the feedback loop by sending the patient home? Dr. Goldman now has a radio show where he encourages other physicians to share their mistakes.
Cleese makes a linguistic point, “We don’t have a good word for ‘a reasonable try which didn’t come off.’”
Sometimes we don’t have the time to make distinctions, and often we are too lazy to make distinctions. So, we treat all mishaps and accidents as malfeasant acts and punish everyone with stricter rules and regulations. Yes, some mistakes are Darwin Awards, others are merely mindless, and still others offer valuable lessons, but we still punish the ones who make these mistakes. To what end? “Zero intolerance” is, paradoxically, an equally stupid mistake.
I’ll end with Cleese’s eloquent expression: The problems come when mistakes are denied. If you don’t acknowledge a mistake, you can’t correct it.
Do you have a story of valuable mistake to share? Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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- John Cleese Speaks on Creativity (thelivingnotebook.com)