What’s Better, Infallible or Successful?

by Sean on August 30, 2010

While working with a client recently, an interesting issue arose. While generating reports, I was given specific instructions on what information was to be shared. More to the point, I was told what was not to be shared. The concern was the information would cast some people in a poor light. In other words, the reputations of these individuals were put before their performance. This dynamic is the enemy of real progress and can be fatal. It harkens back to a bygone era where information was scarce and those who controlled its flow wielded great power. It comes from the wrong belief that the way to become successful is to be infallible. This means always being right and never changing viewpoints. We hold our politicians to this standard, and as a result, we get governance by ideology instead of common sense.

Not a typical mission statement, is it?

This infallibility myth is borne of the era of confrontational work environments, where any mistake or mishap is perceived as a result of weakness of intellect or character. Large companies dealing with organized labour provide many examples of this. When unexpected things occur, the standard reaction is to find and punish the guilty party. This kills innovation because the pain of failure outweighs the good feelings of breakthroughs. A former coworker of mine aptly described this as “A kick in the ass is worth the same as 10 pats on the back.”
When we look at the world of science and technology, we see improvements faster than most of us can keep up with. Scientific discovery doesn’t seem to be impeded by information hoarding or protecting reputations. Why is that? Why does science succeed where many organizations stagnate and fail?

Want progress? Act like these guys.

I could go into a dissertation on the wonders of Six Sigma, Lean and Theory of Constraints, but instead I will point to one of the best shows on TV, Mythbusters. Each week, Adam, Jamie and the build crew test myths from movies, TV, the Internet and popular culture. When they take on a myth, they always state beforehand what they think the result will be. They then build experiments to test the myth. The interesting thing here is they are only right about 50% of the time. Even more telling is how genuinely happy they are when proven wrong. As Adam often says “We have a result.” To me, this shows where science succeeds where many organizations fail.

Without scientific discovery, we wouldn't have computers as nice as this.

So how can you make use of this great advantage? First, check how susceptible your organization is to the infallibility myth.

  • When an unexpected event occurs, is the first reaction of your people one of covering their tracks?
  • Is your workplace unofficial motto “Nobody moves, nobody get’s hurt?”
  • Is your product or service offering essentially unchanged over several years?
  • Does your customer service scorecard measure only complaints and defects?
  • Are new ideas treated with skepticism or derision?

If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, you may have an infallibility myth problem. This is a deep-seated cultural problem and won’t change overnight. The best way to crack the ice is to stop acting infallible. If one of your ideas blows up in your face, admit to it. More importantly, try to find the lesson in the failure. In addition, deal with mishaps with your employees as failures of the system, instead of personal failures. Finally, look for the upside in these events. You may stumble upon the next big thing for your organization.

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