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When being wrong helps you be right

September 23, 2010

In any business, there’s always a tendency to accept the working process. Production becomes like a factory and it sometimes seems there’s no way out. This is when managers become weary and staff decide to leave. For businesses in this situation, collapse is coming – maybe not today or tomorrow but some time soon.

The danger of working in such an environment is that it discourages entrepreneurial risk taking, compelling managers and staff to simply do what they’ve always done in order to get by. This is a recipe for disaster. As an old American colleague of mine used to say: “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten“. I would add to this: “in ever reducing numbers“.

In today’s publishing world, for example, the old ways are resulting in fewer book sales. In military shipbuilding and defence expenditure, government customers are no longer tolerating bad practice and delays. In the US car industry, fewer and fewer people want the old gas guzzlers: even Hummer – the ultimate in excess – was sold recently.

The challenges to company “group think” must come from within. Yes, consultants have a role in encouraging change but the people who will really make the change are those in your own teams who are doing new things.

They might be failing in what they do or maybe sales from new techniques are not what they could be. They might have found a new way to bond aluminium to glass only to find that the glass breaks a day later. They might be conducting extensive customer research only to find that it doesn’t tell them anything they didn’t already know.

The point is that by experimentation, people learn and then – in the right environment – apply the lessons learned. The wrong environment criticises these failures and uses them to justify the status quo. The right environment picks up the baton by asking whether the experiments showed new things.

Companies can, should and must morph to confront their future. A colleague of mine once told me that sometimes the best experts to advise a business are those who are hidden within it. They could be the accounts clerk, the receptionist, the online order processor or even the packer. They could also be the board directors or managers.

But for companies to tap this resource they must create a culture of freedom: freedom from criticism; freedom from humiliation; freedom from the guilt of failure. By learning from failures and encouraging  an environment of learning, people and profits can grow as the company becomes more geared towards what its customers really want.

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