Dare to be Wrong

October 28, 2011

I was attending a final feature review in support of the Product Manager, Mike (not his real name). The engineers had lobbied with everyone to add a feature to the list (let’s call it Cool-Feature) and Mike just did not think it was a good thing to add at this point.  The company’s process had given him the task of making the final call, but he really wanted agreement on this. 


He and I had discussed the various arguments earlier and Mike felt somewhat armed to be able to argue the case for Cool-Feature not to be included in the release.  Much like everyone else, it was more a gut feeling, although there was some good data that agreed with the gut feel.  The question was, did Mike have the strength to go with his convictions?


I keep searching for the core values, those things that that show me how people will behave in the boundary conditions like the one above.  Attributes that will make them special. I don’t know if there are enough people who really get what good core values are. The question for me is how do I get others to have these core values that that are so necessary. Toughness, dedication, the ability to keep marching forward and accomplish the goal are the core values I want to discuss here.


Think about the power you have when have guts and you know how to persevere. Literature, history, mythology, religious writing, folklore, sports, and just about anything that describes people we admire provide ample  stories that talk about someone who kept going in the face of overwhelming  forces in the opposite direction. We have universally decided that these are the people we are to admire, to emulate, and ultimately become. Maybe it is because I bought into the idea that I am supposed to rise above it all that I am so pre-occupied with the concept; because I am. It just bothers me that more of my fellow humans don’t have the same point of view, particularly ones in power.


My parents were Death Camp survivors from WW II.  They were slave labor in the camp and they saw that some people just laid down and died, while others had the will to drive forward.  It seems to me that having the guts to overcome adversity is not just a fundamental concept that defines me, but may well be the defining concept of my life. It is how I grew up, it was what my parents did, it was what the country of my childhood did, it is what the country of my adulthood did and it was what I hang my self-perception on. I see myself through the lens of being tough, having guts, being someone who can dig down and make things happen.


I love working with people who share that goal, who are all working with me towards something hard and the fact that it is hard does not stop us, it encourages us. The harder it gets the more effort we have to put in and the more we are rewarded by the emotions that accompany commitment and execution of commitment. When you are deep into an effort that everyone has commitment for, real deep inter-personal commitment develops. People who have been to war together talk about this all the time, your fellow soldiers are like family forever. People who have gone through these experiences spend a lifetime recalling the joys of that commitment. In the case of war, they also talk about the horrors of their activity.


Well, we can have the joys of fellowship and commitment without going to war. We can have the rewards of accomplishment without having our lives threatened. But we do not do so very often. We seem to be singularly constructed to avoid doing that which we enjoy most. Maybe that is why some much of our lore reminds us that we should move in that direction.


Product leaders need to be tough and do what they say they are going to do. It is actually very straightforward as a concept.  Life is more than passing time, it is making a difference. It is putting in the effort and sacrifice to produce something that you can be proud of that would not have existed if you had not put in the effort.


If you want to lead you have to have the guts to know that you will be wrong, in some major ways.  Anybody can make the easy decision, it is much harder to make the tough choice when you do not have all the data, you do not know what the real answer is, but you know that you have to keep going. Too many leaders will duck the tough questions, will ignore the need for making decisions, will opt for something safe. Those are not leaders, those are fakes. You have to make decisions and you will be wrong some, non-trivial amount of the time.


In baseball we call it a batting average. A baseball player that can hit the ball 45% of the time will in all likelihood be crowned the hitting champion of the league.  In basketball a player that shoots 60% (for non foul shots) is considered as good as it gets. What changes in business is that the cost of being wrong seems higher, but is it. Let’s say I am a star basketball player and my team is down by one point with 2 seconds left in the game. We are playing for the championship with millions of dollars at stake. I get the ball, I know I can only hit 60% of my shots, do I not shoot? Of course not, I shoot the ball with the expectation of getting it in. If I miss, that is life.


Business is no different, except the urgency is often less obvious. We can lull ourselves into believing that the decision can wait, that the need to take a risk can be postponed, that we need a perfect decision. There is no clock, there are no crowds, there is no coach to say that we must decide right now. Instead, we have to know, internally, that we must keep going, that we must decide, that we must make a decision and take what comes.


What are the risks? The first category is personal. The risk is failure. The risk is ridicule. The risk is embarrassment. The risk is loss of face. The risk is conflict with others in the department. The risk is not giving people what they want. The second category belongs to the organization. The risk is losing to the competition and going out of business.


So we are weighing personal risks against corporate risk, or so we think. In our mind, we wonder why we should take all those risks just to have the company succeed. The personal failure is just not worth it. Let the company fail, I can always find another job.  But what kind of job, when you really have done nothing.


The real benefit is personal as well as to the organization. First off we gain independence if we are free to act. Once we gain that autonomy of action we will start making things happen, which will give us freedom and confidence. Making successful decisions will allow us to get more done, which will lead to people around us recognizing that we get things done which will lead to success. Even if the organization ultimately fails, you will have a long list of achievements.


The last part of having the guts to be wrong is keeping an eye on our decisions and admitting we were wrong when we make bad decisions. We will make bad decisions. When we make mistakes, recover and quickly. Figure out what you did wrong and fix it. Don’t pretend you are perfect, admit the error, make a new decision and keep marching.



© 2011-18 Westerly Consulting LLC, all rights reserved


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All photographs by Fred Engel