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A guide to being wrong: 9 tips for failing forward

by Phil Heywood, Strategy Director, 25 July 2019

Read Time: 8 minutes

2019 marks the 21st anniversary of my biggest professional mistake.

I was in charge of producing a CD-ROM (ask your parents) involving Disney, a large telecommunications company and a national newspaper. No pressure then.

As is always the way, time was tight and the deadlines immovable. The CDs were supposed to be distributed in the newspaper on a particular day to tie in with the release of the Disney film. Before that, 200,000 CDs had to be pressed with the interactive content we were struggling to complete on time. There was no wiggle room.

As the manager of the project, it was my responsibility to send the final code to be pressed. Except it wasn’t the final code I sent, but the penultimate version containing a serious bug.

Had I spotted this immediately, there wouldn’t have been a problem. However, on this occasion, I only noticed something was wrong after all 200,000 discs had been pressed, and I’d been sent a copy to check before distribution…

The dolly zoom effect

There is a cinematic technique known as the dolly zoom effect, where the background appears to fall away while the subject remains frozen in the frame. It’s usually employed to convey a sense of sudden realisation or horror. You can tell where I’m going with this.

Anybody who discovers their own monumental ineptitude must make a choice: own up to it and face the consequences, or ignore it and hope nobody notices.

To err is human…

We all know that everybody makes mistakes – usually on a daily basis. Doing something wrong is bad enough, but being wrong is way worse. It’s personal, and we hate it; so much so, that we’ll often do everything we can to avoid it.

Sending the wrong file to press was a momentary error of carelessness. How I followed up that mistake was about me as a person. I wanted to get that right, so I owned up and took responsibility for having to destroy and repress all those discs.

But taking every step we can to avoid being wrong can have unintended consequences.

Don’t move and nobody gets hurt

If you’re lucky, like me, you get to make decisions as part of your daily job. We’re lucky because decisions lead to change.

Peter Drucker, described as ‘the father of modern management’, said “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision”.

Note he used the word “courageous”, not “correct”. This is because very few decisions involve an option that is the right one. Instead, we’re usually faced with a range of possibilities, any one of which could be considered the best of the bunch, but none of which are necessarily perfect.

Being faced with too much choice can lead to a kind of paralysis, because making no decision is better than making the wrong decision, right?

Wrong.

Most changes aren’t permanent, but overall change is

My opening anecdote centered around a now-obsolete piece of technology. The CD-ROM probably only lasted about 10-15 years (if you don’t count game consoles that still use optical media), and now the idea of them is somewhat laughable given the internet and broadband. The same can be said for (most) mobile phones with physical keyboards.

The truism that things are changing quickly applies to nothing as much as it does to technology and digital communications. And while consumers are generally quick to keep up with the times, the same cannot be said for businesses. It can be difficult to change a large organisation and digital maturity is not achieved overnight. So, to misquote Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, “you need to skate not to where the tech is, but where it will be”.

This needs a decision. Maybe a courageous one.

A strategy for being wrong

Even if you’ve got unlimited time, money and resources, it still may not be possible to gather all the facts about a goal to make an iron clad, 100% guaranteed ‘correct’ decision. Some things may be changing too quickly or are simply unknowable. How will the market shape up in the next two years? How will consumer tastes and habits change in that time? What will your competitors be doing?

Chances are, you’ll get something wrong. But that’s OK if you approach things in the right way.

1. Acceptance

It turns out that you are usually your own worst critic, and the reason you hate being wrong so much. It’s a blow to your ego.

So, on a personal level, you need to accept the possibility, or even likelihood, that your role as a decision maker comes with a certain amount of peril. That’s why you’re paid the big bucks.

2. Research

You may not be able to gather all the facts you need, but you can still garner information. Desktop research, stakeholder engagement, market intelligence, user insight, analytics – there are ways to build up the picture to suit your circumstances, and you’ll want any decision you make to be backed up by as many facts as you can manage.

3. Form an opinion

As you research you’ll naturally find an opinion congealing around the facts, eventually forming a theory. This is healthy, provided you…

4. Look to disprove it

Of course, your initial impression may turn out to be spot on. But, if your continued research and testing starts to expose problems, don’t be too attached to it to discard it in favour of something else. As always, honesty is the best policy. Be brutal.

5. Make a leap

Not got all the facts you’d like? Maybe you need to take some creative leaps to turn your theories into a more fully-formed approach. Again, this is fine as long as you remember what assumptions you’ve made, and which bits of your approach rely on them.

6. Run it up the flagpole and see if it flaps

If your theory still seems sound, work it through with your team, or other trusted colleagues. Having to explain something to other people is a very clarifying experience. Can it be expressed in simple terms? Does it survive peoples’ questions and reservations? Does it still make sense after saying it out loud?

Not only does this offer you a chance to give your theory a good airing, it’s a way to get more people on your side and give you extra confidence to proceed.

7. Fail fast

Despite your best efforts to date, your theory may still be wrong. Does using frog DNA to resurrect dinosaurs have any unwanted side effects? Is putting a self-aware AI in charge of the world’s nuclear arsenal and killer cyborg factories really a sensible idea? Will a folding phone last more than a day without breaking? Maybe you won’t know until you test it, but you also don’t want to find out too late.

This is where you need to ‘fail fast’. In other words, if your theory is wrong, how can you come to that conclusion as quickly and cheaply as possible? What are some of the potential failure points that you can poke with a stick? Do your assumptions stack up, or are they fallacies that only serve to conveniently fill the holes in your approach?

8. Fail forward

It’s said we learn more through failure than success. No effort is wasted if you come away from it with greater knowledge and understanding. Share your newfound wisdom and use it to guide you in a different direction.

9. Rinse and repeat

Don’t give up! Just because your idea didn’t work, doesn’t mean your goal isn’t worthwhile or achievable. Use your experience to spur you and your team on, not quit.

“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”

— Henry Ford, Founder of the Ford Motor Company

The answer is out there.

Afterword — Creating a culture of innovation

More often than not, our aversion to being wrong is down to the anticipated reaction of others. Will they think I’m incompetent? Will they think I’ve wasted time and resources? Will they listen to any of my other ideas in the future?

The truth is, these reactions are antithetical to innovation. No truly innovative idea works first time – it takes perseverance and repeated failed attempts.

Does your organisation foster a culture of innovation and, therefore, give you license to try things without fear of being wrong? If not, can you work towards this within your team and demonstrate the success of this culture to your superiors?

“The freedom to fail is vital if you’re going to succeed. Most successful people fail from time to time, and it is a measure of their strength that failure merely propels them into some new attempt at success.”

— Michael Korda, Former editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster

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