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The First Law of Screw-ups

The First Law of Screw-ups

Those of you who know me will know that I am in a constant search for radical thinking in organisations, and to be honest am often disappointed!

Recently I gained some insight into the problem though when I found myself sitting enjoying a glass of wine with the economist Peter Greenhalgh.  We were catching up on more than a year of travel and adventures.  Peter having spent much of the year on the global conference circuit was also pleased to have made a contribution to political debate in the UK through a letter to the Guardian published after watching the 2014 budget.  Its contents made me think.

I quote:

“As I watched the BBC coverage of the budget I was struck by the rich educational diversity of our politicians and pundits.  Coalition: Osborne (History, Oxford), Cameron (PPE, Oxford), Hague (PPE, Oxford), Alexander (PPE, Oxford), Clegg (Anthropology, Cambridge).  Labour: Miliband (PPE, Oxford), Balls (PPE, Oxford). Pundits: Flanders (PPE, Oxford), Robinson (PPE, Oxford), Peston (PPE, Oxford).  There seems to be a PPE club in key positions of influence at the moment.  Interestingly, one person who seems not to have been educationally exposed to the bizarre and arcane world of economic abstraction, is the Chancellor!”

According to Peter there were prominent, influential others with identical academic backgrounds about the Commons on that day too.  I wonder at the dangers of having adversaries and critics with a broadly similar background of ideas and thinking.  Why does this strike me as important?

Well I suppose on the plus side, with such a remarkably narrow range of backgrounds, they should all be able to understand each other in terms of language, concepts and arguments.  They all operate within the same paradigm / framework of understanding - in which they fundamentally recognise the challenges they face in limited ways, with particular symptoms and causes – albeit able to disagree on the solutions. Given the narrowness of life experience in this group it is likely that this shared understanding is particularly strong.

But quite frankly the more I think about this, the more worrying that idea becomes; such narrowness is bound to skew what is paid attention to, creating a shared mind-set which restricts whether a problem is identified in the first place!  There is a danger of ‘losing the plot’ of what’s really unfolding, at least till a total screw-up occurs!

A narrow framework of understanding also freezes out ‘revolutionary thinking’. People trapped within a shared understanding will reach a limited number of familiar solutions enabling them to endlessly debate the efficacy of different options. E.g. “We can raise this, cut that, restrict those”.  Revolutionary thinking enables the challenge to be understood in completely new ways offering the possibility of innovative and novel solutions.

But unfortunately, losing the plot through not seeing the screw-up and lacking revolutionary ideas is not the end of the danger for the PPE club.  One thing I think is critical is that we recognise our ‘understanding’ of a situation - any situation – as temporary and conditional.  There is a yawning chasm between what was going on and what is going on.  Problems evolve quite rapidly and unpredictably.  And doesn’t this happen all too often – people, organisations, governments – spend amazing amounts of time working on solutions without understanding the trajectory and evolution of the challenges they are dealing with?  This is not about trends - a particularly PPE fascination - but morphing; in which the very nature of the challenge changes.  When new and influential features are taking shape it takes a flexibility of thinking and a willingness to accept paradox and incongruity.

So where does this leave us?  I propose Carter’s First Law of Screw Ups - the more people that completely agree on what the problem is, the less likely it is to be managed or solved well. Of course the opposite extreme is also true. (Carter’s Second Law – the more people disagree on what the problem is, the less likely it is to be managed or solved).  I worry that too many leaders (and CEOs) are selecting their teams in terms of ‘fit’ – gathering people around them who see the world like them, creating their own versions of the ‘PPE tribe’.

In organisations, we need what evolutionary biologists might call ‘requisite variety’; enough diversity of understanding within a group.  We need leadership teams to maintain momentum, in terms of decisions and actions, in response to any challenge they face, but also the humility to keep the conversation going with strong radical voices in the room who see a particular challenge very differently to the way the ‘club’ do (painfully irritating though that might be). 

This is applicable at national, organisational and team levels.  The trick is not to create compromise solutions that accommodate this maverick voice - but engage them to provide an ongoing contribution, enabling pressure tests, problem definition and solutions. 

On the other side, the ‘revolutionary voice’ also needs to consider the manner of their contribution.  Are they credible / listenable-to?  Too often revolutionary thinkers prefer to cast themselves in the role of ‘the mad man in the cave’, muttering about the apocalypse rather than developing the influencing and communication skills to help shape other people’s thinking. 

Cheers Peter! PPE anyone?

Comments on this Post

Stephen Venables on 21st September 2014

Putting my oar in for diversity Ö I am glad to report that our recently completed South Georgia expedition included only two Oxford graduates! Also on the team were an American yachtsman, a South African game farmer, a Chilean leadership consultant, a German bush survival expert, the owners of a safety equipment wholesale company, a property developer, an oyster hatchery owner, a Swedish addiction therapist, an Australian radiologist and a fencing contractor.

John Conway on 8th September 2014

Well done on your provocative blog Steve. Two things struck me as I reflected on what you are saying. First, if you have a group of influential decision makers, be they politicians or executives, from similar backgrounds with a common worldview, how can they have any form of practical understanding of what is happening in the real world. How can they relate to their constituencies and as leaders bring their people with them? Second, in times of crisis and when radical change is needed, I can see the value of everybody focusing on a common goal and why dissenters can be seen as potential saboteurs who need to be rooted out. However, I think that these same crises are often caused by those shared mindsets you speak of because not only do the individuals not identify problems, they donít want to hear about them and are only too prepared to shoot the messengers. I think our challenge is to be able to identify leaders who openly encourage honest debate on conflicting ideas and whose worldview is firmly grounded in realty and far removed from ego and the hubris that goes with it.

Andrew Kerry on 8th September 2014

I was reflecting further over the weekend and aside from the tad cynicism of my previous comment it stikes me that te need for diversity, preparedness to listen/explore and to, in the nicest way, 'row' is also important. I am often struck by people quashing disent as not 'team minded' or any sense of an arguement resulting in uncomfortable silence, embarressed laughter and a rapid 'moving on' to the next subject. We need the differences to be explored through the discomfort to find genuine new solutions not all round unsatisfactory compromise.

Maggi Evans on 6th September 2014

Great blog Steve. I was about to say 'I totally agree', but then I reflected... If we all agree, we could be showing evidence of another 'in' group, thereby at risk of the first law... So, here's a slightly different take. Perhaps there's a need for different approaches for different situations- a variation on situational leadership, whereby some issues work well with limited group diversity (straight forward issue, short timeframe), but other issues require many different perapectives (complex, multi faceted and longer term implications). Within this approach, the dissident voice may not need to be ever present but could be brought in at critical points to be provocative. This is a role I know that you are excellent at Steve!

William Winstone on 5th September 2014

I agree completely too, and at a deeper level there is a greater confounding factor, the number of the Cabinet (and perhaps pundits?) who went to boarding school. The recent social mobility report highlights this, and therapist and writer Nick Duffell goes further in highlighting the impact that premature separation as children has upon adults in all aspects of their later life, including their ability to lead. See his book Wounded Leaders - Provocative and convincing.

Luciana Biscaia on 5th September 2014

Very interesting post Steve. As a Latin American executive who worked in various countries, I frequently felt that instead of appreciating 'different' perspectives, there was always a strong group pressure for the 'different' to 'become one of them'. i.e. behave in ways similar to the dominant culture. I feel that most managers don't have the skills or are not prepared to bring the best of each individual/culture and build a richer working environment. Corporate life can get really boring at times..

Richard Gilliland on 5th September 2014

Diversity within management teams in my opinion creates challenging discussions which in turn if done constructively and respectfully can create great ideas and deliver different and creative solutions. Employ people or robots who arent encouraged to or dont have an opinion or a voice and you get sheep who just follow the crowd not strong leadership teams which in turn just continues to breed more of the same.

Tim Goodwin on 4th September 2014

This is such an important point. As Einstein famously said, "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." Problems are solved by new perspectives and different views. Competent leaders value these and have them to hand.

Mark Grant on 4th September 2014

Is this situation not just chronyism or jobs for the boys! Diversity is an absolute must in management teams, however it takes greater leadership. Selecting "yes men" or "like minded thinkers" is the easy option. Challenging conventional thinking can also be career damaging for young managers, as they can often be seen as anti. Free thinking and challenging the norm need to be part of all management training, doesn't it?

Andrew Kerry on 4th September 2014

Can I suggest a third law... When unable to agree on either the problem or the solution develop a project plan and overarching governance, then re-structure, report progress on the lack of sustained change... Wait two years and repeat...

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