The tremendous fear of being wrong

Sigrun Tallungs

Have you ever been in a project where you think people lost their minds? Rational facts are ignored. The project seems unstoppable.
Simon Bennett started his workshop by asking us that question. And everybody has a story to tell about bag, frustrating waste.

Simon Bennett was one of the speakers at From Business to Buttons. He also ran a workshop that in revolved around the fact that we sometimes are wrong, but have a hard time admitting it. Why does this happen so frequently? Bennett’s answer was: The fear of being wrong! This fear is so deep that it rules our minds, and makes us ignore rational facts. Once we have invested in an idea we quickly get attached to it, and you are no longer open for contradicting facts.

Realizing that you are wrong – and probably have been for a while – is not very pleasant. It hurts and makes you feel stupid and even evil. You don’t want to feel like that! You have to protect yourself. That’s why, says Bennett, warning bells are often ignored in escalating project.

“We will continue. Because I say so!”

But how can we continue against better knowledge? Bennett says: The higher in hierarchy, the less you tend to explain why. Actually, explaining your decisions is a “low status behaviour”. When rationality meets power, rationality looses, every time.

Ouch! I hope that isn't always the case, but, thinking about it, in some cases…

No doubt this causes big waste. Simon gives an exampel: An organisation had a wonderful idea for a project – an idea that would prevent young men from dying in car accidents. But eventually measurements showed that more (!) young men died. Instead of immediately stopping the project (and save young boys lives) they chose to think that measurements were invalid.

Say hello to Fear and Anger

But can we fight this deeply human mechanism? Bennett decided to learn from the psychology masters – engineer way – to find smart tools. His recipe: Start with yourself. Recognize your feelings, but stay soft! (“equanimity”, is Bennetts word of choice here). If we accept that feelings affect our actions at work, we can discuss it and be more rational about it.

The world would improve if we could act more rational, based on facts rather then feelings (or in fact research shows you have to involve both).

Old fashioned methods are used to avoid blame

If you are a decision maker, you will be held responsible. Not pleasant, when failing.

I believe that is why (in spite of proven unproductive) waterfall methods are still popular. By using them we defer the blame to someone else. In end of project you typically say “the requirements were wrong”.

That’s why some project leaders still dislikes effect goals. Effect goals is tricky because it demands us to answer frightening questions like “Why are we doing this? Can we prove that people like and will use this stuff?”. This can be very scary in an organisation that's not prepared of being somewhat wrong. Embrace wrong!

Share the responsibility!

But I want to stop projects from escalating! How would this help? This a mix of what I understood from Bennett and my own conclusions:

– Share the responsibility with the leaders! says Bennett.

This should, in my opinion, be done in truly cross-functional team, aiming for effect goals. And being slightly wrong should be part of the method, on our way ahead to a really useful solution.

“I don´t know. Yet.”

Developing system is complex, because the reality is complex. You have to make experiments, search the right solution.

– One of the most dangerous flaws, says Bennett, is to oversimplify. When it is complex, as it usually is when developing something, it doesn’t help to view it as more simple. Old-fashioned methods like waterfall methods, are constructed to work when we can predict future. We seldom can: Predicting how users will behave in the future, with a not yet excising service? Be prepared to be wrong, and to adjust.

I also wish we more often could say: I don´t know! (But let us make research, create a hypothesis based on data, and prove it right or wrong)

Yay, I was wrong – early 

Prove your idea wrong instead of prove it right. It takes courage. It is a change of mind set, but view it as a success (at least if done early, before any waste) and a method to be successful. That is, if I understood Bennett right, part of Toyota Kata-idea, that the work shop is about: Toyota Kata for the Mind.  

What do you think? Can we – by accepting that feelings are part of everything – become more rational, and hopefully be able to say “I was wrong”?

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