Is Resistance to Planning About Fear of Mistakes? 1

There are plenty of pundits out there claiming that planning your business is a waste of the time you could be using to actually run your business. Of course, we know several reasons why that falsehood is, well, false.

But why does it persist? Is it possible that resistance to business planning is part of a larger cultural attitude that it’s dangerous and humiliating to have to admit you were wrong?

Listening to BP CEO Tony Hayward dodge and duck during last week’s congressional inquiry into the explosion of the Macondo oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, I was struck all over again by our stunning, culture-wide inability to face up to ignorance, failure, and mistakes.

That inability is particularly evident up in the power stratosphere, where admissions of error are made rarer by (among other things) threats of litigation, fear of the wrath of voters or shareholders, and a value system that generally prioritizes certainty and ego over curiosity and humility. But this problem is hardly limited to our political, military, economic and corporate leaders. On the contrary: our society as a whole has completely neglected to master the art of acknowledging our mistakes. In fact, we haven’t even mastered the basic skill of saying “I was wrong.”

– Kathryn Schulz, the author of Being Wrong

As expert planners know, all business plans are wrong. By the time you get around to the third or fourth month of sales, you can see where your initial assumptions were way off base. If you take the time to plan your business, you are setting yourself up to be proven wrong again and again, especially if you do it the right way, with regular review and analysis.

The paradox is that if you avoid planning to avoid being wrong, you’re also reducing your chances of success.

Fortunately, Schulz offers some tips for improving our comfort levels with admitting we were wrong. Try using these at your next plan review meeting:

Change “blame” to “accountability”
From Schulz’ article:

When the VA learned that the major reason clinicians didn’t report errors wasn’t fear of legal action but a feeling of humiliation, they circulated a definition of “blameworthy” harm to a patient that limited such cases to those involving assault, the use of illegal substances, or intentionally attempting obviously dangerous procedures.  The result? Error reporting shot up 30-fold.

The point of a regular plan review isn’t to point fingers, but to adjust course so that you can act, and not just react. Offer incentives for employees to analyze their own plan vs. actual results, figure out what assumptions were wrong, and how to adjust the aspects of the plan within their control to better take advantage of reality. As Schulz points out in another piece, “You cannot in good faith insist that people acknowledge their mistakes if you intend to shower them with moral outrage when they do so.”

Part of encouraging a culture of accountability is taking care of people who cry wolf:

In fairy tales, crying wolf is a bad thing. In management, dealing with employees in a company, it’s a good thing. Crying wolf means sounding false alarms. Saying something isn’t working. The messaging is wrong, production is faulty, customers are getting the wrong idea, the parking lot is icy, or whatever. And I’ve learned, in some 30 years managing people, that you should treasure the employees who care enough to sound the alarms.

Don’t take yourself so seriously
Schulz offers examples of humorous ways people have found to ease the comfort of being wrong, from a woman who uses the phrase, “I hate it when you’re right,” to the college friends who stop and clap when one of them admits to being wrong. Poking fun at ourselves is a really great way to ease the sting of admitting a mistake.

Maybe your business needs a whiteboard with a title that says, “things we were wrong about this week.” Or a planning meeting where you let people run wild with best-possible-scenarios, like finding out that the rubber widgets you make also cure cancer and taste like candy. Be creative. Have fun. Be wrong.

Finally, if fear of being wrong is keeping you from planning your business, take heart: even the big guys make simple mistakes, sometimes.

Sara Prentice Manela
Editor

About the Author This is a guest post by an author in the Up and Running community. If you're interested in submitting a guest post, contact the Up and Running Editor. Read more »

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  • Macleod

    Brilliant! We need more of this kind of thinking!