The strategy of errors

On execellence
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The Independent Online
Most grand strategies flop, and most big "change" programmes fizzle. Why? Because we worry too much about the plan and not enough about its implementation.

Looking back on 35 years or so of managing, being managed and observing organisations, I offer a few secrets of the top implementers: - Listening. You will invariably find answers if your ears are open. The average boss is a better talker than a listener. So, too, the average salesperson. On the other hand, a peak performer in any role may be close to inarticulate, but is able to absorb a million details of what's on other folks' minds - then act accordingly.

- Naivete. Listening is not enough. Let preconceptions go and hear old laments as if for the first time ("You guys just can't deliver on time"). Hint: keeping yourself fresh is the key to perpetual naivete.

- Curiosity. Never, ever stop asking: "Can you help me understand this better?" "Can you give me a concrete example?" "Can you direct me to the person closest to the action?"

- "Thank you" - the two most powerful words in the English language. Last week I wrote about attentiveness; this is a variation on the theme. Nobody ever tires of being appreciated.

- Information. Forget about information overload. Everyone craves information and, even more, being "in the loop." The person who is informed is the empowered person. The uninformed is unempowered. And what holds for employees holds for customers and other corporate partners.

- "Talk the walk." You've heard of "walk the talk," but Karl Weick, the organisational researcher, insists the reverse is even more important.

The leader's main role is to add coherence to a real but ambiguous world. That only happens when the boss hangs out, observes - and then explains, vividly, what he or she has seen and what it means in the scheme of things.

David Armstrong of Armstrong International, whose business card says "Storyteller", takes the idea to its extreme by what he calls MBSA - "managing by storying around." He collects sagas about every aspect of his company's affairs. Instead of policy manuals and directives, he runs the company by talking up these stories and collecting them in books.

- Just do it. The reason most plans are a joke is that nobody really knows anything. The only way we can make any progress is to do something - and see what happens.

Life is not about serenely walking down the middle of wide, ordered streets. It's about veering to and fro, bouncing off the guard-rails and then overcorrecting. But you can't correct your course until you've taken to the road! - Screw-ups. "Honour your errors," writes Kevin Kelly in his provocative book Out of Control: The Fuse of Neo-Biological Civilisation.

"A trick will only work for a while, until everyone else is doing it. To advance ... requires a new game. But the process of going outside the conventional method ... is indistinguishable from error... Evolution can be thought of as systematic error management."

When will we learn to honour error - to understand that goofs are the only way to step forward; that really big goofs are the only way to leap forward? A boss who doesn't cheer fabulous failures is a public nuisance.

- Get their attention. Want people to focus on something? Simple: make them trip over it.

Want to increase customer-service consciousness? Forget barking orders or issuing a plasticised "Customers First" vision statement. Instead: (1) prominently post customer-service statistics; (2) distribute all customer letters, good and bad, to everyone

(but omit the names of offending employees because public humiliation is hardly the point); (3) cover the walls with customers' pictures (buyers, products, facilities); (4) give weekly awards for small acts of customer heroism; and (5) use a customer-service case to lead off every newsletter.

I could add 100 more items; the idea is to make it impossible to avoid "customer stuff".

- Exuberance. If you don't know the score, and there's not much chance of figuring it out, why not enjoy the ride? A sense of humour is imperative, not optional, for successful implementation.

Life (personal or business) is a circus. If you fail to get a kick out of all the entertainment and can't accept that nothing ever goes according to plan, you're in trouble. It's not that every cloud has a silver lining (many do not); it's that every success is built on taking advantage of the many detours, setbacks and embarrassments that life routinely serves up. It you can reap sheer, unadulterated joy from the moss that surrounds you, you've gone a long way toward implementation stardom. Good luck.

TPG Communications