Relentless optimism

There seems to have been a strange trend developing in some circles of management in the last couple of years - a relentless optimism that is almost depressing to observe. It's nothing new that the self-help-guru cross doublespeak dialect that passes for management language absorbs and spits out phrases without taking much notice of their intended meaning, but lately it's really getting on my nerves. Particularly the phrase "it's OK to fail".

Now of course it is OK to fail, in fact it's unavoidable if you actually do anything. The idea behind having a culture that's accepting of failure is that people won't try and cover them up, and as a result the organisation as a whole can learn from the experience. The first step in establishing a that kind of culture is to encourage people to be open about it. Unlike the current trend where a failure is re-spun almost as if it were intended as a lesson from the outset, it's important to actually acknowledge that something went wrong.

We learn from failure because it's painful. It is somewhat perverse that by spinning everything as a positive, the organisation is denied the opportunity to actually learn from the failure because the pain is never felt. I've talked to people who insist that there are no negatives - everything is just an opportunity for improvement. They don't seem to understand that by under-selling the downside, they are effectively undermining any real chance for improvement. Because by not acknowledging the scale of the problem the appropriate time and energy cannot be invested in solving it.

The main downside of over-optimism is that everyone sees straight through it, and people who re-spin everthing end up looking stupid. Everyone down the food chain knows when a large project has failed - it's not rocket science. A lot of money was spent, and nothing was gained other than a 'lesson' about how not to do things. That's a failure. The lack of honesty and integrity of the spinners drives a wedge between them and the people they are supposed to be leading.

The solution is simple to understand, but hard to implement. You just need to be honest. Acknowledge that something went badly wrong, take responsibility, and pray for forgiveness. Try to learn from what happened, but don't dwell on it otherwise it will paralyze your decision making.

Now it's hard to do this on a personal level, never mind at the organisational level. It's vital though, if you truely want to embrace your mistakes, and learn from them.

As an aside, if I hear someone talk about maximising value propositions one more time, I think I'm going to vomit on them :-)

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