Friday, February 10, 2006

"Results Oriented" and Constructive Failure

Scanning the management lit, I keep saying references to ‘results oriented’ managers, and I keep gagging. Since my subconscious is smarter than my frontal lobe, it sometimes takes a while to decode the gagging, but I think I’m figuring it out.

The appeal of “results oriented” management (which some might infer that I endorse, from yesterday’s entry about the wonders of data) is that it’s supposed to cut through the rhetoric. In some ways, it does: acknowledging success by someone who otherwise gets on your nerves is a sign of maturity. Acknowledging when someone you like is just plain failing is similar.

Yet, I still wince.

In practice, the folks I’ve worked with/for who would describe themselves as ‘results oriented’ have usually been impatient, self-impressed blowhards. They’re reductionist, arrogant, closed-minded, and generally rather stupid.

I think it’s because they’re thinking small.

Good management, as I see it, sets the background conditions to encourage constructive experiments. Among those background conditions is a sense of trust and security, so that an experiment failing won’t be seen as an employee failing. Freedom to fail is a prerequisite to sustained progress.

A good manager will be able to discern the difference, consistently, between constructive failure and garden variety screwing-up. A bad one won’t.

Constructive failure results from the rare blend of careful planning, a willingness to take risks, and the universe’s sense of humor. In my teaching days, I used to fail constructively in the classroom all the time. I’d spend weeks preparing a really nifty role-play or simulation, only to have it fall flat in class. It was annoying, but I wasn’t wrong to try it. Keeping the teaching interesting required periodic experiments, not all of which worked. To their eternal credit, the folks who first hired me to faculty gave me the room to try stuff, and didn’t hold the occasional laying of an egg against me. I try to exercise the same discretion now.

Truth be told, many of the most successful teaching moments I had were refinements of earlier failures. The breakthroughs required the failures.

Garden variety screwing-up is different. It can show up even when you’re not trying anything new. It’s often a result of apathy. (My favorite moment in the neglected classic film Office Space: “It’s not that I’m lazy. It’s that I just don’t care.”) Screwing-up is frequently a result of lacking the big picture, whether by cognitive limitation or just not caring.

A manager who throws his weight around, loudly demanding results, will increase the number of screw-ups (since nobody will admit when they’re confused, since it would be held against them) and decrease the number of constructive failures (since he won’t see the ‘constructive’ part). When the willingness to experiment fades, the breakthroughs will cease, and the decline will begin. The irony is that the decline will be a direct result of a focus on results.

In a way, I see this as applied science. The scientists and engineers I know (and I know LOTS of them – it’s a hazard of nerd-dom) are very clear on the fact that many experiments don’t work. They get frustrated, of course, but they don’t assume that a failed experiment is a sign of a failed scientist. It’s just part of the process.

I’m trying to get this point of view across to some folks who are very, very averse to failure. It’s a harder sell than I imagined. “Humility Unto Greatness!” doesn’t rally the troops. But I’m working on it...