Friday, August 6, 2010

You mean you made a mistake!

What is this “misspoke” nonsense? It annoys me on a number of levels, as you would expect. For one I see it as a ridiculous Americanism coined by Bilary to cover for the fact that, if we are charitable, she fell into that common transatlantic problem of ignoring the truth, or if we are unkind, she lied. So the charitable could call it The Hollywoodisation of History – you know how it works, when the truth isn’t quiet as palatable or PC enough the ominous phrase “Based on real events” comes up on the opening credits and you are subjected to a couple of hours of total fantasy. As I am not that charitable and because recounting your role in a truly dreadful piece of history involving real death and horror isn’t a “movie” then I tend to call it lying

However, as my opinion of politicians and their propensity to lie is well known this does not surprise me but the most recent use of the “misspoke” word was when a Cameron aid used it to explain away a statement by the PM that Iran “HAS” a nuclear weapon (He got the “I” country wrong by the way he meant Israel of course – but that is a whole different story). And so we come to my second objection to the word and that is that its use is symptomatic of deep seated cultural issues in organisations – and possibly our society – our inability and un willingness to admit mistakes.

In too many organisations to admit a mistake is seen as, well, a mistake. That somehow to admit ones human frailty is to open up a chasm of failure into which one cannot fail to fall. A machismo thing? Maybe. The result of working in a blame culture? Almost certainly. Demonstration of poor trust bonds? Often. The cultural rock on which many KM initiatives founder? Absolutely without question. Whilst such a culture persists it will cause a great deal of procrastination and be a barrier to innovation and action because of the fear of failure and the inevitable subsequent admonition – read blame. It is also a barrier to the ability to learn from mistakes. As we all know we actually learn a great deal more from our mistakes than our successes and as Dave Snowden rightly says in complex environments where there is uncertainty of outcome from interventions we should be seeking to create environments of safe failure rather than fail safe.

I have a good friend who works in a large public sector organisation and his tales of failure to act, endless procrastination, and unwillingness to innovate echo many of my experiences of working with similar groups. None is prepared to put their head above the parapet and actually “do” anything for fear that if it goes wrong the gun sights will swing round to zero in on them. Worse still this unwillingness to actually adopt a position on anything leads to the endless use of vacuous, bland and ultimately meaningless management speak in useless communications which, in turn, simply depress and de-motivate staff who can see through its inanity.

Now there is a great deal that can be done to change this – but it’s tough - and a great deal of what I call KM is concerned with either addressing this directly or introducing approaches that can if not change the culture, finds ways of getting around the barriers that it creates.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that governments are shot through with this type of behaviour given the prevalence of spin, but Cameron to his credit did admit that he got the junior partner quote wrong regarding WWII (too many of those “movies” no doubt) so he is not averse to admitting mistakes apparently. Lets hope the outcome is that the government lexicon has “misspoke” erased and counsel that the word “mistake” is both permissible and human.

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