How being wrong can help us get it right

15th February, 2017

There’s an academic I know — very well respected — who especially values one of his collaborators. This particular colleague isn’t invaluable because of his creativity or intellect, says my professor friend, but because “he is willing to tell me when I’m wrong, and that’s rare”. It is indeed rare. Perhaps even rarer is the practice of seeking out colleagues because they give frank criticism.

I certainly don’t enjoy being told that I’m wrong. And it seems that I’m not alone. A recently published working paper from Paul Green and Francesca Gino of Harvard, and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina, caught people in the act of avoiding criticism. The particular kind of criticism that interested the researchers was where I think I’m doing a good job, and then you tell me that I’m not. (In the jargon, this is “disconfirmatory feedback”.)

Green, Gino and Staats looked at data from an internal peer feedback process in a medium-sized company over several years. They were able to show that when disconfirmatory feedback arrived, workers would then avoid contact with the people who had given them the unwelcome comments. This is the exact opposite of my professor friend’s behaviour — but, I think, a much more typical response. We don’t like it when people tell us that we’re failing.

The irony is that disconfirmatory feedback is the most useful kind of feedback imaginable. If I’m making serious mistakes while cruising along in a complacent bubble of self-satisfaction, I badly need someone to explain exactly what I’m doing wrong. But what I need and what I might enjoy are, of course, quite different.

In certain corners of the business world, it’s become fashionable to talk openly about failure — some would say to “celebrate failure”, although that’s a lazy description. A botched surgical procedure or a fatal traffic accident aren’t things to be celebrated, but they should be discussed, analysed and learnt from. The most obvious way to do this is through a postmortem: all is lost, the project failed, the patient died, so let’s at least try to do better next time.

Less painful, though, is psychologist Gary Klein’s idea of the “pre-mortem”. The pre-mortem is an exercise in which you try to imagine scenarios in which your project fails. Such scenarios are likely to suggest simple ways to prevent disaster.

Alternatively, one can try to learn from other people’s mistakes rather than one’s own. In 2009, Cass Phillipps, a conference producer based in San Francisco, found herself feeling alienated by Silicon Valley conferences packed with gung-ho founders describing their runaway successes. She set up an alternative, “FailCon”, where people came to dissect their failures — in many ways, an enormously more informative experience for attendees.

Phillipps has now stopped organising FailCon — in part, she tells me, because the urgency has gone: “The internet is filled with postmortem stories.” But the basic idea is sound and has spread. For instance, a new book by development economists Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel, Failing in the Field (UK) (US), is simply a catalogue of all the mistakes they’ve made while trying to evaluate projects, and a discussion of what others might do to avoid the same errors.

Still, the real trick, says Cass Phillipps, is to spot and fix your mistake before it becomes fatal. But while “how I failed and what I learnt” is a safe enough topic for a conference or a book, “Help! Help! I need help now!” is a much rawer message.

So I turned to Ashley Good, the CEO of “Fail Forward”, a consultancy that helps organisations turn failures into more productive experiences. I asked her why it’s difficult to cope with failures in real time. One reason: panic.

“Failure tends to push us into a stress response,” she says, and that promptly leads to denial, finger-pointing, self-flagellation, cover-ups or “any number of dysfunctional reactions that limit our ability to learn”. That means that the first step after discovering some major screw-up is to take a deep breath and try to calm down.

The second step, says Good, is to “be respectful and kind”. That’s good advice at any time, of course — but particularly when emotions are running high and there’s a problem to be solved. And a third step is to take some individual responsibility: to ask, “What could I, personally, do differently now to avoid this sort of thing in future?”

Ultimately, the aim of all this is not to “celebrate” a disaster but to make things better, by fixing the current problem, if possible, and by preventing a recurrence. That means asking cool questions about what the problem really is.

When the dancer and choreographer Twyla Tharp earned scathing early reviews for her musical Movin’ Out, she asked a trusted colleague to transform the pile of criticism into a checklist for improvement. This depersonalised the criticism and turned it into a to-do list. And it worked: the revised show won Tony awards and enjoyed a long run.

Tharp has something in common with the professor who values his frankly critical collaborator: both of them recognise that thoughtful criticism isn’t something to be avoided — or, for that matter, something to be celebrated. It’s something to be used.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times.

My book “Messy” is available online in the US and UK or in good bookshops everywhere.

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