I was thinking just yesterday about my experiences in corporate America. Probably the best way to sum up my early experience is the phrase: When you are right no one remembers, and when you are wrong no one forgets. There is so much fear in many organizations about being wrong - on the wrong side of a decision, backing the wrong manager, making a big mistake - that often any action that does happen happens either automatically (transactional stuff) or because we've back ourselves into a wall from a time or budget standpoint and just have to make a decision.
Some of this thinking springs from the mythos that really smart people don't make mistakes. I think that's wrong. I think really smart people make mistakes, they just learn and adapt a lot more quickly than others do, and they find ways to mitigate the outcomes of those mistakes. It has been frequently said that Edison knew 1000 ways not to make a lightbulb. Edison didn't invent the bulb, or the electric light. He actually dramatically improved the longevity of the bulb and how the bulb and the electrical socket (and eventually electrical distribution) would work. But only after trying thousands of combinations of filaments and bulbs. This record of experimentation and failure gave him a great base of knowledge and helped increase the odds of success. What's not so well known is that Edison championed direct current (DC) power rather than alternating current (AC) and so lost the advantage to others in the long run on electricity distribution.
Now that we've instilled the fear of decision making and of being wrong into many mid-level corporate managers, we've created a sort of Six Sigma existence for many of them. Too many times outside the norms and you are history. What this creates is a significant grouping around a common statistical norm of thinking. It's predominate feature? Caution. That's right - just when we need bold, innovative thinking we've put the clamps in place to ensure we'll stamp out the thinking we need most. We need some Six Sigma thinking - just that the thinking needs to be outside of the norms rather than within the norms.
Being wrong isn't the problem. Being wrong consistently is a problem, and being dramatically wrong is a problem, and being wrong without a good reason is a problem. But in a market that values innovation and creativity, and has an exceptionally demanding customer base, you'll be put into a spot where you have to make some bets, and the laws of statistics tell us that you will be wrong sometimes. For all its success, Apple has the Lisa and the Newton to keep it humble - but the learning from both brought about new products and services that drove increased revenues. Even Google (all bow down) and E-bay, those currently resident in the "Can't Fail" catbird seats have had successes and failures. I think they are just better at learning quickly from their failures and creating something new from the ashes.
It's time to stretch our management wings and create opportunities for failure and second chances. Clearly a person needs to demonstrate competence and success to move ahead, but an occassional failure, when the person demonstrates learning from the failure and can indicate what the expectations were and why the attempt failed, will create an environment where managers are more willing to take risks, to try new things, to be more innovative in their products, services and management approaches.
And that type of thinking is exactly what is needed today in most organizations. It's time for some Six Sigma thinking. If you aren't at least three deviations from the norm, you're just part of the crowd.