Embrace your inner Cassandra

15 February 2011
There’s a reason why people generally prefer to watch a rip-roaring swashbuckler than a three-hour introspective Swedish film where nothing happens. We like action and optimism. You can see this attitude in day-to-day life as well, extroverts being seen as more attractive than introverts. Unfortunately this bias towards action can steer us wrong in business. It’s seen as a positive for someone to attempt a new project or deal, even if they try and fail. Most organisations value attributes such as courageousness and creativity, what is often the unrewarded viewpoint is the Cassandra in the corner pointing out the flaws that doomed a project to failure. How much does RBS management wish that someone had told it more forcefully – or rather that they had listened – to the warnings that an ABN AMRO adventure was a production they shouldn’t finance? We all have survivors’ bias and selective memories, celebrating victories and brushing failures under the carpet. How many of these failures could have been avoided by weighing the input of all stakeholders in a more balanced manner? Think of the healthy scepticism that underpins scientific research – an attitude of being open to what you’re told, but wanting to see the proof. Those savings that deal is going to deliver – drill into the numbers and question the assumptions. Most organisations care about the quality of decisions they make and will push for rigour in the detail. The issue can be the culture within the organisation that stops people sticking their neck out when theirs is the only neck above the parapet. For every positive adjective that can be used when someone has a daring idea there is a corresponding negative one – from grumpy and obstructive to negative and fearful. It can be hard for people to navigate the conversation when they are not fully supportive of an idea, particularly when senior people are sponsoring the decision and the overriding culture is one of courageousness. People are rewarded for trying and failing but it’s harder to get recognition for being seen as the one who didn’t want to try in the first place. So this is the modern dilemma. How do you tell the difference between someone being obstructive and someone who is just trying to put forward an alternative point of view? Or more to the point, how should you show resistance to a new hot idea? Two things stand out; the language being used and the rationale for the viewpoint. Keep the observation relevant; explain the risk as you see it and why it is potentially a problem. Put forward a suggestion of how you could mitigate that risk or actions that could be undertaken to understand it more completely. Try to provide the context as to why this situation is different from others that may be discussed. Sometimes you might just have a gut feeling that something is doomed to failure. That feeling is based on something more and you need to try to identify it. If you can’t then perhaps you are just having a bad day or perhaps it’s as basic as you don’t like the person putting forward the idea. Step back and be honest with yourself before you decide to say something. Remember it’s okay to rain on someone else’s parade, but only when you genuinely believe something worse is on its way.
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