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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The "m" word

"So you can see I do have a day job guys"

I picked this up from a friend Tal Newhart...it makes for a good read and is spot on

Genghis Kahn was always trying new ways to capture new ground. This is one reason he created an empire on a scale never seen before, or since. He would try something new and unexpected and this would throw off his enemy. After all, it was new!

But, like any manager that is pushing the envelope, he knew there would be some failures. He would make mistakes (the "M" word). The key was that he encouraged discourse about them. He was not so wrapped up in his own superiority that he wouldn’t listen. Like any great General, or CEO, Khan actively removed impediments to the truth reaching him. Great leaders know they don’t know it all. Their greatness comes, in part, from creating open, sharing environments. They know it takes more than best practices—everybody wants to talk about those. A true leader ensures he knows about the organization's “worst practices” as well. If you can’t see it…you can’t fix it.

So you have to ask yourself: “If I am aware of a mistake, what do I do? If one of my team makes a mistake what will they expect my reaction will be when I find out? And, typically, how do I find out?” Genghis Khan and his chief orloks, Subedei and Jebe (an orlok was a marshal) would sit around the smoky yurt (not much wood on the steppes so they burned dung) and talk about what tactics worked that day and what didn’t (although appearing chaotic Mongol tactics were precisely engineered in advance). Occasional failure was an accepted cost of moving forward. Not admitting a mistake had occurred meant someone in the vast organization might make it again and they knew that was counterproductive. So admitting to a mistake was the important, group oriented thing to do. Mistakes are always costly in some way—but you get a refund by learning from them. And sometimes a big bonus…

One advantage of scrutinizing seemingly minor mistakes is because they can be precursors to disasters. Big organizational disasters, and Khan had only a few, almost always have inflection points somewhere in the event stream leading to the catastrophe. It doesn’t take much to imagine Khan and his orloks sitting around studying each mistake so it didn’t lead to the next bigger one, which would in turn cause another, etc. Soon you have Enron or New Coke when somebody could easily have broken the chain. Big, sprawling mistakes don’t just happen. They evolve.

You can’t have your people hiding problems. You need to ask yourself: do people around you in your organization hide the bad news from you? If so, why? What are they afraid of? Is it you personally, or the corporate culture?

Finally, Khan knew that, as the leader (and this applies to any manager), it was imperative that he admit when he made a mistake. If he didn’t, who would? Khan knew a fish smells from the head first.

Think about it



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