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Whats Right About Being Wrong NASA

Whats Right About Being Wrong NASA

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Published by James Horton

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Published by: James Horton on Mar 31, 2011
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03/31/2011

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What’s Right About Being Wrong
By LAuRENCE PRuSAK
The Knowledge Notebook
A number of years ago I was asked by someclients to come up with a rapid-fire indicator todetermine whether a specific organization wasreally a “learning organization.” Now, I have alwaysbelieved that all organizations learn things in someways, even if what they learn does not correspondwell to reality or provide them with any useful new knowledge. After thinking about the request fora bit, though, I decided the best indicator wouldbe to ask employees, “Can you make a mistakearound here?When people in various organizations triedthis out in practice, asking groups of employeesthat key question, they were almost always giventhe same response: “Yes, you can make a mistake,but you will pay for it.” Some of these organizationswere the very same ones that touted themselves as“learning organizations” in their annual reportsand public-relations statements, but if they penalizetheir employees for making mistakes, not muchlearning will happen.Why? Well, if you pay a substantial price forbeing wrong, you are rarely going to risk doinganything new and different because novel ideasand practices have a good chance of failing, at leastat first. So you will stick with the tried and true,avoid mistakes, and learn very little. I think thiscondition is still endemic in most organizations,whatever they say about learning and encouraginginnovative thinking. It is one of the strongestconstraints I know of to innovation, as well as tolearning anything at all from inevitable mistakes—one of the most powerful teachers there is. Somerecent political memoirs by Tony Blair and GeorgeBush also inadvertently communicate this samemessage by denying that any of their decisionswere mistaken. If you think you have never madea mistake, there is no need to bother learninganything new.The early history of NASA is partly a history of making mistakes—some of them very costly—that helped develop the knowledge needed to landmen on the moon and put rovers on Mars, amongother triumphs. Some believe that NASA hasbecome too mistake-averse over time and that anemphasis on avoiding mistakes limits the agency’sability to innovate. (Take a look at the interview with Robert Braun in the summer 2010 issue of 
ASK 
, for instance.)A recent book has a novel and appealingapproach to this whole subject. Written by KathrynSchultz, it is called
Being Wrong 
. Ms. Schultzwants to establish an entirely new discipline called“wrongology” to study the causes, implications,and, most of all, the acceptance of being wrong. Shepresents a more populist version of the great book by Charles Perrow,
Normal Accidents 
, but her take onthe subject is more individually based and funnier.What would happen if we all accepted thatbeing wrong is as much a part of being human asbeing right, and especially that errors are essentialto learning and knowledge creation? What wouldour values and institutions look like under thisnew dispensation? I can easily summon up thegrave image of Alan Greenspan testifying beforeCongress last year on the causes of the financialcrisis. What was so very startling was seeing himadmit that he was wrong! It was such an unusualevent that it made headlines around the world. Butwhy should it be so rare and so startling? Greenspanhad a hugely complex job, one where many criticalvariables are either poorly understood or not known
58 | ASK MAGAZINE

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