xrematon

April 18, 2017

When something goes wrong at work, what happens?

The answer to this question is explored in Matthew Syed’s book, Black Box Thinking, which proposes that we could benefit from embracing our mistakes and learning from them in order to improve our performance. As with many of these books, the ideas they put forward are, on the surface, very compelling. Who could argue with the need for pompous senior health care professionals to accept they make errors, that hierarchy can be challenged, and the system reformed to ensure that people do not die from what are avoidable mistakes? The airline industry has shown that it is possible.

This is all well and good, but there is more to say about the process behind which we make decisions. Just pick up something by Malcolm Gladwell for instance. In Blink, as well as Outliers, we are introduced to people who are altogether brilliant at knowing what to do: they can make amazing snap decisions better than others who might spend hours on analysis and evaluation; and it’s often because they have in fact spent thousands of hours becoming expert in the area. That to me sounds a bit like what you want from a senior surgeon. So, it seems that it’s acceptable to work something out super quickly and trust your instincts, except for when it goes wrong. The key learning that comes out sounds surprisingly moral: avoid complacency and hubris.

But let’s go back to question in the title to this post: what happens if things go wrong at work. In my area of consumer trends and insight, I am not sure! This is both in terms of knowing whether things do go wrong or not, and if they do, what the implications are. Unlike in surgery or aviation, when a mistake can lead to the loss of human life, in marketing, the consequences are less clear cut.

Though it might be possible to argue that product sales or the loss of a client account are indicative, the more significant issue is that there is a lack of a clearly agreed metric or consensus over how such evaluations are to take place, let alone an obvious path or process for acknowledging these situations and actively learning from them. To be fair, I have known some agencies that carry out review sessions after big pitches or projects in order dissect what worked well and what didn’t. However, this is rarely consistently done, even within the same place, more often than not it is at the whim of how agency culture and priorities ebb and flow over time.

But the space where there is some energy and debate as to what is the right thing to do in marketing is not quite around learning from mistakes, but another form of improvement/trying to make things better: innovation. In a piece on Branding Strategy Insider, Geoffrey Colon argues that the challenge in marketing lies not so much in accepting that mistakes represent learning opportunities, but in being ready to have an open mind as to whether ideas might come from.

Teams of “experts and insiders” can be marketing’s worst enemy. Because they believe there is only one approach to finding a solution, they tend not to accept outlying ideas. When marketing teams represent a cross section of disciplines, the problems are quickly solved and the solutions are often applicable to other areas of business as well. One reason industries are being overthrown is that they don’t allow outsiders into their inner circle to provide new ways of thinking.

It seems the challenge for marketers lies not so much in removing the boundaries of hierarchy, but those of subject matter and discipline. But, at the end of the day, it is still about humility and being ready to accept that you don’t have all the answers – even if we can’t be too sure when it’s not right!

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