The press is full today about the deal that ended the US government shutdown and raised the debt ceiling, effectively kicking the can down the road until January, 2014. The general consensus is that causing this artificial crisis was a huge strategic mistake on the part of the republican party. And that got me thinking about the word “mistake”.
Steve Ross famously said that he would only fire someone if they did not make a mistake. To Steve, people like that were not doing anything. And you see a lot of writing that mistakes are important in learning. So when is a mistake good and when is it just stupid?
The Heath Bros. get into this a bit in their book “Decisive” and I agree with their line of thought. Here is a quick primer
1. We often make mistakes in how we frame decisions. In other words, we are prone to make “false choices” - A or B, not seeing that C is possible and perhaps desirable.
2. We often make mistakes because we trust our beliefs rather than test our assumptions. So we see what we want to believe.
3. We often make mistakes because we get overwhelmed by short term emotion.
4. We often make mistakes because we are overconfident in our ability to predict the effects of what we do.
In other words, we make booboo’s for lots and lots of reasons. We are booboo making machines. So it is great advice therefore to be humble about our abilities and plan for error. It is predictable that we will make mistakes concerning our assumptions about what is real and what is not and therefore what is important and what is not. That is ok. People who do that learn. They are the type of people that Steve Ross wanted to hire.
But as Bill Lee points out, this gets a lot less ok when we feel “bound by principle”. When we believe so strongly in the truth of a principle, we stop testing its application in reality. When we do that, we are prone to make all 4 of the Heath Bros. types of mistakes again and again. Ooops.
Let’s say that we believe in “balancing the budget” as a principle. Even if we do, what does “balance” mean? Well, we normally think of this as presenting an annual budget where revenue equals expenses. So we balance on an annual basis. But why is the annual cycle so important? Why not balance every month? Every week? Every day? Why not balance every 6 months? Or for that matter, every 2 years, or 5 years? The answers to these and a host of other questions — even for a true believer — would depend on the context. There is nothing sacred about imposing an annual cycle and balancing on that basis. It is an arbitrary standard. And yet, many accept this time frame as the basis for applying a principle without questioning why it is important in a given context.
So - bottom line. Principles are fine. But they are abstract. To bring them into the real world, we need to use translation tools. We need to convert the abstraction into decisions about rules and behavior based on those decisions. We do that stuff based on real needs - not by pontificating about abstractions. Making mistakes about reality is ok. That is called testing. And testing allows us to refine rules as we go. Making mistakes because we don’t care about reality is stupid. It obliterates the distinction between rules and principles — which in turn creates rigid and dogmatic thinking and systems. And if we all do that all the time, our extinction as a species is likely.
Does this mean that principles don’t matter? That everything is relative? Of course not. Principles are the starting point for structuring our view of the world. But they are not the end point. To be more blunt, accepting a principle as an ethical matter does not mean we can avoid the mental gymnastics needed to make wise decisions. And doing that work is what allows us to learn from our mistakes.
I thought that this was pretty basic. But the greatest nation on earth nearly blew up because some of its elected officials don’t seem to understand this. And that is pretty amazing.