The Wisdom of Doing Things Wrong

A smart new book offers insights on why we generally do nothing in the face of big change -- and how to get past that natural tendency.

What do you do when you see the need for a big change? Unfortunately, both in business and in life, we tend to do nothing. In a smart new book, The Wisdom of Doing Things Wrong, Ron Donovan offers insights on why this happens, how to get past the natural human preference for familiarity over change and how to engage others in effective change. Donovan believes that people and organizations often don’t start down the path of real change because they are afraid of getting it wrong. Instigating big change is like standing in the river and attempting to change its course. The current of majority opinion will destroy most who attempt it. The fear of failure, of looking silly, of wasting time and money, of using up the good will of others is enough to dissuade most potential agents of change. See also: A Management Guide to Omni-Channel   This is not your typical change management book. There are no PowerPoint slides, no two-by-two matrices and no data crunched from cross-organizational studies designed to generate big consulting engagements. Instead, Donovan offers a series of personal stories. Some are emotional. Some are prescriptive. Some stories encourage readers toward personal introspection—how they can be their own best friend or worst enemy. Some stories help readers think about working with others—how small changes in how they act toward others might change the world. Some stories deal with working in organizations—including how to know whether an organization will never change. Running throughout the book is the argument that big change is almost impossible but that effective change is not. Effective change is a lot of little change happening so quickly it looks like big change. That is why Donovan believes there is wisdom in doing things wrong. Change always feels wrong. Like brushing your teeth with your other hand when you have a broken wrist, the only way to push through an unworkable present toward potentially better futures is by doing new and uncomfortable things. Here is Ron Donovan’s model for any big change:
Pick a small piece of a big problem and work on it. Then, even if you haven’t completely finished, add another small piece. A lot of people doing this is what is necessary to deliver huge results.
Donovan attempts to show through his stories that we all know how to do this. It is simple enough that you do not need consultants. You do not need to send people away for education. You do not need to spend a lot of money or time before you start. All you have to do is to begin where you are. In this, Ron Donovan’s simple, straightforward approach is consistent with that of Thomas Watson, Jr., the legendary CEO of IBM whom Fortune once called “the greatest capitalist in history.” Here’s how Watson described his management approach to finding a workable balance between inaction and ill-considered decisions:
I never varied from the managerial rule that the worst possible thing we could do would be to lie dead in the water with any problem. Solve it, solve it quickly, solve it right or wrong. If you solved it wrong, it would come back and slap you in the face, and then you could solve it right. Lying dead in the water and doing nothing is a comfortable alternative because it is without immediate risk, but it is an absolutely fatal way to manage a business.
To be clear, both Watson and Donovan's approaches encourage asking tough questions. Neither argues for charging forward on demonstrably bad ideas. See also: 4 Tips: How to Be a Manager, Not a Doer   Both remind us, however, that there is wisdom in doing things wrong.

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