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Volume 18, Issue 48;   November 28, 2018: Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI

Wacky Words of Wisdom: VI

by

Adages, aphorisms, and "words of wisdom" seem valid often enough that we accept them as universal and permanent. Most aren't. Here's Part VI of a collection of widely held beliefs that can be misleading at work.
A beefsteak, with some amount of fat

A beefsteak, with some amount of fat. Fat plays a role in maintaining the health of the animal. It provides a means of storing energy, in case the animal must endure periods of difficulty finding food. In organizations, reserves of resources play a similar role. Reserves can be stored as cash or readily accessible financial assets, or they can be stored as less-than-urgent but not wasteful activities that can be suspended temporarily when necessary. When "lean-and-mean" operational patterns eliminate the less-than-urgent activities, enterprises experience reduced ability to adapt to hard times or to exploit unanticipated opportunities.

This is the sixth installment of my ongoing series exploring widespread beliefs that are either smack-upside-the-head wrong, or sometimes right but believed to be universally right, or too often misapplied. In their most dangerous form, these beliefs come wrapped in eloquent, memorable slogans we all recognize and accept as universal truths. When we quote these adages to one another in debates at work, their power usually changes minds, and that power can even bring debates to catastrophically erroneous conclusions.

To protect ourselves from these mistaken beliefs or from over-reliance on occasionally useful insights, we must examine them more carefully than we usually do in the heat of debate. Here are four more examples of wacky words of wisdom.

Lean and mean is the path to success
Perhaps not coincidentally, we hear about "lean and mean" strategies when things aren't going so well. Possibly this happens because so many believe that converting to a "lean and mean" operation requires cost cutting. And when things aren't going well, cost cutting can be very appealing because it makes the project or organization seem healthier financially — at least, in the short run.
But meat-axe-based organizational reconfiguration might not be the right approach. Although reallocating resources can be a smarter course than reducing resources, it can be difficult politically, especially if it involves removing resources from politically powerful organizational units and applying them to politically less powerful — but potentially more successful — units. Reducing all budgets proportionately can be politically easier, even when it's strategically misguided. A more fitting strategy might entail investing (or cutting) where investing (or cutting) achieves a more strategically desirable business objective.
All great accomplishments come from the energy and sacrifices of heroes
Some organizations When we quote these adages to one
another, their power usually changes minds,
and that power can even bring debates
to catastrophically erroneous conclusions
have hero cultures. They encourage heroic acts and selfless dedication to the enterprise. They depend for success on individuals taking personal risks, working long hours, accepting unpleasant assignments, and achieving great things with little organizational support. Some of these heroes must actually confront strong internal political opposition to successfully bring their visions into reality. And many make personal sacrifices.
While it's true that such people can achieve great things, organizations that depend on them might be blindly accepting two significant risks. The first is the risk that the efforts of these heroes might bias the organization's portfolio of successes. Enterprise successes can become biased in favor of objectives that their heroes choose to seek. In effect, the objectives attained are better matched to the interests, abilities, and desires of the heroes than they are to the needs of the enterprise or its customers. Over time, this bias can threaten the viability of the enterprise.
The second risk is that would-be heroes might tend to pursue objectives that they're relatively certain will lead to "hero" status for themselves. And those objectives tend to be those for which the enterprise can easily measure short-term success — usually financial success. These pursuits tend to confer on the enterprise a short-term financial orientation, which might not be healthy for it in the long term.
Providing indisputable facts is all that's needed to change someone's beliefs
Most workplace debates include attempts by participants to alter the beliefs and perspectives of others by offering facts and alleged facts. Certainly other offerings also appear, including items such as questions or expressions of agreement, doubts, or confusion. When debates polarize, though, offerings of facts and alleged facts tend to dominate.
Among other factors, the backfire effect can cause people to adhere more strongly to their positions when confronted with disconfirming information. And serious research in the techniques of influence demonstrates that fact-based argument provides only a portion of the power of influence. Nevertheless, many continue to rely on facts alone.
We have to play the hand we're dealt
Donald Rumsfeld once enunciated a specific form of this belief when he said, in reference to the Iraq war, "…you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time." The fallacy here is the presupposition that nations can never choose whether to go to war, or when to go to war — that wars are thrust upon nations, and nations are always passive victims.
When we apply this concept to business decisions, it reads as, "We must take action now, with the resources we have now and the situation as it now exists." Rarely is it wise to push ahead without considering options. Taking advantage of opportunities to shape the situation, or to alter our own resource position, before taking action, is usually a more success-inducing approach.

When confronted with difficult circumstances, or when blessed with multiple opportunities, knowing how to expand one's range of choices is a fundamental strategic asset. Subscribing to these wacky words of wisdom tends to narrow one's range of choices. Unsubscribe. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Effects of Shared Information Bias: I  Next Issue

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For more examples, see "Wacky Words of Wisdom," Point Lookout for July 14, 2010, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: II," Point Lookout for June 6, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: III," Point Lookout for July 11, 2012, "Wacky Words of Wisdom: IV," Point Lookout for August 5, 2015, and "Wacky Words of Wisdom: V," Point Lookout for May 25, 2016.

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Group problem-solving sessions sometimes focus on where to begin, even when what we know about the problem is insufficient for making such decisions. In some cases, preliminary exploration of almost any aspect of the problem can be more helpful than debating what to explore. Available here and by RSS on October 2.

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