Friday, August 1, 2008

Unsweetened Truth

"You cannot amputate a toe, fasten it back on with a bit of cloth and re-attach bones, tendons, muscles, and all. This is the kind of hearsay that goes down well in a bar..."

John Gapper, "Thou shalt not tell the unsweetened truth," Financial Times, July 24, 2008. Book review of: The Ten Commandments of Business Failure by Donald Keogh.

Let me admit upfront that I haven't read this book. I was taken by its title, a biblical statement about failure, and by the critique of the author's "toe" anecdote. After reading the review several times I think the title misled me; it's a rhetorical device of the kind: If you really don't want to succeed do these things. See my father's commandments about management in the appendix of Nonprofit Leadership.

So, my reflections are about a book's themes imperfectly captured in a short book review. First of all, the book is not primarily about dissecting failures and what can be learned from them. It's about good management and what that takes.

Second, and most important for me, the book reviewer questions whether we are getting the whole unvarnished, unsweetened truth when the author shares stories from his years as a top Coke exec.

Who knows? For those of us who ponder constructive and nonconstructive mistakes (See multiple postings on failures and mistakes)in search of lessons for helping us do things better, we have to recognize the problem of whether we can really pin down mistake stories. Sometimes mistakes are unmistakable. But frequently they exist in a misty cloud of complexity, points of view,and timeframes. The more or deeper we look the less clear things become.

Most of us don't have the time or resources for full blown anthropological studies of our mistakes in action. We rely upon our intuition and more limited data. That's probably the best we can do in many management situations. We just need to add a few more questions to our failure protocols like: What am I not saying? Why might I have blinders about this mistake? What other available data or perspective might confirm and disconfirm? We always need to drink a bit of unsweetened truth.

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