Publication: The Corporate Curmudgeon Chicago Tribune King Features
"I am a kind of paranoid in reverse.
I suspect people of plotting to make me happy." --J.D. Salinger
Business people have so much to worry about that it seems unfair to ask them to worry about people trying to please them. Still, while executives no longer have "yes men," they have a modern equivalent: the team player.
Sure, you want to hire positive, upbeat people. And you want to be a good leader, which makes your employees good followers. In fact, speaking of following, most career advice includes watching your boss and imitating. Just recently I read another dreary article on the "dilemma" of casual dress days; predictably, the advice was "mimic the boss." In other words: If it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck, it's probably the duck's assistant.
This conformity contributes to making the corporate pond a much more agreeable place to work. But what happens when it's time to evaluate a new idea, especially the boss' new idea? Quack? It isn't usually the case that employees are afraid to criticize an idea, but that they are predisposed to be helpful and supportive. What's more, we all have a natural tendency to search out confirming information. (If you give research subjects a hypothesis and then ask them to test it, they will tend to find confirming data, despite the fact that confirming and non-confirming information exists in equal measure) Quack. Quack.
So, does this mean you have to hire disagreeable people? No, but you might want to bring in Richard Gooding, a guy looking for trouble. He's a former college professor who decided to devote most of his time to consulting.
Gooding has made a study of bad business decisions, actually going around an asking executives, "What's the worst strategic decision you've ever made?" and putting together a grid of what can go wrong. (If you'd like a free copy of the two-page grid, call Gooding's company, Strategic Advantage, at 602-759-7562 and they'll send you one. Or write to me: Dale Dauten, King Features, 235 East 45th St., New York, NY 10017)
He explained: "There's a difference between negative thinking and critical thinking. My job is to change the game -- instead of searching out confirming information, we make a game of getting everyone to find possible flaws in the plan."
I spoke with one of Gooding's clients, Wally Raisanen, chairman of Arizona Instruments. The company was about to introduce a testing device, a moisture analyzer called the Computrac 3000, an important advance in its niche.
When a company has an important technical advance, and when the chairman is also head of R&D, there is a tendency to rush the product to market. As Raisanen told me, "The R&D department is not always good about reaching out to the rest of the company." But they did pause long enough to bring in Richard Gooding and his "risk analysis."
Gooding's daylong process brought together people from various departments and encouraged all of them, including the chairman, to think of possible flaws in the new device. One quickly emerged: the device was, in a word, ugly. "It looks like it was designed by the Russian Army," was one reaction. A salesperson admitted that he'd be "embarrassed to sell it to his customers." The R&D department had been so determined to set new technical standards that they had forgotten about design standards. And so the machine was given a new high tech appearance, along with a dozen other changes. The Computrac 3000 is now being introduced and is receiving a warm welcome.
The moral of this story is that finding flaws is one of the nicest things an employee can do for the company, although no one wants to go first. Gooding's work proves that it's possible to create an environment where faultfinding is encouraged and appreciated.
We all learn plenty about the creativity summed up with the expression, "Ah, ha!" Perhaps we need to better appreciate the creative insight summed up in the expression, "Oh, no!"
Used with author's permission.