Being Wrong

“To err is to wander, and wandering is the way we discover the world; and lost in thought, it is also the way we discover ourselves.  Being right might be gratifying, but in the end it is static, a mere statement.  Being wrong is hard and humbling, and sometimes even dangerous, but in the end it is a journey, and a story.” Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz (p.42)

I may be wrong, but there seems to be a growing trend around explorations of being wrong and ways to be right more of the time.  “Wrongology,” a term introduced by Kathryn Schulz terms in her excellent book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, is the study of being wrong in order to increase our chances of being right.  As Schulz describes in detail, the complexity of society combined with our own filters guiding what we believe has one result: the reality that we are going to be wrong more than we will be right.  How we handle being wrong speaks volumes about our values, our organizational cultures, and our ability to learn from our mistakes.  By embracing our errors and developing a belief in the inevitability of our wrongness, we stand a better chance of improving our service to the people our organizations are intended to serve.

Being Wrong speaks to so many issues that non-profit leaders deal with on a daily basis.  My thoughts center around three main questions that address the potential for individual, institutional, and cross-cultural wrongness.  Every problem begs a solution, so I end with idea to help swing the balance towards being right more of the time.

First my questions:

1. Which approaches to poverty alleviation today will be proven wrong tomorrow?

So many of yesterday’s theories have been proven wrong.  From the “education” of native children in Christian schools to free market enterprises that have undermined local educational systems to large infrastructure projects like roads and dams, the development field has tried a range of actions in the quest to address poverty.  All evidence shows that a good portion of what we are doing now is going to be proven wrong sometime in the future.  What can we do today to mitigate today’s errors, thereby speeding up right approaches to our world’s most pressing problems?

  • Given the power of social conformity and need for certainty, how do we shift our culture to give space to those with different beliefs, to consideration of new evidence, and to the development of solutions that acknowledge complexity over simple answers?
  • There is a moral aspect to being wrong; people judge you and your character.  How do we distinguish the ways that erring leaders handle their mistakes as evidence of their values from the simple fact of their wrongness?

2. How do we create public accountability that allows for error?

To get anything done, a community leader has to bring so many people along with him or her—staff, board members, donors, constituents—engaging in a marketing effort that makes it hard to admit later on that the idea, program, or cause was somehow flawed.  Once a non-profit leader takes over a cause, that leader needs to convince a range of stakeholders that their solution is the best, most effective, most efficient solution among many.   All efforts go into the full court press towards organization survival with little room for honest assessment.

  • How can boards of directors instill within an organization a culture that allows for error and learning from those errors?
  • How can grantmakers provide an honest forum for the sharing of error or uncertainty that doesn’t threaten future funding?
  • How can executive directors integrate an acceptance of mistakes into their organizational culture and provide learning opportunities for staff members?

3. How do we allow for error across cultures?

In working across cultures, there may come times when two leaders working in a relationship of equality are in a state of disagreement in which both are right within their cultures.  Cultural relativity can make a mess out of a traditional management structures, and yet simply proclaiming rightness on both sides creates a stalemate of leadership.

  • How do we use our shared values to guide discussion about possible future disagreement so to avoid cultural misinterpretation later on?
  • How do we better understand the social landscape of risk in either partner admitting wrongness?
  • How do we acknowledge the role of power in who is determined wrong?

And a possible solution:

Schulz’s book reminded me of Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right.  If we as community leaders get things wrong so often, how do we improve our chances of getting things right?  I believe Gawande is on to something, that we can create a few key checklists that keep us on track in how we engage our partners and honor our mission and values for the long term.  Using a term borrowed from the Shuttleworth Foundation, we can create a system of “radical transparency” that allows for optimal sharing of ideas and learning.

I took a first stab at a Collaborative Social Change Checklist, which includes what I loosely termed an “Organizational Pre-Nup Agreement” that bi-cultural organizations might consider either upon starting their relationship or as soon as such an agreement occurs to them.  My checklist looks nothing like Gawande’s checklists for ensuring that a surgeon doesn’t chop off the wrong arm, but it may be helpful in thinking about ways that we can embed discussions about our errors into our daily social change activities.

As Schulz described, admitting our errors allows us to be a part of a dynamic journey of discovery rather than a static, didactic monologue about our rightness.  We build organizations that are learning communities as much as they are service providers.  That seems like the right way to work for a better world.

What do you think?

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6 responses to “Being Wrong

  1. Michael Kischner

    Since the human situation seems to be that we are almost always acting on insufficient information, an element of “wrongness” seems inevitable in everything we do. When we realize what was wrong with it, then we have a new piece of information to work with for the next time. But there will also be new or different elements that we do not have information about, and so there will be more wrongness. I suppose the challenge is to find the medium between paralysis caused by the certainty that one is bound to be wrong at least in part, and arrogance caused by the delusion that this time one has it right!

  2. I believe partnerships are forged across cultures, class and realities by investing in relationships between the people in each organization. This often means listening more than talking. Our society places a high value on a “can-do” attitude; only people who take action are going to be successful. But when we are trying to create partnerships based on equality and mutuality, we often don’t “do” anything. We listen. We learn. We take the time to find ways to support each other that don’t fall into the old patterns of paternalism. We risk opening ourselves to new ways of “doing.” We take the long view, allowing our work to evolve and stretch beyond quarterly reports and strategic plans.

  3. Jeannie– you bring up a point that I hadn’t noticed…. our obsession with “social entrepreneurs” as being people who have solutions to problems suggests that there are people out there with right answers to wrong situations. They have to “sell” these answers to get venture capital… and the whole cycle starts over again. Organizations like One Equal Heart Foundation take a different approach, diminishing the one person over a whole community. I imagine that this means that there are many more checks and balances for “wrongness” along the way.

  4. This blog reminds me quite a bit of my reaction to the book Being Wrong: It is wonderful to think about, and describes problems quite well, but the solution kinda loses me a little bit.

    When I read the checklist on how to make a checklist, I felt like your worksheet is something other than this sort of checklist. This sort of checklist is best used for (frequently) repeated processes, where there is a danger of good people getting “sloppy.” The checklist items are all clear and simple. No qualified surgeon or pilot about to takeoff or perform surgery would have to make a debatable judgment call to answer “yes” or “no” on one of these checklists.

    Founding an organization or partnership like you describe is something repeated infrequently, and many items on this list are the start of a conversation rather than something that has a clear unambiguous answer. I imagine expect that room full of “experts” in this field could spend 10 minutes debating one of those items and still not come to agreement.

    So let me recommend that you give your checklist a new name.

    • I readily admit that I took some license in adapting the checklist concept for this use. It is true that we don’t start new non-profits every day, and that is a good thing given the amount of work that goes into creating and building them. But I do believe that this checklist serves to guide discussions on a regular basis and should be revisited regularly, perhaps every board meeting. I think about translation for example. It could be that an organization decides what their philosophy is around translating key documents for their partners, but the question should be asked at every board meeting if there was anything discussed or produced that needs to be relayed or translated for non-English speaking partners. Checklist may not be the best name for this document.. please feel free to suggest a better name.

  5. Pingback: Our Rights, Their Responsibilities | The Social Change Collaboratory

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