“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?