Mistakes Happen

“Every great mistake has a halfway moment, a split second when it can be recalled and perhaps remedied.”  — Pearl Buck

I think the quote is particularly revealing.  It certainly describes accurately what many of us know intuitively.  But not so many mistakes are recalled.  Why?

Recalling the mistake requires a course change.

Most people dislike change.  Changing a decision or action may involve admitting the early decision was flawed and for some, the ego cost is too high.  Ego and image are expensive luxuries.

I have, in the past, referred to a an Advanced Management Program study at Harvard that found that good managers do not make better decisions than weak managers except in one case.  Good managers stop flawed processes sooner.  Think back to the mid-80s and “New Coke.”  Did not work; killed quickly.

Many people do not change because they have not noticed the need.

Every decision or project must have a measurement system.  It does not need to be numbers but it must be there.  People must check and make new decisions.

Part of the reason for not noticing is not wanting to notice.  Data mining.  Emphasize the good, minimize the bad.  It is difficult to be objective with a pet project, but many pet projects have failed and at great cost.  Persistence is a value but it does not always solve the problem. Rethinking an opportunity sometimes prevents great loss.

Be objective.  The choice is to answer the question, “If I was not doing this already, knowing what I know, would I start?” You would be surprised how often the answer is “No!”  There are two “No” possibilities.  1) I would not start, and 2) I would start but with these variations.  If the second answer appears try the variations.  Evolve a right answer.

Sometimes a problem is so complex that there is no right answer, but someone has created one and sold it well.

It is like the economy or climate change or international relations.  The right answer will evolve over time.  Some blind alleys will be tried.  Some assumptions will be thrown aside.  Some new information will come available. But a better answer appears only if the problem or opportunity remains the central focus.  If proving or applying the “right” answer becomes the central focus, then much time and much observable and helpful information will be lost.

There is little value to spinning the facts to save a failing “right” answer. .

No one knows right answers to complex situations.  There are always more variables than their answer uses and some of the things that disappear matter.  Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of “The Black Swan”  has built a fine and useful career on this point. Build solutions that are workable even when unforeseen events come to pass.  “Antifragile” in his terms.

In personal plans, the same rules apply.  Analyze – Decide – Implement – Review – Reanalyze – Decide again, and so on forever.  Do not expect perfection.  That is why we review and reanalyze.  We missed something the first time.  Learn from objective experience.

Success is not found in perfect answers. It is found in imperfect answers properly modified.

Many problems will tell you how they want to be solved, but they whisper at first.  Listen to them.

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Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario. Contact: don@moneyfyi.com