At Your Service: April 29, 2009

There are times when the best thing that we can do is a far, far cry from our personal best. That is because despite our efforts to always make the right decision we are sometimes reduced to simply making the decision right. Few of us have the savvy to recognize mistakes as we make them; mistakes are more often revealed by circumstance or the people they impacted. Mistakes brought to our attention by others usually fall into the category known colloquially as “whoppers.”
A classic example of a whopper occurred this week in New York City when someone in the Defense Department press office decided to stage a photo opportunity for Air Force One near the Statue of Liberty. At 10 on Monday morning, the 747, followed by a fighter jet (in which the photographer was snapping away), flew low over the Hudson. Undoubtedly the individuals making the decisions leading to this fiasco were not in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001 or they would have realized what kind of reactions the sight would generate.
While there must have been a multitude of mistakes in the mix, two stand out as being lesson worthy. Someone had a great idea to update the photos used for publicity purposes by the Defense Department (the old ones probably still show the twin towers) and a bunch of people agreed that it was a good idea. However, someone must have thought, “Hey, maybe it could scare people to see a plane flying low in the skies over the city. We just had one emergency situation that made headlines and this would be in the same area as the 9/11 horrors.” One mistake was to think it and either not say it or not say it loud enough for others to appreciate the disaster in the making.
The second mistake was made when there was not enough “space” in the decision making process for dissent. Every great idea has its down side. In order for anything new to happen, something must change. It is always a good idea to pay attention to what is changing and who is impacted by the change. The bigger the idea, the more important it is to heed the warnings.
While these mistakes were made on the public scene, it is just as easy for us to make the same mistakes with less fanfare. Someone has an idea, we see potential problems the initiator doesn’t see and rather than be the naysayer in the crowd, we go along. When the situation then turns sour, we are either in the “I told you so,” or the “I knew it wouldn’t work” seat. Either seat should be uncomfortable; how much better it could have been to be sitting in the winners’ box with a team that succeeded.
In the alternate scenario, we are sometimes the initiator who gets so caught up in the idea that we lose sight of the larger goal.
As momentum builds, we increasingly underestimate potential problems and don’t build solutions into the plan. In the process, we are also likely to step on the toes of those who pointed out the risks. When underestimated problems rear their heads, things get ugly quick and the finger pointing always finds the initiator who missed the warning signs.
The most common scenario we are likely to face in our businesses is when all these people live in our own heads. We initiate the idea, see potential problems, proceed without taking into account our misgivings and then must apologize to the irate customer.
In the end, there is nothing to do with a whopper but make a huge apology – the sooner the better. We all make the big mistakes and sometimes the best we can do is to eat a large helping of crow.