Making Progress: Costs and Risks

 

Before effective treatments were known for pneumonia and whooping cough, children died frequently in hospital wards. Every morning, hospitalized children would wake and ask about missing  friends: “Where did Charlie go?” The nurses’ common refrain was “He went home.” It was understood that home meant they’d died. The only way to preserve hope was to deny reality.

This poignant story is in Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness. Across multiple sectors, cultures, and over time, she provides some thoughtful insights.   

 Shortcuts Are Costly

The Holocaust, Enron and MCI meltdowns, Madoff’s rip-off, Wall Street malfeasance, slavery and the Catholic Church’s sidestep of abusive priests  were all  man-made disasters. Why? Each reflected huge moral shortcuts. Harm was known but many preferred to ignore it. Daring to question an institution or a person can mean a loss of security. It is risk-taking.

 While denial can be a great coping strategy, it ought to be stricken from the quiver of accountable managers and leaders. It makes people and organizations “sick.” It has big costs. If your aim is creating change, there are many “uncomfortable truths” that require attention. To improve organizational performance and support growth, acknowledgement and action are essential.

 Big Progress

Big change can happen. The Marshall Plan is a historical example. It recast a large multi-country region and it’s future through the right work by and with important allies. George Kennan, a diplomat and architect of the Plan wrote about his agony and frustration in this change work. The effort to birth a great and bold plan was very, very difficult.

 More recent examples of important and intentional development efforts are creation of the European Union and reconciliation in South Africa . Step one is a close look at reality —  to understand and define  the current status. Sighting a feasible way forward depends on it. Heffernan writes that “unanimous decisions are incomplete…there is too much power…obedience…and conformity.” She counsels , if just one solution is visible, look again.

 The New Normal & Best Tactics

The high stress created by information overload, an excruciating fast pace, tremendous competition and/or an urgent mission does not excuse distance from moral reflection.  The preceding description of context is the new normal. And, it is present in any workplace or community. An analysis of the perilous implications from past ignorances can inform better tactics. Consider these :

  •  Look for what you cannot see. Many have said we didn’t foresee the catastrophe of 9/11 happening because were  weren’t looking for it. The information about it was present but we didn’t pay attention to it. Intentionally work to distinguish the trivial from the serious.
  •  Trust your intuition. It is well known that one indicator of useful critical thinking is discomfort. Your intuition provides inklings and suspicions – give it credit.
  •  Act sooner rather than later.  Before the stakes get big and stakeholders are deeply invested is the best time to raise questions. A failure to intervene early can feed the momentum of bad choices.

 Look, test, then act. People , organizations, communities  are desperate for leadership. Demonstrating integrity, the courage to meet the demands of reality, is directly connected to effectiveness.  Securing progress and sustainable results means you see both the risks of denial and the power of the truth.

Lisa Wyatt Knowlton, Ed. D. is a strategy architect and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems and social change with clients worldwide. She is also an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

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