Don’t Shoot The Messenger

Consider the story of a man named Peter Palchinsky.  It is capably shared in  Adapt, by Tim Harford, an engaging author well regarded for his columns in the Financial Times. Harford writes Palchinsky “was murdered for trying to figure out what would work and for refusing to shut up when he saw a problem.”

Engaged Talent

An engineer with considerable international experience and reknown for his analysis, Palchinsky was assigned to advise on two of Stalin’s most vital projects: the Lenin Dam and Magnitogorsk. They both were ambitious. The Lenin Dam was the world’s largest. The  mills of Magnitogorsk were intended to produce more steel  output than all the United Kingdom. Technically without peer, Palchinsky offered sound, thoughtful counsel. His perspectives were ignored.

In 1928, Palchinsky was arrested late at night and executed. His crimes: “detailed statistics” and setting “minimal goals.” He had many colleagues – more than three thousand engineers were arrested in the USSR during the 1920s and 30s. Those who tried to identify disaster and suggested alternatives were called “wreckers.”

Palchinsky Principles

We now know the knowledge, skills and honesty of the Russian messenger should have been heeded. Harford suggests the “Palchinsky Principles:”

  • Seek out new ideas and try new things
  • When trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  • Seek out feedback and learn from mistakes as you go along

Valuable Experiments

Ultimately, the Soviet Block fell apart because of the inability to experiment. It lacked repeated variation and selection. Soviet leaders were unwilling to consider a variety of approaches to problems and they couldn’t decide what was working and what was not. Quite simply, they failed to adapt.

Harford says that adaptation doesn’t happen in organizations because of egos and grandiosity. While “big” efforts win attention these flagship projects too often leave little room to adapt. Consistent standards, instead of variation, are also an impediment. While uniformity is tempting, it is good for static problems. Far more often knowledge work is complex and situational.

Finally, selection is also difficult. Politicos generally reject ideas with objective measures of success because they are in a hurry. They can’t wait long for proof of success. Since about half of pilot schemes fail, it means coping with evidence of failure. Regrettably, tests that result in failure are not welcomed, let alone tolerated. They are not understood as part of learning and part of the journey of adaptation.

Invite Feedback

Are there Palchinskys in your organization or community? Is their feedback sought and used to improve results? Or, are they ignored and rejected? Suppressed feedback has high costs for organizational effectiveness. Feedback is essential to learning from failure and achieving success.

Lisa Wyatt, 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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