"Make the present good, and the past will take care of itself." ~Knute Rockne
"Ninety-nine percent of failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses." ~George W. Carver
Too many of us spend our time defending past decisions and our place in the organization instead of improving the organization. We spend hours proving that while the decision turned out wrong, we made the correct decision based on the information we had available to us or the analysis that someone else did. In more aggressive organizations, this leads to placing blame elsewhere.
In the best cases defending a decision provides a foundation for moving forward, in the worst cases (and what we might find more prevalent in today's organizations) this becomes and exercise without a defined purpose or focus on action and turns into an exercise of knowledge for knowledge's sake. We must be mindful that the organizations that work forward, as opposed to working on the past will be the ones that win the next round.
That doesn't mean that you should never look backwards, but you need to be mindful of picking your moments. So how do you ensure that you are “getting defensive” for the right reasons? We need to ensure first and foremost that we will have a bias towards action with whatever we find. This takes care of the "knowledge for knowledge sake" and calls out any political motive right from the start (so it can hopefully be nipped in the bud). Next we need to set the course for our analysis by choosing the reason or goal for it. In my experience there are only three constructive goals that warrant defensiveness:
Defining what went wrong – This is the most common constructive reason, and also the reason used to justify pointless review of the past. It could be that one of the inputs used to make the decision is flawed or incomplete. It could be that some outside force affected the issue at hand, and you can then begin to see whether that can be mitigated in the future. In this case, defending yourself uncovers the root problem. If you know what happened, you can get to work on fixing it.
Does the defense lead to learning – In this case the exercise of defending an action is meant to yield the next best possibility. You are looking for what went wrong, what things were assumed, and what actions could have been taken in place of the others to make it successful in the future. Here the knowledge is planned to be used immediately afterwards to move the project or issue forward, not just gained for academic or political reasons.
Do you need to defend, in order to move forward with what you learned – Especially in high profile or high cost situations it is best to fully understand the prior situation to ensure you don’t make a future move in the wrong direction. Along with this is the “political” move of reaffirming someone else's confidence in your decision making ability, usually your boss, so that you get the “go ahead" to continue forward.
There are a number of reasons that we spend our time defending our mistakes, but too often they boil down to either politics or vanity. It is politics to secure and defend your position of authority as an “idea leader” in the company. It is vanity to prove your authority by always being right. But that time you spend in defensiveness for these reasons is time and effort that could and should be used on a constructive endeavor to move your organization forward. So go ahead and get defensive, but only in constructive ways and only if necessary. Your time and energy are not infinite.
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