Getting it wrong

Why do we get things wrong? Obviously we get things wrong when we have only partial information, or we have to make a judgement about unpredictable forces, and that kind of mistake isn’t particularly interesting. On the other hand it’s apparent that we can often get things wrong because we’re half-blinded by our prejudices or other desires. This happens all the time in our personal lives, and it’s often the stuff of tragedy, but it’s more interesting (or at least important) when it happens on a political or business level, when in some respects leaders should always be trying to think beyond these personal drivers.

I’m curious how an organisation like Microsoft, with huge resources and smart people, could have got it so wrong with Windows 8.

To give credit where it’s due I think Microsoft’s judgement, that using touch screens (on phones and tablets) will have a creeping influence on how we interact with computers, is correct and ahead of the rest of the market.

This much is comprehensible, but the resulting product is not. Microsoft clearly recognised that it would need to offer some semblance of its traditional desktop so as not to alienate its huge (and conservative) business constituency overnight, which makes it all the more surprising that it then seemed determined to force all users at every turn into its new touch friendly (and very immature) “modern UI”. Anyone could have told them that this was a big and unnecessary mistake (and many people did): it would have been a trivial thing to let users choose which environment they wanted, and let them stay there while carefully introducing convergent features.

What’s puzzling is not that Microsoft got the execution so wrong, but that it was incapable of seeing what was obvious. Note that this is not the usual problem of disruptive change and market leadership (highlighted by Clayton Christiansen back in the late 1990s), where the incumbent has too much invested in the status quo to adapt to change. Microsoft was reading the writing on the wall, and understanding what it meant, but as if paralysed by Christiansen’s insight it chose to act as if there was no status quo (and still executed very badly even in those terms). CEO Steve Ballmer has paid the price in his forced early retirement.

On on a different level, how did that usually shrewd political operator David Cameron get the parliamentary vote on a military response to the Syrian crisis so wrong? The Tories apparently blame Ed Milliband’s change of heart, but if Milliband wobbled it was because he was trying to take the public and parliamentary temperature, and when he had done so came down firmly on the side of non-intervention. This wasn’t duplicitous: it was the right political decision. Again what’s surprising is that Cameron hadn’t worked this all out for himself in advance, and so been much more cautious in his rhetoric. As it was he seemed transfixed by his admiration for Tony Blair’s calculated performances on the international stage, ignoring the obvious truth that what Blair did over Iraq has become axiomatic for political duplicity, and a total failure in its avowed aim to protect British security.

Cameron survives for the moment. On a bigger stage Barack Obama has been quietly humiliated by the wilier Vladimir Putin, largely because Putin had the advantage (through no virtue of his own) of being substantially right. Obama gave himself a problem he did not need to have, and Cameron went along with it. Again, what’s interesting about this particular crisis is not that the situation was hard to read. Everything was pretty obvious. The blinding factor seems to have been the self-image of some of the actors involved.

Leaders in any walk of life are fallible: this is hardly news. But it’s become worth saying because we seem to have settled on a view that leaders are distinguished from ordinary folk by their ability to read situations with unusual insight, and make the big bets successfully. This might be true of some very exceptional individuals, though even here we need to consider how much of a part luck or circumstance played (Churchill was the man of the wartime hour but a pretty hopeless peacetime politician). Indeed it is hard to name a great peacetime leader in British politics in the last hundred years. The two people with the sweeping self-belief to change the political climate were Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, and in both cases their legacy is of unmitigated wrongheadedness.

It seems more likely that the best leaders are not like near-omniscient demigods: they are good team builders, who have learnt how to listen and empower others.

These things are valuable skills, but they are not so uncommon. The damaging cult of the Great Leader in Western business and politics has been embedded by the emergence of a self-serving leadership caste, who tell us that their unique talents require unprecedented financial rewards. This seems part of the same blinding self-image that urged otherwise intelligent people, from Ballmer to Obama, to close their eyes and ears to what sat plainly in front of them and caused them to lead badly (though in a truly grim irony, Ballmer’s resignation, a tacit admission of serious failure, immediately rewarded him with millions of dollars as Wall St welcomed the news and boosted the Microsoft share price).

Leaders are as important as they have always been, or more accurately leadership is as important as it’s always been, and that distinction matters because it detaches leadership from the cult of the individual. We need people of vision to take us forward, but note the plural: the vision is unlikely to emanate from any one person. We need this detachment of vision from the idea of the visionary, not just for better leadership, but better governance across enterprises and politics.

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