On being wrong

There are some things that I read that really hit me just “there” – no, not “there” – *there*

Jennifer Jones – who I had the pleasure of meeting in Cambridge with a couple of friends earlier this year, posted a blogpost titled On being wrong. The final paragraph of that article chimed with a number of things and thoughts that I’ve had that – with JJ’s kind permission I’m re-posting here (with a little bit of playing around with the formatting for which any bad stuff relating to the poor use of the editorial license is all my responsibility).

“This is about me being wrong – being told that my attitude to the materials is incorrect, that my ‘limited’ view point on the world is restricting my understanding of the wider picture, that I simply don’t get the importance of sport in the context of global solidarity.

You are right. I am wrong. I want to be wrong.

  • I want to be wrong about neo-liberal assault on the values we hold so dear to us.
  • Wrong about how corporations use such an idealistic philosophy to peddle exploitation on behalf of their own profit.
  • I want to be wrong about education being nothing more than a training ground for the labour market.
  • I want to be wrong that governments are using things the olympics to push other agendas to the global stage, something that is more important than looking after their citizens.

Being wrong is ok.”

Being wrong/incorrect/incomplete is part of the human experience. It’s one of the reasons my blog posts contain more questions than they answer. I don’t have all of the answers – I don’t pretend to. I leave such indulgences to newspaper commentators.

The desire for greater knowledge? It’s one of the things that drives me. Yet that search for greater knowledge involves getting things wrong before getting things right. In an exams culture where getting stuff right all of the time is what counts, coming up against getting stuff wrong comes as a shock to the system. I got lucky in learning that lesson during my A-levels. One of the findings of the Collinson Grant study of the Foreign Office in 2006 I recalled was that taking on high achievers meant that when faced with things going wrong, they did not know how to deal with failure. This meant that some projects and programmes that were clearly failing were not shut down early enough – prolonging the problems and the losses. In such cases you need people with both experience of having got stuff wrong and having clearly learnt from it so that bad stuff can be shut down.

This is also a wider problem in politics. The “Ummmm!!!! You did a U-turn! U-turn-you-turn! Naa-naa-na-naa-na!” mindset is stuff of the playground. If stuff has gone wrong, at least acknowledge that it went wrong, demonstrate an understanding as to why stuff went wrong & demonstrate what steps will be taken to deal with the problems now being faced as well as what will be done to reduce chances of it happening again. If we don’t, fear of the U-turn can end up being bigger than the fear of a failing policy, project or programme – which will have screwed up long after the decision-maker who commissioned it has gone & been forgotten. Just ask Sir George Young MP (Leader of the House) or Stephen Dorrell MP (Chair of the Health Select Committee) about the privatisation of the railways, or Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s failure to have stability in the post of Housing Minister during their terms in office.

What doesn’t help in politics – or in business – is false apologies, or failures to apologise for ones personal conduct. We saw this with the bankers in 2009 – being “sorry at the turn of events” (but not for their personal shortcomings and failings). We also saw this with Andrew Lansley’s non-apology on the NHS Bill (skip the advert) – where “what [he] is setting out to do has not communicated itself” was what he apologised for. What did his apology imply? That he was going to take robust action against his proposals to ensure that they communicated themselves better? If you’re going to apologise for something, apologise for something personally you got wrong, not for some abstract concept in the third person.

Getting stuff wrong on a day-to-day basis needn’t be the storm clouds that they used to be for me when growing up and – dare I say it – through much of my time in the civil service where getting stuff wrong (or the fear of) was something that at times paralysed me. Of course there are times when big time screw ups warrant the proverbial kicking. But can we also allow people to learn from them?



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