Steven Levitt, influential economist and author of "Freakonomics," said it best when it came to the typical business manager's obsessive need to be right in a recent podcast:
'What I've found in business is that almost no one will ever admit to not knowing the answer to a question. So even if they absolutely have no idea what the answer is, if it's within their realm of expertise, faking is just an important part.
I really have come to believe teaching MBAs that one of the most important things you learn as an MBA is how to pretend you know the answer to any question even though you have absolutely no idea what you're talking about.
And I've found it's really one of the most destructive factors in business is that everyone masquerades like they know the answer and no one will ever admit they don't know the answer, and it makes it almost impossible to learn.'
Most people in business are wired to get it 'right.' Put on the spot, pressed for time, squeezed by competition — you feel obligated to provide lots of answers on the spot and project confidence, above all. That makes you look good, pleases your boss, and gets you ahead.
When you're wired to get it right, the risk of getting it wrong seems huge. Failure feels crushing and steers you away from uncertainty or taking risks, pulling you more toward the warm embrace of schedules, requirements, and niggling details.
As seductive and easy as it is to do, managing for the 'right' answers has two critical flaws that will hurt you and your team in the long run:
- It demotivates employees by squelching their autonomy and sense of purpose for the mission the team should be sharing together.
- It kills questions that would open up big opportunities for innovation by listening to varied sources, entertaining unsafe ideas, and asking 'why.'
Design leadership can cure this reductive management style. Those who lead should feel comfortable saying, "I don't know, but I know how to find out." They should inspire a team to take small risks, collaborate effectively, and run toward uncertainty.
Design methodologies are leaders' safety net so they don't feel the need to act like they have all the right answers. Two critical ingredients of effective design leadership are:
- Embrace 'enlightened' trial-and-error, encourage lots of 'why' questions, and brainstorm lots of potential solutions first. Most solutions will end up on the cutting room floor, which is scary and can seem wasteful at first, but ends up being a vital leap of faith to help lead your team to the win.
- Expose the team to real world customer feedback early and often. After all, the ultimate arbiter of success will be your customers, not your boss. Engage customers to help the team understand which concepts are the real winners. This will give them a sense of accomplishment and inspire them to reach for something bigger than themselves!
A truly effective leader embraces uncertainty and admits to not having all the right answers to start. By doing so, managers can learn to check their hubris at the door and open up their team's ability to ask dumb questions, listen hard for answers, and really learn. After all, as Levitt hinted at in his comment, it's this ability to collectively learn that makes a business healthy, constructive, and innovative in its marketplace.