Look for the corporate canaries

“Don’t ever forget that you just might turn out to be wrong.” – Jimmy Buffet

Wise words. The people and organizations we lead and work for who can’t or won’t take these words to heart are sitting ducks in a dynamic age.

Jack Welch is making damn sure that General Electric isn’t a sitting duck. He has hired a group of smart people and expressly charged them with identifying the business, social and technological developments that have the potential to kill off various and sundry pieces of the GE empire. In effect, he’s paying people to tell him and his organization where GE might be wrong now, and where it might go wrong in the future.

People and organizations that thrive through periods of great change (and great change is what we’ve got for the foreseeable future) need to recognize their own capacity to be wrong – wrong technology, wrong Internet business model, wrong vendor alliance – and take steps to ensure they have an active ability to identify and act constructively on their potential wrongness. They need to take their potential wrongness to heart, and nurture and encourage the kind of people in the organization who challenge the status quo, who take the brave and contrarian stands, and who blow the whistle on what they see as stupidity, no matter how well entrenched is that perceived stupidity. Effective organizations know that no one ever learned a thing from a yes man or woman, but that constructively assessing the validity of a challenge to the “way we’ve always done it” ultimately makes for a stronger and more resilient future.

English coal miners used to take canaries down into the mines with them. Because the canaries were more sensitive to dangerous elements in the air than the miners themselves, the birds were used as living early warning indicators – if a canary keeled over on its perch the miners would know that there was something in the air that would ultimately harm them, and they’d get out. They effectively changed their behaviour in response to something wrong, in this case, something that could be fatal to them.

Assuming they’re not destructive in their observations and recommendations, or not simply idiots, the people in our organizations who are brave enough to challenge the status quo should be encouraged to speak up, and they should be recognized as the corporate canaries in the coal mine that they are.

Ever seen someone “different” leave your organization out of frustration? Seen someone talented forced to leave because they didn’t fit in? Maybe the demise of these folks should represent the same thing to you that a dead canary represented to the miners – the need to make a change in a hurry.

People who are the canaries in their organizations are often the change leaders, they’re the ones willing to go into the breach of change when their employer is making a wrong move.

Unfortunately, the organizations we work for tend to be somewhat myopic in their unwillingness to accept these challenging thinkers, and the first into the breach usually dies for the effort. Those who are different, aggressive, and stupid are dangerous. But those who are different, aggressive and smart should be encouraged. They’ll cause friction and sometimes turmoil in their organizations, but they should be encouraged.

Are you a corporate canary? Does one of them work for you?

In the organizations that I work for and with, I’m always on the lookout for the canaries, and I’m encouraged when I see an organization in which they thrive. If the structure or inflexibility of the organization they work in kills them, I see that as a bad sign, a sign that an organization’s lost its understanding of its own capacity for ‘wrongness’.

In case you’re one of these contrarian canaries, and you’re thinking that what I’m saying goes some way toward validating your behaviour, a final thought: Having the good fortune to work for a boss or an organization that constantly and constructively questions itself should not give immediate comfort, especially to the misguided, or is some cases, the simply stupid and obstinate.

If you’re going to take on your own organization, you should expect to engage in the same kind of behaviour that you expect from others, i.e. prepare to be proved wrong. Recognize your own potential wrongness (consider the fact that if everyone disagrees with you, the likelihood that you’re right is pretty small) and never make the mistake of assuming that everyone who disagrees with your thinking is an idiot.

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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