Plan Ahead – Not Behind

By Guy Higgins

I recently read two articles about an organization that had chartered a study to determine the actual results of a policy that had been implemented two years earlier. Neither the organization nor the policy is of any importance to this post. The initial article reported that the study discovered that the policy had had significant unintended adverse consequences. At this point, I need to point out that these consequences were very much unintended but predictable. In fact, the organization had been warned that these consequences were possible, even likely, results of the then-proposed policy. The second article reported that the organization was directing a “do over” of the study. The original study had been conducted by an organization that I recognize and which has a good reputation. Other than that, I have no knowledge of the structure of the study, its assumptions or its methodology, so I’m assuming that a reputable organization chartered to do a (very public) study did a competent job. I don’t have any information on how the study was commissioned or how the goal was articulated. It’s possible that the study was poorly chartered, but that’s a topic for another time.

Okay, “so what has this to do with me?” says the Noble Reader.

As leaders, we may ask someone to do a study for us, or we may ask someone to look into some matter or situation. We may ask for a due diligence investigation into some potential action. In my mind, the worst thing we could do is to get the results, reject them because they weren’t what we wanted, and then direct a new study, investigation or whatever. That destroys the integrity of the your process and casts the ultimate results into doubt because anyone who observed the rejection of the initial study and ordering of a new study will think, at some level, that the results were “gamed.”

As leaders, we need to take away two points:

  • The old saw, “Don’t ask questions if you can’t stand the answer.” The real point here is that you need to be prepared for any answer that your study may develop. You can’t simply assume that the study will yield the results you want. Not asking the question is a really terrible idea. If the question is important, you need the answer whether you can stand it or not. Unpalatable answers are like dead fish; they do not improve with time, even if you don’t know about it.
  • When you charter some significant study or investigation, do it “right.” When I was on active duty, significant studies or investigative efforts were provided with a formal document call a Terms of Reference (TOR). The TOR spelled out in detail what was being asked, what assumptions were to be made, when the results were due and what resources were being provided.

If you charter your study (we’re assuming that these studies are about important matters) well and you’re prepared for the answers, you’re in a much better position to take advantage of the study results whether they’re good, bad or ugly. Further, you’ve contributed to an atmosphere of trust – trust in your leadership, trust that the processes are good and are used with integrity, and trust in the people doing the study.

You can take a mulligan in golf (but even then, only among friends), but you can’t take one in serious situations. You need to “play it as it lies.”

Thoughts?

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