There’s almost an entire industry devoted to the power of the mistake, and why you should make them. From clichéd motivational images, to reworking failures now presented as successful new outcomes. Whether it’s a poster coupling mistakes with bravery or Keizen approaches to process improvement, they’re all saying the same thing: ‘it’s okay to screw up’

And we all know, deep down, this is absolute nonsense. Pity the poor school-kid sticking their hand up enthusiastically before giving the wrong answer. Peer abuse follows. We’re conditioned from a very young age to cover up our mistakes, blame others, misdirect and just plain lie. Honestly, the first thing I learned about being the youngest sibling is everything was going to be my fault.

Politicians are a group who can never admit they are wrong. Some of this is their self-delusion, but so much more are the consequential disasters awaiting just a chink of honest humility. These behaviours are pervasive in every business I’ve ever worked in, from the shop floor to the boardroom.

And that’s not good. Not good at all, because in a world of confirmation bias, rigid corporate hierarchies, blame cultures and short term hip shooting, these mistakes are rolled up into potentially earthquake sized disasters. Everyone ‘knows’ afterwards what was going wrong, but nobody felt the urge to stick their head above the parapet to admit their mistake or point out someone else’s.

What has this got to do with Enterprise Architecture I hear you ask? Well that’s a fair question, so here is most of the answer: one of the greatest ‘mistakes’ I have made was pitching Enterprise Architecture to senior Executives and management boards. I’m going to share this painful experience with you in the hope it’ll stop just one person doing the same.

You see I had this slide deck; rigourously honed to articulate, repeat and embed the benefits panacea that a properly run Enterprise Architecture function would deliver. It was a thing of beauty. Many hours had been invested in its narrative, creation and animation. It was Consultant-Class, of that there could be no doubt and not for a moment did I doubt its veracity.

First mistake; not knowing your audience. Second mistake; not having an outcome in mind other than bathing in the reflected glory of your fine work. Third mistake, not peer-testing the deck and being ready for challenges or questions. Having delivered the entire presentation to mostly silence, I shall draw a veil over the individual responses, instead grouping them into three main categories

  • Where did your Spaceship crash?’ : this is the kind of look I get from my kids when explaining that before the Internet teenagers were occasionally seen outside or with a real book. I couldn’t quite interpret the CEO’s body language, but it was in trudging in that difficult valley between confusion and pity.
  • Remove your feet from my turf’ : talk about shaping or aligning change portfolios and visibly watch the programme director’s hackles rise. Much of my best work has been with brilliant PD’s who get the synergy between pragmatic EA and programme delivery. But you have to earn that trust, not stomp in with two size 10s. Feel free to add CIO, HR Director and virtually any other business unit when you preach glibly about transforming organisational capabilities.
  • There’s a wagon I might want too hitch to’. A bit of a saving grace when the floor refuses to open up and swallow you whole. These are generally the people who have great ideas, but little influence. Always at the back of the queue when the IT tokens are handed out. They remain silent in the meeting as you’re dying on your feet, but afterwards – assuming you’ve not decamped to the pub for a couple of medicinal large ones – they will seek you out and you’ve got your in. But you are going to have to work so damn hard to turn everyone else round.

Well that was cathartic. I wouldn’t recommend it as an approach. Not if you place any value on your long term self-esteem anyway. There a truism that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes your stronger’ yet it should really be appended by ‘but it will make your cringe horribly when you remember it, so please don’t do it again

So in summary I carefully crafted a pitch no one saw any value in, then compounded the mistake by continuing to pitch it long after anyone but me still cared.

I did learn some very useful things though. Now I start those sessions with a list of questions and a blank whiteboard. I try and uncover problems and summarise opportunities. I may venture an opinion on stuff I feel reasonably authoritive on. But mostly I don’t, because listening involves a whole lot of shutting up.

I made the mistake of confusing content with context. I won’t be doing it again.

Your turn ?