Learning by Trial or Terror

Good managers use what they learn for the good of the enterprise rather than as a means to advance or maintain their own power.

By Heather McCune, Editor in Chief | July 31, 2003


Heather McCune, Editor in Chief


Getting smart and staying smart conflict. Getting smart starts with, most often, a self-centered goal. As children, we work for good grades to please our parents or at least stay out of trouble. As teens, we understand that learning leads to good grades, which leads to college, which leads to the independence we so desperately crave. In college, we know that good grades on a transcript unlock the door to a job and the money we so desperately want to earn.

In young professional lives, the same pattern repeats. In a first job, the just-employed seek a lot of information and direction to overcome the fear of termination. With a little experience under their belts, these same workers get more proficient and productive with career advancement as their motivator. Among managers, competition among departments or divisions compels the person charged with performance - the manager - to continuously learn new, better, faster ways of getting the job done more profitably with fewer errors.

At the managerial level, a transformation occurs in learning and thus in an organization. What worked for the individual fails the group. Suddenly trial and error as an improvement approach magnifies a mistake across many individuals. Learning shifts from trial and error to trial and terror unless radical change occurs. Most often this shift means the manager assumes the responsibility of educator as well.

Fulfilling this role requires more and more finesse the higher up the management ladder you go. Think about it: Responsibility increases at every rung, and at the same time, getting unvarnished information about the business you're charged with managing becomes harder and harder. Employees, associates, team members - call them what you will - treat bosses differently. What workers tell one another about the products they build with, the processes in place to manage home buyers, the systems that support the enterprise bears little resemblance to what the boss hears.

Consider the water-cooler moment in any office or on any job site:

  • Construction: "Whatever the company saved buying these new doors/windows/cabinets/panels/etc. can't be enough to cover the additional build time and installation trouble."


  • Sales: "Communities all around us lure buyers with discounts and incentives, and we hold firm. Just wait, I'll bet we're the ones blamed for a falling conversion rate."


  • Administration: "Nowhere in my job description does it say my duties include fixing the mistakes/data-entry errors for contracts/sales/construction/etc." Now consider the same conversation when the boss asks the questions:


  • Construction: "Our door/window/cabinet/panel trade staffed this project with its least experienced crews. We'll get on them and get back on track."


  • Sales: "We still see lots of model home traffic each weekend. Today shoppers just take a little longer to make a buying decision."


  • Administration: "We save a lot of time with this system because everyone uses the information that sales/construction/contracts enters."

Is this lying? Is it deceitful? Not at all. Spinning information based on the audience determines political elections today (let's leave that subject for other publications' pages) and holds similar sway in your company. The best managers - from the front line to the corner office - find ways to get unvarnished information about the business. They lessen the terror moments. Good managers use what they learn for the good of the enterprise rather than as a means to advance or maintain their own power. In doing so, these managers necessarily focus on the success of those around them and prove that they are anything but average.


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