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Culture and the Perils of Guesswork

April 17, 2010
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A friend of mine recently received some pretty critical feedback at work. She had carefully responded to a request from a senior executive, a request that was very vague, broad, and came to her third hand. As a result, what she delivered was necessarily broader than the senior executive really wanted or intended.

There were significant barriers to access the senior executive, including power, available face time, and physical and relationship distance. These barriers, as well as a lack well defined goals, caused her to put more work into the project than was necessary. It caused her to guess.
The consequences were what you would expect. There was no reward for her effort, and the project did nothing to improve her relationships with any of those involved. Quite the opposite.

When I heard this story, it reminded me of Guesswork from Art Kleiner's 2003 book, "Who Really Matters." Here is that story:

Guesswork
The king had been betrayed. Henry II, twelfth-century of England, had arranged for his bosom friend, fellow bon vivant, and military partner, the archdeacon Thomas a Becket, to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry assumed that, this way, he could better control the Church. But the new Archbishop suddenly got religion and shifted allegiance; be broke contact with the King, gave up his palace and rich clothing, and refused to agree to Henry's demand to have clergy tried in the royal courts. When Becket excommunicated some of the bishops who were loyal to the King, they went to Henry to complain. At dinner one evening in 1169, the King was overheard grumbling, "Shall a man who has eaten my bread [meaning Becket] insult me and all the kingdom, and not one of the lazy servants whom I nourish at my table (meaning his knights and courtiers] help me fix this affront?"

Four of the knights took Henry's remark as a command. They slipped out, rode to Canterbury, and killed the Archbishop. This murder, which the King apparently never intended, cost him nearly everything he valued: his former friend (with whom be bad hoped to reconcile, and whom he missed terribly); his standing with the Church (he was immediately excommunicated); the love of the people of England (despite humbling himself in his own pilgrimage to Canterbury); the political concessions Becket had spent years demanding from him (which he now granted with no further argument); and the respect of his own sons, who fought him in a series of wars that lasted the rest of his life. (And the hapless knights? Henry imprisoned them.)

- the passage above comes directly from Who Really Matters, by Art Kleiner, pages 74-75, and starts a chapter on the topic, Chapter 8, titled Guesswork.

All of us, as leaders, play the role of king. All of us as direct reports to higher kings, the C-suite or the BOD, play the role of Becket from time-to-time in our careers. For me, the moral of this story seems to be, it's in everyone's interest to eliminate or at least reduce guesswork. But changing communication patterns is not always an option.

In terms of outcomes, the king has the greatest organizational burden to reduce guesswork, if he hopes to execute his vision through his subordinates. And those subordinates have the highest risk of sudden, unavoidable organizational death as a consequence of guesswork.
We all need to be aware of the destructive role guesswork can play in our organizations. And as leaders, we have a responsibility to build direct communication into the culture of our organizations, in part by continually setting a good example.
 

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