Unless you have spent the last 40 days and nights living in a cave (in preparation for the excesses of Christmas?), you will no doubt be aware that RTÉ’S Prime Time Investigates series has been suspended. The station’s boss said that its journalists were responsible for “one of the gravest editorial mistakes ever made” in the national broadcaster. This admission has led to an investigation into errors made in a programme broadcast in May 2011, Mission to Prey, about Fr Kevin Reynolds.
Catastrophic Failure: It’s not just an internal affair. The Cabinet approved an independent inquiry into why RTÉ broadcast the programme, which wrongly accused Fr Reynolds of raping a minor and fathering her child while working as a missionary in Kenya 30 years ago. A Government spokesperson said the decision had been taken in view of “general disquiet” about the issue. So, this one is serious. The key question is: Could something similar happen in your organization?
Incorrect Premise: We will have to wait on the outcome of the investigation to find out what actually happened in RTÉ, but there are a number of parallels in both the commercial and not-for-profit sectors. The first potential tripwire is around ‘incorrect premise’. If you commence a project with a preformed premise, then you immediately search for evidence to support your bias. Just like the Birmingham 6 case in the UK. Each week a less dramatic form of this is played out on The Apprentice. Each team typically has 2 jobs. They need to come up with a concept. And, then they need to execute this rapidly. Because of time pressures and the thought of ‘facing Bill in the Boardroom’ (having your personal flaws raked over in front of a national audience can’t be much fun) the concept phase is often rushed through as the team dives into the details. In other words, the ‘thinking’ phase typically gets short shift while implementation predominates. And this doesn’t just happen on TV programmes. Dr. Ivor Kenny, former director of the Irish Management Institute captured this tendency in the quip: “Doing is the Opium for Managers”.
Cognitive Dissonance: I’m guessing that the incorrect premise in the RTÉ case was that Fr Reynolds was guilty. And once you lock onto a wrong idea, bad things follow. In commercial organizations the outcome (albeit a bit less dramatic) is a strategy that does not work or a change programme that doesn’t produce change. All heat, no light. So, why don’t people fully explore a range of possibilities before ‘locking on’ to the central idea? The concept of cognitive dissonance from psychology helps to explain this. Most of us seek consistency between our beliefs and our experience. When we receive new information that conflicts with existing ideas, the discrepancy creates feelings of discomfort and unease. Rather than staying with this i.e working it through, we ‘lock on’ to a single idea. We re-enter the certain zone, our unease disappears and we feel good again. This is an unconscious process and happens even in relation to quite small decisions. Lets assume that you want to book a family holiday and are considering France or Spain. While there are competing arguments for both locations, holding the 2 ideas at the same time is uncomfortable for many people. So, you quickly dismiss Spain (“Their economy is in tatters. Anyway, who wants to eat eggs fried in a sea of olive oil?”) and grab that Ryanair flight to Marseille.
Hold Out: The next time your organization is facing a big decision, try to be aware of the ‘competing arguments’ and don’t lock on too soon. Keep listening and weighting up the odds. Watch that you haven’t fallen into a default pattern of making quick decisions simply to ease your discomfort. And even where the alternative idea was put forward by ‘Mick in Sales’ (and you know of old that Mick is a gobshite), consider the possibility that he just might actually be right (in line with even a stopped clock is right twice a day). Listen to others, but most of all to your own instinct. In effective decisions, to speed up sometimes you need to slow down.
For some people reading about grave errors in organizations like RTÉ offers an element of Schadenfreude, pleasure derived from the misfortune of others. Just be careful that you are not the central player in the next media frenzy. Have a good one!
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