‘How do you know if you’ve got the right strategy?’ asked the MBA student 

‘When you find out whether or not it worked.’ replied the Strategy expert.
The group laughed.


‘I’m not joking’ replied the expert. ‘Strategy is about the future, and the future tends to throw curveballs.’


I was one of the MBA students whose laughter was cut short and that brief exchange has always stuck with me. I’ve shared it with CEOs and Directors when discussing strategy over the years and the sentence ‘When you find out whether or not it worked’ always resonates, can even seem to be something of a relief. Of course, we can’t know we have the right strategy because the future does throw curveballs.


And within the curveballs sits the opportunity for powerful learning because curveballs often mean we have to say, ‘We got it wrong.’ Four little words that hold a power of opportunity for learning if we only have the courage to use them ourselves and to allow others to do so to. But a quick acknowledgement of getting it wrong, maybe even followed by a cursory sorry, isn’t enough. The real power comes when we explore what went wrong, with maturity and without blame.


I’ve thought about this a lot as I’ve taken part in conversations over the last few months. Some of these have been Zoom sessions, where leaders have been sharing how they are leading others through Covid-19 or are coping with it themselves. Others have been with friends and acquaintances. One of the things that has struck me is how well everyone is doing. In the midst of such upheaval, there have been many new things tried and fantastic results gained.


Whether it’s the peer networks set up in organisations that have led to previously untapped sources of support and encouragement; or the CEOs who have become totally comfortable sharing a weekly update video with all employees; or the new ways of working that have resulted in increased performance and productivity – there’s really great stuff going on. And that has brought a great deal of valuable learning.


The thing is, while this is incredibly inspirational and exciting, it seems to me it can only be part of the story and therefore we are sharing only part of the learning. There must be a lot of us who, looking back over 2020, are saying ‘We got it wrong.’ We must have made mistakes – we’ve been leading through unprecedented change. 


It’s normal human behaviour, of course, to put on our game face, to share the positives and to avoid vulnerability.


It’s hard to say, ‘We got it wrong’ and to explore this with maturity and lack of blame. It’s hard to share our errors, without defending ourselves and our decisions, so that others can learn from them too. We say things like ‘We welcome mistakes round here’. But mistakes often aren’t really welcomed, and we don’t truly feel it’s safe to admit to them. In fact, because we fear the repercussions, we even actively hide them. 


And as a result, we share part of the learning rather than all of the learning. 
In her book “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead” Dr. Brené Brown tells the story of Gay Gaddis, the owner and founder of the US’ largest advertising agency wholly owned by a woman. Gaddis built huge success from an aspiration and a handful of accounts. Brown writes: “When I asked her about vulnerability she said, “When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity.”


I’d suggest that, when we avoid ‘We got it wrong’ or use them in a cursory way, we shut down opportunity too. That’s a particular shame right now because leading through Covid-19 is giving us all the opportunity to learn from the things that we must have been getting wrong.


If ever there was a time for leaders to purposely create the opportunity for people in our organisations to come together and share what they’ve got wrong, to share what we ourselves have got wrong, and to welcome the opportunity to learn from this, surely this is it. Remember though, this will only add value if we share with maturity and lack of judgement, with genuine curiosity, and with the courage to be vulnerable.


It’s powerful to share the stories of new things tried and great results gained. But it’s just as powerful to share the stories of new things tried and the reality of discovering that it didn’t work.


‘Yes…but’ closes down exploration, ‘What if….’ opens it up, ‘I got it wrong’ creates tremendous opportunity for learning.

P.S. Thank you for everyone for your helpful tips, advice and personal experiences of pink hair. I have my appointment this weekend so the decision is yet to be taken!!

Why leaders should use these four little words more often