To err is human

In 1963, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008), published a short story in the Soviet literary magazine Novy Mir (New World), called ‘An Incident at Krechetovka Station.’ It was translated into English the same year and published in book form (along with another short story, ‘Matryona’s Place’), under the title ‘We Never Make Mistakes.’

In the ‘Incident,’ Zotov, a lieutenant in charge of a railway station during WWII (who wishes he was at the front fighting for his homeland!), meets a ‘straggler’ named Igor Dementevich Tveritinov (‘stragglers’ were Russian soldiers who made their way home after being cut off from their units by the Germans).

At first, Zotov likes him and they and share a good laugh at Tveritinov’s adventures, but when Zotov mentions Stalingrad and Tveritinov doesn’t recognize the name, Zotov becomes suspicious—what true comrade hadn’t heard of Stalingrad? He hands him over to the secret police (NKVD). Haunted by the fact he turned Tveritinov in without any real evidence, Zotov later tries to find out what happened to him. When an NKVD agent visits Krechetovka, Zotov inquires after him. He is told not to worry: “We will take care of your Tveritinov. We never make mistakes.”

In this one story Solzhenitsyn captures the spirit-crushing reality of Soviet life, the corrosive power of our own fears, and the delusional certainty of the bureaucrat.

Nothing to fear but fear itself

As far as the NKVD is concerned, the claim ‘we never make mistakes’ is not half as crazy as it sounds. To them the only ‘mistake’ it to let spies escape—locking up half the country to make sure none do is not a mistake, it’s just the cost of the program. There are no trade-offs to be made. There is only the immediate objective, no price too high. On the slightest suspicion, the Gulag.

The NKVD is dead, but its ghost stalks modern business. Terrified of making mistakes, we take no chances. If there’s the slightest risk, we avoid it. How many opportunities are lost to this psychology of fear? How many times do we fail to maximize our advantage? Break new ground? What price, fear?

We make rules, form committees, check everything twice. But there is a cost to all this, most importantly lost opportunity. In a predicatable and slowly growing market (i.e., post-war Western economies), the “no risk” strategy works. In today’s world, it doesn’t.

The times they are a-changin’

Today, we do business in highly fragmented and discontinuous markets, where macro-forces like technology and globalization can—and do—change the playing field overnight. The digital revolution has already turned a dozen industries updside down—music, travel, retail—and we’re next.  Look no further than newspapers to see how the Internet undermines traditional publishing models.

How to meet higher customer expectations, exploit emerging technologies and out-manueuver new competitors? Innovate.

Innovation, however, is fraught with risk. Who knows what will work? Research can help, but no amount of research can guarantee success. Innovation and risk come hand in hand, you can’t have one without the other.

To succeed, we must innovate. Innovation brings risks. Risk means we will make mistakes. Ergo, New Rule #2: “If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing your job.”

We can insist on successes and fail, or accept failure and succeed. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult.  In the new world, we are not paid to avoid risks – we are paid to know which risks to take.

2 Responses to To err is human

  1. K Lee Lerner says:

    “We can insist on successes and fail, or accept failure and succeed. It’s that simple. It’s that difficult. In the new world, we are not paid to avoid risks – we are paid to know which risks to take.”

    Brilliant.

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