Graeme Newell

Optimism Bias

It was some of the most groundbreaking work I’d ever seen. A brilliant management team at an upstart media company created a breakthrough marketing & branding campaign. Customers loved it. The ratings were on the rise.

Team leaders were singled out by corporate as innovators and were being groomed for senior leadership, but in a heartbreaking turn of events, it all came crashing down.

A new competitor entered the market, hiring droves of top talent, and spending like a drunken sailor on everything from marketing to cutting-edge gear. My little company quickly lost all the market share it’d fought so hard to gain.

As you might guess, the corporate leaders were none too happy. So what did they do? Regroup and adjust to new market conditions?

Nope, instead they chose to punish the very team they’d honored just a few months back. Within a year, every leader on this amazing team had been fired or moved on, and my stand-out little company quickly imploded.

Why do so many smart leaders make things worse by playing the blame game?

OPTIMISM BIAS causes us to overestimate our chances of success. Our brain tends to downplay big forces like competitors, timing and just plain old bad luck. We prefer to believe that outside circumstances can invariably be overcome through sheer hard work. Optimism bias keeps us from recognizing when we’re on a doomed mission.

Unfortunately we tend to believe the same thing about employees. We see their failures as complacency or a character flaw.

So how can we avoid the blame game? Here are three tactics:

ACTIVELY plan for a possible failure.
Failure is often discussed only after it’s happened. Those who even mention a possible failure are seen as pessimists, trying to bring down the team. It’s important that your team get comfortable talking about & planning for a possible defeat.

Up the number of outside voices.
Sequestered teams get so excited and proud of their new project, they start believing in their own invincibility. Actively search out smart voices who have courage to tell you that your baby is ugly.

Remember that innovation is a process, not a destination.
It’s a verb, not a noun. Build room in your plan for failure. Every innovator will routinely be blindsided by setbacks. Build a plan that’s resilient enough to lose a few battles, but still win the war.