It’s tempting to think that doubt is the enemy of visionary leadership and transformational change. Maybe that needs another look.
Malcolm Gladwell recently reviewed a new biography of the economist Albert O. Hirschman in The New Yorker (“The Gift of Doubt,” June 24, 2013). Hirschman was “a planner who saw virtue in the fact that nothing went as planned.” One theme of his work is the creativity that emerges–under the right circumstances–when things fail to work out as planned. As Gladwell describes it:
The entrepreneur takes risks but does not see himself as a risk-taker, because he operates under the useful delusion that what he’s [sic] attempting is not risky. Then, trapped in mid-mountain, people discover the truth–and, because it is too late to turn back, they’re forced to finish the job.
Success, in other words, comes at least sometimes from failure. Or in Nietzche’s dictum, “That which does not destroy me, makes me stronger.”
If, as Hirschman believed, this is a general principle–if, in other words, Murphy’s law ALWAYS applies–isn’t there a lesson here for change managers? Why should we be surprised when the plan doesn’t go well? Why should dealing with that eventuality produce a back-up or contingency plan, instead of being an essential part of the original planning? Why do we hope that, with heroic change-champions and effective cheerleading, that we will beat the odds?
While no one likes a nay-sayer, perhaps some quotient of doubt–“this may not work”; “things may go wrong”; “we may not be anticipating all the potential problems”–is essential to effective execution of change. And what if the realistic assessment of doubt and the diplomatic but direct communication of risk are as important a part of the change agent’s role as optimism, confidence, and persuasion?