Problems in management: trying to prevent error and overplanning

bacteriaby adonofrio (

Inside Pixar’s Leadership
[Via Daring Fireball]

Scott Berkun collected some terrific excerpts from Pixar president Ed Catmull’s 2010 interview with The Economist’s Martin Giles:

The notion that you’re trying to control the process and prevent error screws things up. We all know the saying it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission. And everyone knows that, but I think there is a corollary: if everyone is trying to prevent error, it screws things up. It’s better to fix problems than to prevent them. And the natural tendency for managers is to try and prevent error and over-plan things.


Bacteria have a lot to teach us regarding management principles.

In Future Shock, Toffler described the paralyzing effects of dealing with too much change; attempting to prevent an error in rapidly changing circumstances leads to overplanning  and stasis. 

Nothing gets done. The fear of being wrong means never being right.

We see this again and again in modern decision-making settings – making a mistake not only leads to failure but usually loss of status, if not livelihood, for anyone supporting the mistake.

A committee meeting can be a horrible way to make decisions if everything is viewed as a zero-sum game – if someone makes a mistake, their loss will be my gain. That is a guarantee of failure when things change rapidly.

The result is delay, while every possible bit of data is completely examined; a world of gray must be reduced into black and white.

If the penalties for an error are horrendous, then few will ever take the chance. Better to delay the decision by overplanning.

Of course, the delay usually means the situation changes and a whole new set of decisions must be overplanned. Success will not be likely.

Future Shock leads to stasis. And thus the fear of failing actually leads to failure.

Of everyone, not just the one who made a mistake. The decision-making process must be viewed more as a win-win in these settings – it is not a zero-sum game but an additive (or subtractive) one.

The key is not to worry about failure per se but to have a process that rapidly evaluates the situation, recognizes when the tentative steps are getting off a successful path and corrects them.

My personal example is a bacterium trying to find a food source – chemotaxis. The bacterium has no eyes, no nose. It has a propeller-like flagella that can propel it in one direction. Yet it has a process to rapidly identify the sources of nutrients.

So, when it comes across the distinctive presence of a necessary nutrient, how does it know which direction to go to find it? It could just sit there and hope the food source moves towards it. That way it would never make the mistake of heading off in the wrong direction.

And it would most likely die.

No, the bacterium starts heading in one direction – any direction. If the concentration of the nutrient increases (positive change) it continues in that direction. If the concentration decreases (negative change), it stops and then tumbles, randomly picking a new direction. 

If the concentration increases, it continues. If it decreases, it tumbles again. By continuing this very simple process, it quite rapidly finds the food source.

Surely humans with our advanced brains can develop processes that can deal with more complex and rapidly changing situations.

Taking action, making rapid decisions regarding progress, taking quick steps to overcome mistakes all lead to success.

No planning needed at all. Error is actually an important part of the process, especially when things are too complex to fully understand.

To manage properly in rapidly changing environments, there must be an ability to deal with the gray, to make positive steps forward but with processes in place to recognize when a fault appears and rectify it. 

Not by firing the person who took the step in error but by recognizing its importance and helping move that step back on a successful path.

It should not be an authoritarian process but an authoritative one.

We might do better to mimic the bacterium and not the (over)planning committee.