Five things I’ve been wrong about

08 June 2018

wrong equation on blackboard

I’m a great believer that you should always be ready to challenge your beliefs, your world view - everything you think defines the world as it really is. 

Because there’s plenty of evidence that we are really creatures of habit, of environment, and of tribe - and we generally decide what we want to believe and then post-rationalise it as best we can.

If you’re wedded to seeing the world as it really is (and you should be if you think you aim to change it for the better) then you should be prepared to regularly challenge your own beliefs with a different mindset. If you can make yourself excited to find something you were wrong about (in the way that a scientist is excited to disprove a currently-held theory) then you’ll certainly have a more interesting and productive time than if you assume you’ve got this whole reality thing nailed and nobody has anything to teach you.

So to put my own embarrassing errors where my mouth is, I thought I would do what you rarely see people do (probably for good reason - but c'est la vie) and unpick for your entertainment some of the things that I believe I’ve been wrong about over the last 30 years.

Just the highlights. No doubt the comprehensive list would run to several books.

1. Being factually correct means that you will win the argument

This comes down to a basic belief in fairness and justice, I suppose. My very earliest memory of this was when I was a junior school kid - precocious and cheeky as I was. I remember getting into several situations where I would play the teachers when they assumed my guilt of some misdemeanour and I knew that the reality was different. Colin Jackson had lost his pencil. I had an identical one in my possession, so the teacher assumed I had taken Colin Jackson’s. But I knew all along I had borrowed David Peter’s pencil. At the right moment, I could reveal this hidden truth. The truth was the trump card that beat all others. It was inconceivable to me that this could ever end badly (and in that case, it didn’t).

Ah, happy days. Of course, the truth is an important thing to have on your side. But you can have the facts right and still lose the argument. You have to persuade people, and facts are not the most persuasive thing. 

Shell found that out in the instance of the Brent Spar. Greenpeace said that the Brent Spar was full of toxic sludge and it would be better to dismantle it on land. Shell said no it isn’t, and it’s better to scuttle it at sea. Shell, a company that was full of engineers, was sure it had its facts right. But it massively lost the public argument, was forced to capitulate, and only months later did Greenpeace admit that they’d gotten their facts wrong.

Learning: Facts are important if you want to actually know the right thing to do, but you have to back this up with a persuasive approach to take people with you.

2. Once people see the economic value of wasting less, they will become converts

When I started working with businesses on environmental issues, I found pretty quickly that you needed to speak the language of business, and focus on how greener practices could benefit the bottom line. No room for woolly tree-hugging sentiment here. But the great news was that there was plenty of material to work with.

At that time, there had just been a waste minimisation project in the Aire and Calder that had shown that any company, by practicing systematic waste minimisation, could move one percent of their turnover straight onto their bottom line. That was hugely significant, and it seemed obvious that others would be following suit and all we had to do was spread the word.

That makes sense, because we believe businesses are all about the bottom line. Right?

But it’s not what happened. Not only did few businesses really follow suit, but when I followed up several years later with some of the businesses involved, they had gone backwards not forwards. After a while, they’d just drifted back into bad habits and put their focus on raising income rather than cutting waste.

If you look at the challenges of persuading people to waste less food today, you’ll see the same dynamic at work. Sainsbury’s recently called off its trial to actively influence customers to waste less food at home - it was just providing too difficult to get people to take it as a sufficiently high priority.

Learning: Businesses are led by human beings, not spreadsheets. And, ultimately, human beings get bored with routine processes and procedures compared to landing big deals. That means that a sustainable future needs us to make efficiency easy to achieve, and must be able to absorb the fact that, as a species, we will always be careless of a certain amount of waste. And you need to convert people around the positive leadership role models of sustainable business, not squeezing a few drops of revenue onto the bottom line.

3. Once you have gotten people to sign up to change, then change will follow

As previously discussed, we intuitively feel (although we have no hard stats to prove it) that most change programmes in companies fail. I’ve certainly seen plenty that did - in each case, the need for the change would be communicated, people would express enthusiasm and understanding for what was planned, and then gradually, bit by bit, energy would seep out of it, obstructions would appear, and before you knew it, energy was being put into the next change and the old one was forgotten.

People hate change as a general principle. Often, the change doesn’t make sense from where they see the world, and they weren’t involved in coming up with the change programme so they feel no ownership of it. 

In that situation, they may well sign up, express support and enthusiasm, and then quietly starve it to death by failing to follow through. 

I believed that once you’d gotten people ‘bought-in’ then you could rely on them to play their part. The idea that people would say one thing to your face and then simply do another - and this wasn’t malicious or wicked, but a learned survival tactic in a constantly changing corporate environment - that was something I just didn’t get for an embarrassingly long time.

Learning: I believe most companies (and people) do best if they have fewer change initiatives but fully execute on the ones that they have. What feeds the resistance to change is the impression that such things are passing whims of leaders and if you just keep your head down, it’ll blow over. To make the change stick, you have to work harder and longer on changing the culture to match the desired change.

And that applies to changes you make in your own life too. I’m a past advocate of creating New Year Resolutions and then actually delivering on them. A couple of years I got too enthusiastic and created a longer list of things I wanted to change - those years failed. Keep it simple. Keep focused. Change is hard, but it can be done one bit at a time.

4. I make choices and exercise free will every day

It turns out, we are mostly creatures of habit, seeking to fit into our peer group and our environment. The number of times we genuinely make a considered choice is way smaller than we think. It’s tough to take, because you realise how much of a manipulable machine you really are. But it can also be liberating, in that you can understand how driven by habits you are, you can learn the techniques to hack those habits to adapt in the ways that you want to.

The tough lessons come when confronted with how we might expect to behave in different situations. For instance, most of us imagine that if we had been Germans in the 1940s, we’d have been the ones secretly shielding Jewish children and helping them to escape the death camps. But statistically, that is complete rubbish. The fact is that in that situation, just about all of us would have been perpetrators in some way or another. The number of truly exceptional individuals who stood out against the norm were the tiniest fraction. It’s only because we’re so settled in our modern mindset we can’t imagine how we would be had we been surrounded all our lives by a different context - that inability to empathise with people living in such different circumstances - that makes it impossible for us to contemplate.

Our self-image of who we are is not the same as who we are. In my early years protesting nuclear weapons, I was able to calmly, civilly put myself in positions where I would be arrested and I imagined that put me in the ranks of people that would stand up for truth in the face of whatever system I lived in. A Gandhi amongst men.

Of course, I knew that no harm was going to come to me. Had such defiance routinely seen the perpetrator savagely beaten, or even simply ostracised from all decent society, I rather expect a different outcome. At least, I don’t know - because it’s never been tested. You actually don’t know who you really are until you’re tested to the extremes. 

One thing we do know is that we - ordinary human beings - are capable of great heroism and great cruelty. And the fact we have the capacity for both is one of the things we spend most of our time in denial about. We imagine there are evil people who do the bad things, and the one thing we know for sure is that those people are not us. But about that, as so many things, we are wrong.

Learning: We’re creatures of habit, so free will is best focused on developing the right habits, respectful of the fact that we are shaped by our environment much more than we imagine.

5. Diplomacy and win-win is always better than aggression and winner-takes-all

This is one of those where we really define what we believe by what we want to believe. In the height of the Cold War, I was passionately convinced that all the sabre-rattling was wicked, and that both sides bore equal responsibility for the current situation, and negotiation and diplomacy was always the answer. And I became a Principal Speaker for the Greens at a time when it was one of the lead campaigners against the first Gulf War and, again, it was the argument that sanctions and international pressure needed to be given time to work. 

But the fact is this. Big characters who are unpredictable and, apparently, careless as to consequences can be immensely powerful and shape the world, or at least influence it, according to their will. The consequences of them getting it wrong have gone up to the potentially catastrophic. And that’s exactly why the majority of the world community has become paralysed in the face of many conflicts because of the very valid fear of consequences. 

Then you’ll get a Putin, or a Kim Jong Un, or a Donald Trump, who will show that if you’re prepared to take bold actions and create conflict, then the rest of the world will complain and fuss and worry, but it won’t know how to respond.

The West won the Cold War by apparently being prepared to wage nuclear war. When you contemplate the reality of such an outcome, then of course you should be on the barricades saying “not in my name”. But it worked. The catastrophic consequences were avoided, and the communist systems collapsed. People like me generally rationalised that away, but I think that’s being lazy and tribal. Bold actions that risk dire consequences often work, but if they fail then they’ll fail big. We know that we’ve come close to accidental disaster a number of times during the time when we were living on a tripwire. That’s not a good place to be in. And, as they say in the investment ads, past performance is no guarantee for the future.

How do you build a sustainable future that is mindful of consequences when that is still the reality of the world? How does the society of lambs deal with the fact that occasionally a bloody great lion is going to wander into their midst? 

Learning: The exercise of power remains an important factor in the fight for positive change. Building a sustainable system doesn’t just mean technological innovation and new business models, it means strong leadership in the face of disruption - probably not something you want to leave to chance. Sometimes that good leadership is going to involve bold, aggressive action that is unsettling.


What are the things you think you’ve been wrong about over the years? Are there any of the above that resonate, or do you think they’re just plain wrong? Let me know in the comments below and let’s start a conversation about what we’ve learned.