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Business' Big Secret

Gather close, pull up the collar of your trenchcoat, and step out of the light of this lamppost. I'm going to give away Business's big secret.

This is something so shameful that business invests a huge amount of time and money keeping it from getting out. In fact, one could maintain -- aw, heck, *I'll* maintain it -- that the real objective of most management infrastructures is to make sure that this dark secret remains hidden.

The relationship of business to its markets is based on hiding this secret. The marketing brochures, the plush corporate headquarters, the topics deemed safe to discuss over dinner with prospects and partners all are silently dedicated to maintaining the sanctity of this secret.

And it's not just a secret that's kept from the "outside" world of markets and customers. The very same secret is kept from the employees. In fact, a huge percentage of just about every worker's time is spent making sure that it remains hidden ... and the higher up you go in management, the more time you put in at the service of this Great Mystery.

Enough already. Here it is, the utterly confidential, unmentionable fact that has structured every aspect of business life:

We're all human.

Say it out loud. You'll feel sooo much better. We're all human! Human! We make mistakes! We're sometimes stupid! Downright moronic! We make decisions you wouldn't believe, choices so fundamentally wrong-headed that five years later we think it must have been some other bonehead that came up with that bright idea.

And we're vain. Self-centered. At least sometimes. And sometimes we're greedy. And almost always, we're frightened. Even Mr. Big Guy executive who exudes confidence from every ring on his hairless knuckles inside is a quivering mass of fear.

Afraid of what? Afraid he'll be found out. Afraid we'll all see he's just another dumb, frightened human who got where he is more by luck than by knowledge and good looks.

Here are some of the ways we mask our fears:

We put out slick marketing collateral that contains only happy news, perky spins and best-case scenarios. (Does the battery for your product really last 3 hours or do you have to refrigerate it to -5C in order to get that amount of life out of it?)

We don't let people see early drafts of the documents we're working on. Once we've gone public with a position -- for example, at a committee meeting -- we find it extremely painful to admit that we were wrong.

We don't let customers see the early plans for our product because we know that we won't be able to deliver everything we're thinking of, and, besides, some of the ideas will turn out to have been dumb.

We put out a corporate newsletter that pretends that we never lose an account and we never make an error. We never, ever show a prospect our bug list. We create mission statements that do not contain the phrase "and get stinking rich."

The weird thing is that although we spend so much time and attention on masking the truth, everyone knows it already. Your employees know precisely what the strengths and weaknesses of the company are. Your markets understand precisely that you build products by going down lots of wrong paths and that the resulting products aren't perfect for everyone in every application.

The secret is out. But we maintain our veneers of perfection as if we're fooling someone.

In fact, there's some truth (and, admittedly, some overstatement) in saying that companies are becoming nothing *but* the veneer, the pretense of perfection.

How refreshing would it be to admit to your markets and to your partners what they already know? Your breath smells when you wake up, you're holding in your stomach when you stand up to make a presentation, and your products and your processes are only as good as humans can make them, i.e., not nearly good enough at all.

And the same goes for all of us.

Stop pretending to yourself. Stop lying to everyone else. The Web -- with its own brokenness and with its easy access to people outside of their best-behavior falseness -- is teaching us to hear the lies for what they are: an attempt to deny the fragile, fallible nature of human beings. The lies aren't just ineffective. They're actually becoming laughable

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