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The Importance of Being Wrong

If you care about knowledge management, it's not for its own sake (unless, of course, you've become a dreaded Knowledge Management Professional). Rather, you care because you want to "make your company smarter," "increase the pace of innovation," or some such high-sounding reason.

Suppose, however, it turns out that to make your company smarter, you have to not just manage knowledge but also increase the frequency and volume of error. Suppose knowledge arises most frequently from mistakes.

Suppose the key to achieving the aims of knowledge management is to reward wrongness as much as rightness ... or at least to remove the stigma from being really, really, bass-ackwards, head up the nethers flat-out wrong.

Wrongness has a lot going for it beyond the fact that some things (like what's the best material for a light bulb filament and what flavors of yuppie jelly beans you like) can only be learned through trial and error.

Some people are great at generating ideas but terrible at thinking through their impact. You want them to have as many bad ideas as possible because they will thereby randomly generate more good ideas.

Errors are how assumptions become visible. And there is little more valuable than a newly-discovered assumption, because only then can you see what's holding you back and what could propel you forward.

There's too much to know, so all important decisions are, to some extent, random. By being free for error, you can try more paths until you stumble on one that takes you somewhere interesting (albeit probably not where you at first thought -- mistakenly! -- you should be heading).

Errors remind us that we're fallible humans. A company that is too embarrassed to admit mistakes and that builds a culture where being wrong is humiliating literally is denying what it is to be human. And you will pay the price ... in this world, if not in the next.

Mistakes give us something to talk about. You learn very little from being right. Being wrong in interesting ways lets communities of interest advance their communal wisdom.

Being wrong is a lot funnier than being right. The right type of laughter -- laughter at what the mistake reveals about our assumptions rather than laughter aimed at a person who dares to be human -- is enormously liberating. In fact, laughter is frequently the sound of knowledge.

How hard is it to be wrong in your company? Does your company have "zero tolerance" for error? Can you change your mind without losing status? If so, consider engaging in the radical politics of wrongness. Go out and commit a whopper. Then embrace it publicly. If you get "shot," then dust off your resume. (But spell check it first -- sometimes it just doesn't pay to make mistakes.)

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