Changing your mind
The most unexpected feedback I ever received was that I could change my mind. It was meant as a compliment but I was taken aback to hear it. I regard changing my mind as neutral: neither good or bad, but the person giving the feedback clearly thought it a valuable skill.
Changing your mind is often perceived as a weakness and therefore something to avoid. In politics, the ‘U-turn’ is always pilloried. You never hear a government confirm they have changed their mind because to do so would admit they were wrong. It’s a shame, because being wrong is a pretty common occurrence. In an uncertain world, how could it be otherwise.
In business, poor communication can creep into a corporate culture when managers are afraid to change their mind. Managements don’t like to think aloud, exposing the fact that they might be uncertain of a course of action. To avoid this, they prefer instead to develop plans in camera. To employees however, it makes managers look sneaky, developing plans which are then dropped out of the sky with no warning. This approach to communication is like an adult trying to protect a child from bad news. All that happens is that a workforce treated like children will behave like children. And it all stems from management being fearful of being ridiculed for changing their mind.
The ability to change your mind quickly is vital in developing strategy because you are having to make decisions in the face of uncertainty in the market place and, in particular, how the competition will respond to your moves. It would be incredible if you are not wrong-footed from time to time. It would mean you were from the future.
The economist John Maynard Keynes is often quoted as having said ‘When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?’. That seems a pretty reasonable position but I prefer the Robin Williams line ‘If you were right, I’d agree with you’.
It turns out that changing your mind is actually quite difficult, even when the facts change, because of something called conformation bias. This cognitive trait means our brains sift only for facts that confirm our pre-existing beliefs and we ignore inconvenient evidence to the contrary.
I saw this polarising effect in action very clearly during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and then again during the 2016 Brexit referendum. I observed people taking a position at the beginning of a discussion based on gut feel or emotion or a point of principle and then, during the course of an argument, watched their position become more and more entrenched.
Arguing will do that, of course. In the throes of making a case, we all tend to exaggerate to make our point, quickly become emotional, and don’t admit to uncertainty lest the other side exploit our weakness. I however have always been vulnerable to a well-argued point made by a reasonable person.
To me, changing your mind is a sign of confidence. It might be that the facts have changed but it might also be because you made a mistake. When it comes to management, you should be decisive but open minded.