What is Folly?

A friend of mine recommended a great book to read called ‘The March of Folly’ by Barbara Tuchman. What a great book in terms of making you stop and think. It is an old book now, having been published in 1984, but the lessons are timeless.

What is ‘Folly’?

‘Folly’ is doing something that is disastrous in consequences but it is still done anyway. It isn’t disastrous in hind-sight. To be a ‘Folly’ it has to be clear that this is not a good idea in advance. The examples Barbara Tuchman uses are examples from history and include Troy and the Wooden Horse, the British losing America and the War in Vietnam.

In each case, it was obviously a bad idea and the events pointed to disastrous consequences to continue down this road, and despite this, all these signs were ignored!

We have ongoing examples of this happening now. The Iraq War is probably the most poignant of them all. People get so fully entrenched in their point of view that they ignore all the signs and march on regardless. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, they hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see.

Children do it all the time. When they want something, they become very creative about the reasons why this is so important to them. In fact, it is a must and it is urgent! We have all seen children becoming entrenched in this way and as a result of being focused in this way, they lose all sense of reason. You can probably remember when you did that yourself.

Many adults never get out of the habit! They go through life never learning how to be objective. They lack the ability to stand back and listen to all the evidence dispassionately and make a sound judgment.

The truth is, we all have a tendency to lapse back into this behavior pattern under certain circumstances. As a leader, our job is to make sure we keep this in check both in ourselves and in the people we lead. Being a leader means we are aware of the dangers of NOT being able to stand back and be objective. We cultivate the skills needed to ensure that ‘Folly’ cannot happen.

The truth is, no matter how good we are, we are all prone to ‘Folly’. I can assure you that there is ‘Folly’ happening in your organisation right now.

Let me give you some typical examples of the ‘Folly’ I see in organisations every day.

“People are the most important influence on the success of our business” __ and yet people are confused, lack training, lack support, get conflicting messages, etc.

“Having the right culture in the business is important” and yet people recruit against skills and not attitude, people don’t measure their culture, managers don’t act on situations where people have stepped outside the values, managers themselves don’t act within the values, etc.

“Customer care is a key to the success of our business”__ and yet processes and systems are in place that ensures customer care is not possible. Managers make life difficult so that employees take it out on the customer.

The key to ensuring that a leader is not drawn into ‘Folly’ requires specific characteristics. These include:

  • Capable of being objective,
  • Prepared to listen,
  • Actively seeking alternative views,
  • Having someone around that has a different point of view,
  • Listening even more.

The next thing a leader needs is the ability to encourage others to be aware of ‘Folly’ and recognise it before it is too late. That means developing these characteristics in others and especially managers.

So this month I am asking you, are you embarked on ‘Folly’ and would you recognise the signs in order to take evasive action?

Consider the following:

  • When you or your organisation have embarked on doing something, do you take the time to listen to alternative points of view?
  • Do you actively seek alternative points of view?
  • Do you encourage people with a different mindset to present their case so that you can hear a different point of view?
  • Do you step outside your current mindset and try being the other person who does not agree with you? 
  • Do you see what the world looks like from their position?

Consider what is happening in your organisation now. If you had embarked on Folly, what would make it obvious to you that you were heading in that direction?

A businessman said to me once, “I have you around Paul because you see things from a different point of view”. He valued a different perspective because it enabled him to be clearer about what he was doing.

Do you encourage this in your people?

You have seen the two people in an organisation that are always at each other’s throats. The trouble is often because they are both entrenched in their perspective and not willing to see a different point of view. In fact in many cases neither are wrong and neither is right. They just have a different perspective.

Think about your organisation at this moment. Do you have two people like that? Two people that are so entrenched in their perspectives that they only see the other as wrong. This is another form of Folly.

Rationally they know they are being foolish and that they are wasting valuable time. They know they are holding up progress or causing problems in the organisation. But they just can’t stop doing it! That is Folly. It is no different from bringing the wooden horse into Troy even though all the logic says it is a trap.

Let me tell you where this sort of Folly affects your business. It affects your organisation in two places. Firstly, it affects the customer. Secondly, it affects profits.

I hope this has been useful in getting you to stop and think as well as challenge you with questions to help you be more effective as a leader. 

Thanks for reading, Paul


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