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Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

Doomed to Repeat It

What to do about past mistakes depends on two things: 1) Do the current leaders and the organization more generally understand why and how the past mistakes occurred; and 2) Did the mistakes entail violations of law or fundamental organizational norms and principles?

As Andy Hargadon of U. C. Davis has commented, many people (and companies) who think they have many years of experience don't--they just have the same experience repeated many times. The reluctance to look back and revisit, in order to learn, from past mistakes helps explain why companies engage in one unsuccessful merger after another and also compound strategic errors.

The only way to learn, as the military so nicely illustrates, is to do after-action or after-event reviews--to understand what was decided and why, and what can be learned so that the mistakes don't get repeated. Such reviews do not seek to focus blame on individuals, but to learn about systemic issues that can, and should, be remedied for the future.

Second, a norm is only a norm if there are sanctions for violating it, and a law is taken seriously only if and when it is enforced. If companies, or countries, are prepared to "wink" at wrongdoing, the message is that whatever law has been violated, or whatever normative component of organizational culture has been breached, it doesn't really matter that much.

People make a variety of mistakes. There is no action without error, and decisions are going to be wrong a good fraction of the time. But decision-making mistakes are quite different from violating fundamental organizational norms or, in this case, the laws of a country that is presumably a nation of laws. Just as the military does not use after-action reviews to assign personal blame but to learn, it and strong culture companies also will not tolerate violations of fundamental principles.

Leaders are architects of their organizational cultures. And those cultures will produce the behaviors that get rewarded. If violations of laws and fundamental rules go unsanctioned, a strong message is sent that such behavior will be tolerated in the future, so the future will be like the past, not different, hopes and pleas notwithstanding.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  July 13, 2009; 2:09 PM ET
Category:  Ethics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Please report offensive comments below.

After obama is out of office will the the next administration investgate wrong doings by his team? To the dem's every thing Bush has done was wrong.

Posted by: pcach | July 14, 2009 8:40 PM
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Yes, an investigation of possible abuse by the bush/cheney administration is imperative.
The apparent abuse by the former vp must be investigated.torture,cronyism and contracts,secret energy meeting abuse,refusal to abide by checks and balances.
bush/cheney greatest power-least accountable.

Posted by: jama452 | July 14, 2009 11:22 AM
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Since 9/11, while methodically diverting attention to threats from abroad under the caption of Anti-Terror Policies, domestically, unprecedented threats to human life, to homeland and national security and to civil liberties/rights among others, have been nurtured by officials who not only calculatedly failed to prevent mishaps, but in fact have helped foster some past and recent calamities for political and/or personal gains. These officials orchestrated illegal activities by way of extraordinary renditions and overrides of laws, and cover ups that follow, which along with cultural, structural and procedural fatal flaws and the absent of effective oversight have become endemic problems with distinct patterns of poor performance, placing the people and our country in a state of unvarying danger.
Do we want to continue living that way?

Investigate and clean our government(s).

Posted by: Shanan1 | July 14, 2009 11:18 AM
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