Growth: A skill you can practice

Does hitting the wrong note really matter? Well…

There is a competition going on at the moment called the Sydney International Piano Competition of Australia. It attracts young pianists from all over the world.


For some weeks, there are performances given by these young pianists, and do you know I think that in all that period there is not one false note. Just think about that – in all of the hours of the competition, young pianists play thousands and thousands of notes, some of them in pieces of great complexity requiring a dexterity that is mind boggling, and yet they don’t hit one false note.


Despite this, some score better than others with the judges, who seem to me to be supercritical. “Not enough passion”; “lacking maturity”; “not sufficient recognition of the composer’s intentions” (for goodness sake the composer has been dead for centuries) are the straws upon which the judges clutch to differentiate these brilliant musicians who have practised so hard to achieve perfection.


Suppose they did hit a wrong note. Well, the audience might go home and say that “Irina whoever it was hit a false note; can you believe that? And she is in the piano competition.” Is that the end of the world? Perhaps it would be disappointing for the pianist and will give the audience a couple of things to talk about for the next few minutes, but in the context of everything it is not the end of the world.


It’s funny, that in this world of musicians, the judges are unforgiving; there is no room for error and yet the consequences of making a mistake are not earth shattering. Indeed, in the end, everyone will go on with their lives and forget that such a thing happened.


It is also funny that when we evaluate business, we have this safety net which is summarised in the words “everyone makes mistakes” and so, if you run an airline and the oxygen masks don’t work at 30,000 feet or don’t work perfectly, there is the safety net that “no one is perfect”.


I get a screen freeze half way through writing a blog for Microsoft has messed up with Vista. I have paid for the stuff and it doesn’t work. “Oh well, we can’t be perfect”. Microsoft is still in business, but there are plenty of people out there who are trying to do something a bit better – and in the meantime people are discovering that Apple is much more reliable and works better.


These are big issues. Downsize them to our own experience. You order some furniture that has to come from Italy. “It will take four months!” So, after four months you phone the shop and the reply “well, that was our best guess at the time, it was only an estimate; we don’t hold ourselves out to be perfect”. Well, don’t you just; because I do. Anyone I talk to won’t go to that shop in the future.


I recently told the story about the car firm that invoiced me $4.50 for detergent that couldn’t have possibly been put into the washer tank in my car. Just a mistake, but no one was prepared to admit that they had made a mistake.


Guess what? A most terribly unfortunate event. Someone ran up the backside of that car a month or so ago and I had to buy a new car. Did I go to the firm that made the mistake? The $4.50 mistake cost them $60,000 – but then again, everyone makes mistakes. Pianists don’t.


So, how are we shaping in our business? Do we ever make mistakes or do we practice what we do with the passion and dedication of a pianist to make sure that we don’t hit a wrong note?


Some businesses do, but sadly this fall back safety net position that “everyone is human so you have to expect mistakes” is part of the business lexicon. Tell that to the client of lawyers who charge $100,000 for the time they say they have devoted to the case but the client gets a hiding and nothing for the money. Tell that to the doctor who misdiagnoses a condition and the patient has a heart attack. Tell that to Microsoft which messes people around every day with the faults in Vista.


The consequences of making a mistake in business are much greater to the customer than that of a musician hitting a wrong note, and yet so many businesses fail to grasp the fact. Business mistakes can have serious consequences for customers who are not too happy when they have paid money to receive a wrong note.


The Challenger space shuttle disaster in January 1986 was caused by the failure of an “O” ring, merely millimetres in diameter. A tiny component of the complex space ship. A guy knew that there was a problem the evening before the flight and wanted NASA to stop the flight. “Hell, how perfect to you expect us to be?” was the attitude of NASA.


The answer that the astronauts would have given had they been asked would surely have been “please don’t make mistakes that put our lives at risk. When our lives are at risk, we expect perfection.” Unfortunately, they didn’t live to ask the question as that tiny mistake in the “O” ring cost them their lives.


Whenever we sit down and talk about growth, just pretend that we are playing in a concert, with passion, competence and perfection of a concert pianist. It doesn’t guarantee growth, but it gives it a hell of chance. As Garry Player is often quoted as saying: “The harder I practice, the luckier I get.”






Louis Coutts left law and became a successful entrepreneur. His blog examines the mistakes, follies and strokes of genius that create bigger, better businesses. Click here to find out more.

To read more Louis Coutts blogs, click here .



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