Dr Viktor Dorfler

Ask Viktor

Please post your questions for this week in the comments section below.

On the Wednesday of next week (Week 5), Dr Viktor Dorfler will respond to the most interesting, useful and/or popular questions. Please ‘like’ questions posted by other learners if you are also interested in having these answered.

Contrary to the previous week, it seems that this week (i.e. week 4) everyone had a different question. So I will not be able to answer all, but I will try to answer at least some covering a great variety – and I hope to make a particularly interesting point. It would also be helpful if the questions are more specific than simply saying ‘I would like to know more about XYZ’. Point me into the direction into which you want me to expand the particular concept.

Tolerating repeated failures

Frank asked: “To what extent should an organisation tolerate repeated failures?” Bora provided interesting reply, which I also reflect on in my answer. I agree with most of it – but we have a point of disagreement…

Answer: Frank, your question is perfectly legitimate. When I ask for tolerating failures, my focus is on the experience of how much damage is done by punishing every single failure. This is particularly important in R&D (research and development), where you need to try out numerous ways that do not work until you find one that does. But, of course, this issue is not limited to R&D, you may also invest a lot of effort and/or money in trying to close a business deal, and it may not work out at the end. To me it is obvious that if the policy is to punish every single failure, people will only go for things they are more or less sure about. If this is not what you want in your organisation, you need to tolerate failure. However, I did not mean that you should keep indefinitely on your payroll a development engineer who has never had a single idea, or a salesman who is spending a great deal of energy and money but never closes a single deal. Bora did part of my job in his answer, explaining how the habit of ‘nothing gets penalised’ is dangerous, and people may slip into the habit of not doing anything or, at least, nothing meaningful. So, for me, one criterion is a credible effort. However, a credible effort is not sufficient, as it may be that I work really hard but will never succeed, as I am not talented for that particular area. For instance, I am not talented for sales. I could try to figure out crazy business deals, make more than a sensible effort, and it would never not work out, as I am so bad at it.

So if someone is consistent in delivering poor performance, will need to – either fired, or trying to move that person into an area where (s)he feels better and delivers better performance. As sport coaches often say, not all of those who like to play basketball are good, but those who are really good, usually also like to play the game. Very few of us would want to work in an area where we cannot deliver a good performance, even if indefinite failure was allowed. Most of us would also feel bad if we simply cannot deliver (our moral compasses would typically say this), and we would probably leave without being sent away. And, as Bora says, “In order to gain success in long term, we must tolerate mistakes and failures and try to educate, motivate and trust the employees. This way, we can have qualified employees who value the environment they work and belong.” Perhaps even more importantly, the failure itself, is not a problem. As many business gurus emphasised over the past decades, you do not really fail when something does not work out, you really fail if you do not learn from it and do it better the next time.

The one thing that I disagree about with Bora is about the habits. Bora, you are right that habits are actions without thinking – but you are wrong about that they are all bad. You are right that if failures turn into habit, it may be too late to fix them, and this is obviously bad. But habits are also extremely useful. What would happen if we started to figure out every day from scratch whether we should put the socks on first and then the shoes, or the other way around. Deviations from habits can also be dangerous. When I was doing my MBA we had a guest speaker from the US, who asked all the male participants to put their hand where they started their shave that day, the previous day, or the first time when they shaved. Most people did not move their hand. So, it is clearly a habit. Next day, someone came in with cuts over his face – he tried to do it differently. It is not bad to have habits, it is bad to not know that they are habits…

Multi-dimensional right or wrong

Robert is asking for clarification about the following: “The right-wrong distinction is used here for simplicity. It neatly resembles the north-south dichotomy but in reality moral compasses are multidimensional and they assign priority to all values in our infinitely complex value systems”

Answer: By this I meant that most things are not simply right or wrong. Most actions that we can take have multiple aspects and multiple consequences. Now some of these consequences may be right others wrong. Or some good and others evil. Often for someone one particular aspect is dominant and for others a different aspect would be dominant. For example, I cannot imagine any justification for dropping a thermonuclear bomb somewhere, as it would kill a huge number of people. However, I have heard arguments that it may put an end to a war and thus save more lives overall than how many it would take. Or there are some who argue that it is then the people from the ‘enemy’ that are killed, and ‘our’ people are saved. I cannot imagine that someone considers these arguments to be a valid justification for actually pushing the red button, as my moral compass gets in ‘alarm’ mode. However, I can understand what the logic of the argument is. Of course, most of us never face such decisions in our lives, but the same can work in many other ways. For instance, I think that the Barbie doll is an evil thing. The reason is that it typifies beauty. Yes, I know that there are now several Barbie variants, but 3 types of beauty is still a standardisation, and will cause pain to those who do not fit any of the types. So a friend has asked me if I think that he should not buy a Barbie doll for his daughter. It is not that simple: not having a Barbie doll, in an environment where all kids have one, may result in being excluded from the group. So it can go wrong both ways. It is only in books that it appears that things are simply right or wrong…

Normative and fine regulation

Bora has some difficult questions – it starts easy, but gets very complex: “Can personal moral compasses overrule the laws or especially the corporate rules? Will it be ethical? Being said that, wouldn’t the answer be according to our own moral compasses?”

Answer: Laws, which is the hard form of normative regulations are rooted in moral judgement, which is fine regulation based on the moral compasses, but once something was accepted as a law, it does not belong into the realm of morals anymore. This means that someone’s moral compass may say that a law is wrong, but the moral compass of one or even many individuals cannot override the law. So if stealing is illegal, than I may have the moral justification if I steal as I cannot feed my kids otherwise – but it is still illegal, and I will be punished. So I can go to jail with clear conscious but will still go to jail. The only way for one or more moral compasses to ‘win’ is to spend the enormous energy to convince sufficient number of law-makers so that the law is changed. Things are a little less harsh with corporate rules – but if the corporate rule says that I will be fired e.g. for talking to one of the competitors’ employees and I do, perhaps with the idea of a collaboration that would be beneficial for both companies, I will be fired. However, convincing those sitting in the boardrooms to change the corporate rule may be simpler than changing a law. So morality works in the area left open by the rules/laws. So if there is no such regulation that I should not talk about my project to the competitors, I may follow my moral compass and not talk about it – or talk about it, if that is what my moral compass suggests. Within this scope, it is up to our moral compasses to tell us the answer. However, it is a harsh moral dilemma what to do when your moral compass tells you that you need to do something illegal. Many people then count that they may not be caught – but this is not the right thinking. The right thinking is whether you are will to accept the punishment the normative regulation will impose on you for doing what you think is morally right. Otherwise you will never sleep well…

GoodWork: moral and successful

Sasha was asking about the ‘GoodWork term’ as she found it unclear – I realised that it may be misleading, as you may think that it is a technical term.

Answer: So, Sasha and others: the term GoodWork is not a real term, it is a somewhat metaphoric and certainly poetical expression that Howard Gardner, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and others created as the name of a project they were undertaking. Therefore it is not social entrepreneurship or any of the other technical concepts that you might have thought about. However, you were not entirely on the wrong track, as social entrepreneurship was one of the ideas that inspired the GoodWork project. So Howard, Mihály and their collaborators found it annoying that powerful business people often justify doing things that their own moral compasses indicate to be wrong by saying that this was the only way to achieve success, and they sometimes even add that whoever says otherwise is lying. Therefore they started a large-scale project, and they interviewed a number of people from a variety of professions (not only business people, they also looked at journalists) who managed to get very successful while doing morally very good things. For instance, feeding people who are hungry, supporting cultural values, or whatever they believed in. I have also personally seen more than a few exceptionally successful people (many of them business people) who were very proud of always doing, or trying to do, good things. So the GoodWork label means that success and moral goodness can go hand in hand.

Moral questions in this MOOC

Andrew raised the question of the peer review exercises, noting that many complained about the quality of the reviews they have received. And then he is asking: “Any chance you can exercise some quality control on these assignments?” This request was seconded by Bharat, and if I am not mistaken, there may be others of the same opinion.

Answer: First let me say that this is not the right place to raise these issues; this should be done in the final step of the week. However, I do understand why you brought it up here, as this is the most closely monitored part of the course, and this is where I interact with you most. Incidentally, this is also an ethical question – so I will answer it, although I don’t think that you will like the answer. But let me assure you that you are right for asking for something to be done about this – and I hope that you will equally acknowledge why we do not plan to do anything about. It is not laziness and it is not lack of resources or technological problems. The reason is that an essential aspect of the peer review is that the teacher (or support team) is not looking into it, as this provides you with the freedom to argue your opinion on your own with peers. Of course, I find it immoral if one does not provide a decent feedback, more precisely, if one does not make a credible effort to do so. I would have assumed that in a MOOC people would be really good at this, as nothing is compulsory, everything is social, and, I hope, you are all here for learning. Providing feedback, I hope those who provided good feedback in our exercises will back me up on this, is often more rewarding than receiving it. To provide a good feedback, you need to step over your initial thinking frame, to open your mind to someone else’s argument, to consider a different way of thinking and a perspective that may be substantially different from your own. This means that you will achieve higher complexity, and consequently deeper knowledge and better learning. So you are doing it at least as much as for yourself as for the person who is receiving your comments. But we cannot control this, as the control would mean bringing this whole issue over from the fine to the normative regulation, we would need to provide prescriptions, to control, and to punish those who do not do adequate job. This would go against not only the topics covered this week but, I believe, also against the essence of what MOOCs are about. All that happens is a moral error on the part of those who did not make the effort to provide a decent feedback, and the punishment for a moral error is remorse. Nothing else.

Thank You

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Modern Business and Organisations

University of Strathclyde