Don’t say didja (first appeared in InfoWorld)

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Revisionism is the art of waiting until everyone who knows better is dead, then interpreting events through your ideological filter.

Consider this response to my September 9th column, Crisis management: “Though FDR often erroneously gets credit for ‘putting people back to work,’ his successful efforts to expand the federal government past its constitutional boundaries is his real legacy. He should be acknowledged as a father of illegitimate government, and the resulting federal fiscal bloat.” It’s bad revisionism because not everyone who knows better is dead yet.

What bothers me isn’t that my respondent challenged my assessment. If everyone agreed with me I’d be bored stiff. No, what bothers me is how often people assume the worst about those who had to deal with a daunting situation without first learning the facts. FDR simply provides a convenient example: Many people today criticize his establishment of Social Security. I wonder how many of these critics have the slightest knowledge of why he did so, and why he made it a pay-as-we-go system instead of using a deferred annuity model. If you know the history and think you could have done better, I’d be interested in your solution to the problem. I know I don’t have one.

But, you may be grumbling, this isn’t a column about public policy — it’s about effectively leading IT. What does criticizing FDR have to do with that? Lots.

Someone who knows nothing about why FDR created Social Security as he did but is certain his unsavory purpose was an unconstitutional power grab will assume the worst about colleagues or direct reports whose solution to a business problem doesn’t line up with his or her preconceived notions. One of the many bad habits of highly ineffective leaders is a preference for ignorant criticism over informed discussion.

So ask yourself this: When an employee or task force reports back to you, do you assume incompetence if “your gut” doesn’t like their recommendations? Does the word “didja” — as in, “Didja think about this? Didja think about that?” — form a significant part of these conversations? If so it’s a danger sign. “Didja” puts people on the defensive instead of letting them tell their story.

So whenever you’re evaluating a solution, whether it’s to establish a federal retirement system or to upgrade to a new server platform, just ask, “Tell us the process you went through, what you’re recommending, and why.” It’s the logical sequence: Understand first, then criticize the results.

Or maybe you’ll find you don’t have to.