Being Right vs. Being Effective

by Steven Cerri

We engineers and scientists spend four to eight years or more in college learning that the world and the universe will indeed give up its secrets if we are but smart enough. And when the universe gives up its secrets it’s not left up to interpretations. The universe doesn’t give different answers depending on blood sugar levels or political positions. The second law of thermodynamics, a computer programming language, or Newtonian physics, are not ambiguous and filled with uncertainties. As engineers and scientists there is a “rightness” to our work. Our questions have one answer and one answer only. And if there are several answers to one question, we change the question so that only one variable is under consideration and therefore, only one right answer emerges. This is proudly called the scientific method. This is the process of engineering and scientific discovery. We are most interested in being right and unambiguous.

On the other hand, we managers and leaders realize that there are often many ways to achieve a specific outcome. An easy way to understand this is as follows: If I want to drive from New York to California, there are many paths I can take. If I have unlimited money for example, I may take a very circuitous route and stay at the best hotels and eat at the finest restaurants and enjoy the most extravagant site seeing tours.

However, if a person is on a tight budget they might sleep in their car and drive with as little sleep as possible to make the journey as quickly as possible.

These are two different paths to get from the same origin to the same destination. The paths differ because each is most “effective” under different initial conditions. And within the two scenarios there are still several possible “right” answers… answers that get to the end result within the given parameters.

Therefore, managers and leaders are often more interested in being effective. Indeed, it is necessary for them to focus on being effective. Being “right” but not arriving in California due to lack of funds doesn’t matter. Not arriving in California is failure.

The engineer and the scientist are focused on being right. The manager and the leader are focused on being effective. These are two different worlds. These are not only two different ways of acting, they are two different ways of thinking and being. Most engineers and scientists do not understand this as they embark on their transition to management. They are often doomed to challenges and frustrations because they believe that they must seek to be right, while their managers want them to be effective.

The shift from being right to being effective is one of the underlying, “foundational” training principles of the STCI training message. Managers and leaders must seek the best solution to a given situation, but do so in a way that is the most effective regarding the team, the resources, and the desired outcome.

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