John Maynard Keynes articulated the point, saying: 'Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.'
For once, Keynes was only half right. For example, when my middle son was revising for his A levels earlier this year, he decided not to attend all his school's specially provided revision classes. 'Some of them just go over stuff I already know. For them, I'll stay at home and work on things I don't know so well,' he said.
He was correct. Cutting classes might not have raised his standing with teachers, but that no longer mattered. Universities neither know nor care how many classes you attend, so long as you get the required grades.
On the other hand, in the run-up to my own accountancy exams (more years ago than I care to remember), I too decided to stay at home and study, rather than attend the uninspiring classes laid on.
But one of my very bright and motivated classmates, despite agreeing with me about the classes, said she was going to attend anyway. She had figured out that, regardless of her exam results, being seen at class would enhance her reputation with her employer. My employer would certainly have been more forgiving had I failed by attending class rather than failed by not attending.
But too often we choose the conventional course not because it's more effective but because we tacitly assume that failing conventionally will be much less risky.
As an individual, understand this and act accordingly. Make it your default position to do what's most likely to work, not what's most usual. As a manager also, take care. If you are creating an environment where how you did it matters more than whether you were successful or not, you are stifling innovation and damaging performance.
Alastair Dryburgh is a consultant and speaker specialising in problems that cannot be solved by normal means. More at alastairdryburgh.com.