Thursday, April 5, 2012

Why managers need intellectual humility

I confess that the evils of micromanagement is a bit of a hobbyhorse of mine, but I think it's really important. More from Tom Ricks' defense-oriented blog, from a Major Robert Stanton who was in combat in Afghanistan and what he said about micromanagement's opposite (?), which is intellectual humility on the part of leaders (in this case, specifically about counterinsurgency (page 17)):
It was interesting because -- we talked about this before you turned the mic on -- living with the population and separating the enemy from the people, that was novel to me.  I didn't really understand what I was doing.  Now to see it codified as doctrine is pretty neat.  To know that there were guys doing it in Afghanistan, and I'm sure there were guys doing it in Iraq, long before the doctrine was ever written.   
I guess the lesson learned is that if you give young Soldiers and young leaders the flexibility to figure things out, if you have the intellectual humility as a leader to realize you don't know everything, whether you're a battalion commander, brigade commander or company commander.*  I can't take credit for that, that was the deployment brigade commander, now BG Nicholson, who taught me that.  If you have the intellectual humility to realize that you don't have all the answers, and you are willing to underwrite enough risk to let your junior leaders and Soldiers do what needs to be done.  You can take a group of American Soldiers, give them a vague mission, and as long as you resource them, they're going to do things you never could have imagined them being able to do.  They're going to solve your problems for you, half the time when you don't even know you have a problem.  (emphases CJ's)
For me, the biggest lesson that I think I learned -- and I learned a lot of lessons from that deployment -- was that.  As I continue in the military and as I see other leaders, you've got to have that intellectual humility, because you don't have all the answers, and you don't need to have them all.  You've got some brilliant 21-year-old kid who loves what he's doing and is going to solve your problems for you if you just give him the freedom to do it, and you resource him enough to do it.  You make him feel empowered to do it.  If you can do that, then the things we can do as an Army are unbelievable.  That's what I would say.
As I've said in the past, there are limits to how much this philosophy can be applied to chemical research, with respect to minimum levels of competence and safety concerns. That said, I think it's really true that you need to communicate your goals to your people and trust them to coordinate with each to deliver solutions and then get out of the way. A lesson for all of us, especially the most senior among us.

*A company: 80-225 soldiers, a battalion: 300-1200, a brigade: 3,200-5000. 

2 comments:

  1. Some great quotes you dug up for us, CJ. And a lot of truth there too, I think.

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  2. "That said, I think it's really true that you need to communicate your goals to your people and trust them to coordinate with each to deliver solutions and then get out of the way. A lesson for all of us, especially the most senior among us."

    This quote is very valid.
    We had managers of several years (ex-chemists) interfering at every level on one project. One quite senior even came into my lab and demanded I do an experiment the way he wanted. Well he got an answer from me, he was not wearing safety specs, so got banned from my lab. Talk about micro-management! Anyway I got some summer assistance from a student so I gave the poor guy this experiment: It worked but not the way it was expected to. But we were not allowed to follow up and publish!

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