When not to listen to experts
Q: Bob Woodward's new book on the Obama White House portrays a president so frustrated with top military advisers for their refusal to provide what he considered a reasonable exit strategy from Afghanistan that he devised one himself. How should leaders reconcile the laudable instinct to rely on the advice of experts with the sometimes urgent need to force them to think outside the box?
When leaders ask experts for advice, they need to consider the experts' assumptions and incentives. An expert may base advice on past experience, without considering dramatic changes in society, the economy or technology. For example, in 1980, the Bell Labs invented mobile phones. When AT&T leadership asked experts to predict how many people would be using them in 2000, the answer was one million. Deciding the business would be too small, AT&T gave the invention away and later had to buy it back from Craig McCaw for $11 billion. Ask experts in any field to predict the future and you'll get a mix of answers based on different assumptions.
Experts may give advice that protects them from blame. Business leaders are often better advised to ask lawyers how they can do something legally than to ask them whether they can do it at all. If what the leader wants to do is questionable, the lawyer's incentive is to say it can't be done.
A leader's assumptions and incentives may be different from those of experts. In the case of Obama and the generals, the president--not the generals--is accountable to the American people. It is his responsibility to define and defend the mission in Afghanistan. He must determine what the public will support. He must make assumptions about the support America can expect from its allies. He must determine the impact of his decision on the economy. Although leaders can sharpen foresight by listening to experts, predicting the future is always a gamble. Leaders in business and government should always try to shape the future for their organizations, but they will usually end up making gut decisions about strategy.
September 28, 2010; 9:22 AM ET
Category: A leader's team , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Organizational Culture Save & Share:
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Posted by: toddhathaway | September 28, 2010 11:11 AM
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