Wednesday, July 08, 2009

McNamara and Obama

Bret Stephens wrote a very insightful piece in the Wall Street Journal yesterday about the lessons that President Obama might take from Robert McNamara's career in Washington. Here is the excerpt which I found fascinating:

But all that happened only after the Planners gave way to what development economist William Easterly has called the "Searchers." As Mr. Easterly writes in his book "The White Man's Burden," "a Planner thinks he already knows the answers; he thinks of poverty as a technical engineering problem that his answers will solve. A Searcher admits he doesn't know the answers in advance; he believes that poverty is a complicated tangle of political, social, historical, institutional, and technological factors. A Searcher hopes to find answers to individual problems only by trial and error experimentation. A Planner believes outsiders know enough to impose solutions."

Stephens writes in reference to the President and his advisors, but I think the notion of Planners vs. Searchers also applies to business executives. Too many CEOs think of themselves more as Planners than as Searchers. They would be well-served to remind themselves that they are unlikely to have all the answers for the thorny problems facing their complex organizations. As leaders, they need to think more carefully about how to uncover the answers amidst the skills, capabilities, and knowledge embedded at all levels of their organizations.

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