Monday, January 23, 2012

General Petraeus: Welcoming Dissent

I've enjoyed reading Tim Harford's excellent book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.  I find the overall argument of the book quite compelling, and the I love the stories and examples that Harford uses.  Some assertions are maddening, but you have to just push through on the occasional bizarre pronouncement. For instance, he writes that it's wrong to assume the Soviet planned economy failed because it lacked the profit motive or the creativity of private-sector entrepreneurs.  Huh?  He argues that the failure was due to an inability to experiment.  Somehow, in Harford's mind, the inability to experiment didn't have anything to do with a lack of profit motives and private sector entrepreneurship.  I don't get it.

The book is excellent overall though. He makes a great case for the importance of experimentation and the willingness to tolerate failure.  Harford also makes a strong case for why leaders must embrace conflict and dissent.  Take the story of General Petraeus that Harford tells us in the book.  Petraeus organized a conference on counterinsurgency in Fort Leavenworth during the Iraq War.  He invited many people, inside and outside the Army, who had been quite critical of the Army's strategy to that point.   It was a highly unusual meeting for the U.S. Army.   Petraeus also often invited lower level officers to email him directly about their observations and insights regarding how things were going in Iraq.   He wanted to circumvent the usual gatekeepers and hear directly from those on the front lines. 

Apparently, Petraeus learned the importance of inviting dissenting views from Major General Jack Galvin, a man to whom Petraeus reported back in the early 1980s.    According to Harford, "Jack Galvin also taught Petraeus that it is not enough to tolerate dissent: sometimes you have to demand it."  Music to my ears!  I have argued that same point for years.  Just telling people you want to hear from them doesn't always surface the full range of divergent views and perspectives that you need to hear.  When he's telling these stories, Harford is at his best.  I strongly recommend the book.

1 comment:

Tom_KY said...

The Petraeus portion of the book was my favorite as well. Reminds me of reading the account of Paul van Riper in Gladwell's book, "Blink" - making decisive, rapid-fire decisions under conditions of high pressure and limited information.