Wednesday, August 23, 2020

Those Much-ignored Essentials: Time, Thought, and Proof

Regular readers will know that I admire much of the writing of Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician, Nobel Prize winner, and philosopher. Here he is, writing in 1932 about thought leaders and full of typical Russell irony:
If there are among my readers any young men or women who aspire to become leaders of thought in their generation, I hope they will avoid certain errors into which I fell in youth for want of good advice. When I wished to form an opinion upon a subject, I used to study it, weigh the arguments on different sides, and attempt to reach a balanced conclusion. I have since discovered that this is not the way to do things. A man of genius knows it all without the need of study; his opinions are pontifical and depend for their persuasiveness upon literary style rather than argument. It is necessary to be one-sided, since this facilitates the vehemence that is considered a proof of strength. It is essential to appeal to prejudices and passions of which men have begun to feel ashamed and to do this in the name of some new ineffable ethic. It is well to decry the slow and pettifogging minds which require evidence in order to reach conclusions. Above all, whatever is most ancient should be dished up as the very latest thing.
It seems little has changed in 74 years.

Gurus and executives share the tendency to pontificate. They also share an inclination to value form over substance and rely far too much on what is fashionable. But the words that most struck home with me in what Russell wrote are: “It is necessary to be one-sided, since this facilitates the vehemence that is considered a proof of strength.”

When you are rushed, stressed, and under pressure, it’s fatally easy to mistake vehemence for strength, just as it is tempting to take emotional statements as rational arguments. In a world that relies more than ever on sound-bites and 30-second news stories, anything that hits home hard and fast is valued—even if a slower and more considered view reveals it to be superficial or just plain wrong. Who takes the time to collect evidence or require rational proof before following some management theory? Of course, we all have ample time to do this, provided we see how important it is. Fitting in with the current fashion for speed and superficiality uses far more time in the long run, as you are forced to re-work mistakes and recover from bad decisions that you might have avoided altogether with a little more thought and care.

Slowing down has three* arguments in its favor: it’s better for your health, it’s better for your sanity, and—often the strongest of all three—it’s better for your credibility and success. Much of what passes today for leadership advice and management knowledge is based almost entirely on anecdotes and emotional beliefs. There is little or no evidence to back it up. Yet grand statements are routinely made, and over-simplified generalizations are hailed as profound insights, especially by the people who make them.

What does it say about the state of leadership learning when one of the two most frequently sold “management” books is about how to manage in one minute (which is about 60 times as long as it is worth considering such an approach); and the other is a story about mice and the movement of cheese? Suppose you found that your surgeon was basing his or her techniques in the operating theater on “The One-minute Guide to Surgical Operations” and a child’s storybook about a guinea-pig who practiced surgery on a pair of hamsters. Would you be impressed by the surgeon’s expertise . . . or appalled at the idea that such a doctor was still allowed to carry out operations?

Nobody needs books of instant “knowledge” or childish dumbing-down of everything remotely complex in workplace life. Nor do they need the “personalities” who peddle such ideas with all the glitz and panache of PR hacks pushing the latest Hollywood blockbuster. What we need least of all are leaders and managers who are even tempted to take such stuff seriously, and build a career on the basis of flashy presentations and fashionable panaceas.

Here’s what makes sense:Leaders are paid to deal with tough, complex, and risky decisions. They are expected to exercise careful judgment and help others avoid falling into easy errors. Above all, good leaders are expected to keep their thinking straight and their judgment free from emotional distractions and logical errors. People who act first and think afterwards are usually forced to spend most of that later thinking on wondering how they could have been so stupid as to do whatever they did.

Can you miss an opportunity by sleeping on it? Yes, sometimes. But you’ll miss out on more mistakes and embarrassments than good opportunities. If someone is pressing you to make up your mind right away, they have a reason that will probably be in their interest, not yours. If they’re trying to convince you that life is simple and can be handled with a few obvious rules and guidelines, beware: you are either dealing with a fool or a trickster. And if they can’t show you good, logical reasoning or sound evidence for what they are saying, being skeptical is the only course that makes sense. Vehemence and belief are not proofs, nor is an appeal to the fashions of the moment. Only time and thoughtfulness can put you on the right track.

*Maybe there are now four reasons to encourage employees to slow down. According to Information Week:
Companies that give employees BlackBerrys and cellular modems, providing always-on connectivity, may wind up with lawsuits, if they don't promote balance between work and play . . .
According to a report from Rutgers University School of Business scheduled for release later this month, people whose lives get "screwed up" by spending too much time at work will soon begin to look for someone to blame. The author of the report says that employees will turn to their employers and say "not only did you let me do this, but the pressure to get promoted and not laid off led to this addictive behavior." Remember what happened to the tobacco industry? People who smoked for years, in spite of all the warnings, sued tobacco companies for their health problems. Many won. Obsessive, hard-driving organizations take note!

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I like your advice to "Demand to see the evidence before accepting any important statement about management practice."

I am puzzled by how accepting you are of Professor Porter's "thoughts" and "warnings" about potential lawsuits resulting from Blackberrys and such. She may be right, but she has no evidence. Just stories and fears. Am I missing something?

Not accepting, just intrigued (since past evidence suggests this is what people do). It is as well to be on the alert, even if there is as yet no hard evidence to support Professor Porter's warnings, so long as what is being suggested has an a priori basis in logic or experience.

Thanks, as always, for your comment.
I've read that mice and the movement of cheese book.... and while a lovely little tale, it is entirely too simplistic to be taken as actual management advice.

It presumes, as a base assumption, that all of the mice involved are whole, hardy, have running shoes, etc etc etc.

In other words, it assumes that all parties start out equal and the only differences are created by our reaction to events. Which is an incredibly privileged understanding of the world that it can't be generalized beyond a small cohort of people.
Thanks for your comment, photopoppy.

You raise an excellent point. Many management books, not just the mice and cheese one, assume that everything comes down to one or two aspects of clearly identifiable behavior.

Sadly, the world isn't like that. That's the trouble with being simplistic: you miss out all the thousand-and-one variations and inequalities that are often important causes of actual events.
The whole notion of Slow Leadership is appealing to me as a long time (30 years) manager and consultant. There was a time when there was an almost implicit understanding that a consulting "gig" was an "engagement". That is, it would take time to sort things out and deliberately move the situation in the right direction. More recently one gets the sense that profound issues can be resolved with the proper collection of buzzwords in a powerpoint presentation. It takes a bit longer to convince clients that some things are a project, not a sound bite.

Having said that, I will offer that books like the One Minute Manager are still on my recommended reading list. Why? Not because management takes a minute, but because there are some principles that give one a good starting point for the deeper and more thoughtful discussions that are needed.

As for "demanding to see the evidence"... if you haven't already done so, visit Bob Sutton Work Matters at I think that you will genuinely enjoy his thinking and writing.

Your thoughtful writing has prompted me to add you to my recommended blogger list. Keep up the fine work.
Thanks for your great comment, Steve. I've been reading Bob Sutton's blog for a while with real enjoyment and interest. He's a great guy.

There are indeed useful things to be found in One Minute Manager as a starting point for further thought. My concern is when people don't go further and treat the surface quick fixes as all there is.
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