Nobody Knows Anything

Corporate haranguing ignores the huge amount of seat-of-the-pants decision making that occurs at the highest levels.

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Michael Wade
Peter Lynch, who made an extremely successful career out of picking the right investments, once advised, “Go for a business that any idiot can run because sooner or later, any idiot probably is going to run it.”

All of the loud talk about managerial and governmental villainy often makes the assumption that the people in charge know what they are doing. It ignores the huge amount of seat-of-the-pants decision making that occurs at the highest levels.

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We extol the virtues of specialized knowledge but then hand key decisions over to generalists in the hope that they will use commonsense to temper the recommendations of the experts. It is feared that those who know a lot about a little – to adapt an observation by Russell Ackoff and Herbert Addison – may know very little about a lot.

Screenwriter William Goldman summed up the film business with the terse observation, “Nobody knows anything.” Hang around board rooms and conference rooms long enough and you’ll see people groping in the dark, pretending they are following some well-researched plan, and acting as if they are in the know.

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They aren’t. Get out and talk to these characters. Some will cause you to ask the question that Conan O’Brien says he’s gotten ever since graduating from the Ivy League: “And you went to Harvard?” Others will be pretty bright, but they probably won’t be “incandescently brilliant” or “the smartest person I ever met.” Those were the descriptions used by the colleagues of Enron’s Jeff Skilling.

David Halberstam slyly named his book about the folks who got us into Vietnam, “The Best and The Brightest.” Former House Speaker Sam Rayburn had warned Lyndon Johnson against getting too starry-eyed with the academic credentials of the Kennedy team, noting that he’d feel better if one of them had run for sheriff once. William F. Buckley Jr. famously declared that he’d “rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the entire faculty of Harvard.”

This is not meant to throw stones at degrees or academics or people who were smart enough to get into and make it through demanding universities. It is instead a call for safeguards and a healthy skepticism of those who lack the humility to admit when they are only making educated guesses.

Michael Wade writes, an eclectic combination of management advice, observations, and links. A partner with the Phoenix firm of Sanders Wade Rodarte Consulting Inc., he has advised private and public-sector organizations for more than 30 years.