The military rank of naval Captain carries heavy responsibilities since they are the last authority aboard a warship. A lot of their authority is a carry-over from the days of sailing ships when the ship the Captain commanded was the fastest means of communications in the world.
This meant that the Captain was often dealing with foreign governments without the ability to ask his own government for instructions. He had to be trusted to make decisions on his own. This in the days when his poor judgment could catapult his nation into war!
Communications has changed so much that a Captain now has almost instantaneous communications with his higher command and can check for instructions in real-time. The problem arises when the higher command, relying on a summary, isn’t looking at all the key factors that might be obvious to the Captain on the spot. The following Dilbert cartoon is a prime example.
Have we reached a time when communications are so simple and quick that too many of us are not doing the fundamental research and background reading that good decision making demands? Because we can quickly and easily contact subordinates, we have pulled back their scope of decision-making and restricted their ability to innovate and respond to changing conditions?
Remember that what looks like a bad decision to the person who only reads the summary might be a wise decision to someone else who has access to all the facts and is taking into account the subtleties that a summary is DESIGNED to eliminate.
I remember doing a briefing for a senior manager shortly after I had been promoted from operations to my first “staff” job at the corporate headquarters. The person I was briefing didn’t seem to get my point so I used a whiteboard to illustrate the fact that we were spending a serious amount of time and money maintaining obsolete first and second generation equipment. All the other equipment had either been upgraded or replaced with third generation equipment.
Since all the equipment was customer owned, he asked how that had happened and the answer was quite simply that some equipment had been missed during the upgrades but the contract demanded that we maintain the equipment in its existing generation.
As the conversation progressed, he asked, “why didn’t I know this” and I referred him to the memos I had been filing with my reports asking for guidance on the problem. His reply was illuminating: “I didn’t understand the impact of what you were saying.” He didn’t understand because he was too far from the action. In effect, he could only see the forest but he needed to look at the trees.
He was reading the executive summary and not diving into the supporting details as it was too much information for him. His attitude was summed up by a comment he made earlier in the briefing: “I asked you what time it is and you tell me how to make a watch!”
He did need those details to make an informed decision but his impatience with that level of detail lead him to ignore the supporting information. He also decided that he didn’t need to take the advice of the person on the spot to invest in upgrading the few pieces of equipment to save even more money on the cost of maintenance.
Using the naval Captain analogy, the person closest to the action (in this case me) had the best knowledge of the situation and the best solution.
Senior management’s job is to balance the immediate needs against the long-term needs, but (and this is a critical "but") without meeting the immediate need you may not survive to get to that long-term need.
If higher command is only focused on one aspect of the business (e.g. short-term share price) they are likely to avoid spending money on long-term elements that the person on the spot will recognize as important to the long-term survival of the business.
As we move from promoting operations people to senior management and more and more into hiring managers with deeper academic training and less industry or company experience, then the subtleties can get lost.
Can those non-operations people be effective managers? Of course, but just as the Pointy-Haired Boss in the Dilbert cartoon doesn’t have the knowledge to judge what he needs to know, the key is to trust your subject matter expert. (In this cartoon it was Dilbert.)
When that naval Captain in the age of sailing ships made that decision, he had confidence that his higher headquarters would back him up!