The “experts” may not understand the fundamentals.

Justice Scalia, in testimony before Congress in 2011, describes talking with law students and asking them who’s read the [Federalist Papers], in their entirety. Perhaps five percent of the hands go up. Given that the Federalist Papers are central to the development of the Constitution and provide a rare window into the thinking of the founders, it’s surprising, and perhaps not so surprising. If law students are to have ever read the Federalist Papers, surely, it’s in law school. What are the odds that they will pick them up after they have their degree and are practicing or teaching or running for office? 

Have we lost the will, or respect, for learning? Even those who are deemed experts in many cases lack the fundamental grounding in their subject. That is indeed dangerous in national politics where decisions can be reached without a good understanding of where the policy will lead, but it also is dodgy in business. The numbers are smaller, but the impact on lives can be of similar importance.

A few years back, I was conducting a workshop for around 50 executives on Agile, where it came from, what it is. One of the points I made was that Agile is based upon prior work. Prior work that is outside, indeed much before, software development. In some cases, that early work goes back very far indeed, prior even to those events in Bethlehem so long ago. One specific point I made was a much more recent, and, I thought, much more well-known scholar in the area of business leadership. I put up a picture of W. Edwards Deming and asked the room if anyone was familiar with his work. A single hand went up. Now I don’t mean to imply that knowledge of the work of Deming is some indicator of suitability to be a leader in a company, but I suspect if I put up the face and name of any number of luminaries in the business world the same number of hands would go up. I’m also pretty sure if I put up a picture of that Kardashian person, I’d get most hands going up. 

The “experts” may not understand the design intent

Understanding the fundamental tenets of the design, before you decide to change it, is critical. Companies, just as in governments, are designed in one way or another. Sometimes that design is passive, each decision to build a process or an organizational construct taken independently. This results in a hodgepodge organization, but each problem was dealt with as they saw fit. The design wasn’t holistic, but it was designed. Other times the design is intentional. The US system of government was designed explicitly and in a very opinionated way for specific reasons based on a level of thought and debate that we may find unusual today. Changing a system without understanding what the design intent was, in the beginning, will lead to unintended consequences. Perhaps good consequences, but if I were betting, I’d bet not.

Take, for example, any number of business issues that just about any company encounters. Simple things like expense reporting. What company hasn’t had a situation where an employee decides it’s okay to stay in a five-star hotel for $500 per night. The options, in that case, are two-fold, assuming this is not some mega-rich company where five-star hotel stays are the norm. First, a discussion with the employee about the principles the company uses to spend money and why a five-star hotel isn’t aligned with those values. Another option, perhaps the one used more often, is to institute a policy. Problem solved. But what are the broader implications of this policy? Is taking away the decision making authority over something as mundane as a hotel stay worth the cost? Do employees improve their ability to make decisions on behalf of the organization and in support of customers because of this policy? Unlikely. Often in a system designed explicitly, you will find cases that are unsatisfactory. It can be the cost of other benefits. No system is airtight. No system is perfect.  

Are To understand when the overall system benefits outweigh an isolated dissatisfying case requires an understanding of the fundamental knowledge of the field and the design intent. 

Who has the time?

I know, I know. Who has the time to study? Who has time to read a book? I’ve stopped accepting this answer. As a culture, we prioritize time on things that bring little if any value save the pleasures of vegetating on the couch. Americans spend 270 minutes per day watching television. That’s over four hours per day. Put another way that’s a part-time job. A part-time job that doesn’t pay and doesn’t enrich your life. 

Prioritizing learning can be as simple as allocated one hour a day of those 4.5 hours to reading and study. The average person would be able to read 25 books a year with that single hour per day. Assuming one has 25 years left until retirement (at which point the learning can adapt to new subjects not relevant to the professional), that is over 600 books. That is more knowledge than a person a hundred years ago had any right to expect, and yet it’s available in our pockets today.

Sitting in an interview in Florence, the author Douglas Murray, commenting on what it is to have a good life said. “I wish more people could take the attitude I’ve taken in my life… Your attitude should be gratitude. It’s not as if this is nothing. The city we’re sitting in is enough for a whole lifetime, and a very very well lived lifetime. And it’s all there. All of the literature, books, art, music. Everything. It’s there. And all you have to do is reach out and take it, be part of it.”

Everyone should reach out and be part of it, for this time is a miracle in human history. No matter your industry or profession I’d wager it’s the best time in human history. We should be grateful for that. And we should start acting like it.