Strong opinions, weakly held

Your dogma is already obsolete

Last week’s New York Times included a book review of defense reporter Fred Kaplan’s book “The Insurgents,” which covers General David Petraeus, counterinsurgency doctrine, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It explains well how falling in love with your ideas can get in the way of success.

Kaplan writes about how proponents of counterinsurgency doctrine in the military worked the media, defense scholars, and the defense establishment to replace the existing Cold War doctrine with their own ideas. Here’s how the reviewer, Thanassis Cambanis, describes their better days:

President Bush had promoted the COINdinistas because they were flexible, pragmatic problem solvers and because he had a nagging problem on his hands: how to get out of Iraq without looking defeated. Counterinsurgency was just one part of the fortuitous mix that yielded a just-good-enough resolution for Iraq. Petraeus and the officers and experts had been right about how to fight in Iraq and reached plum positions in the Pentagon.

And here’s the conclusion:

The COIN brigade forced the Army to adapt, to become what one officer called “a learning organization,” but the Pentagon failed to grasp the most important lesson of the decade: that the military does best when it can learn new types of missions quickly, whether delivering aid after a tsunami, stabilizing a failed state or running covert missions against international terrorist rings. Instead, it exchanged an old dogma for a new one. Once persuaded that the military could do counterinsurgency, few in Washington stopped to think about when it should do it.

This story reminded me a lot of the tech industry. Last year, GitHub’s Ryan Tomayko wrote a “here’s what works for me” blog post about his management style, which was fantastic. Here’s the crux of it:

It’s often cited that GitHub doesn’t have managers. In my opinion, a better way to describe the phenomenon would be to say that everyone at GitHub is a manager. Instead of assigning 100% management duties to individuals, the basic role of management is spread between 1.) every single employee, and 2.) a set of custom in-house tools that serve to keep everyone in the know with regards to other projects.

I think this is a pretty brilliant philosophy, and my impression is that it works very well for them. That article changed the way I think about my work as a manager.

This weekend I listened to a presentation from a developer at GitHub about their “no managers” corporate structure. This presentation essentially argued that the GitHub approach is indisputably the best way to run a company, and that all other corporate structures are broken.

This is exactly the trap that the military officers Fred Kaplan wrote about fell into. It’s a form of lazy thinking. Every problem and situation is unique. Nearly all people are naturally inclined to cling to heuristics rather than thinking deeply about problems and adapting to solve them.

This is one of the great penalties of success. People try something, meet with success, and then attempt to apply that formula over and over again, failing to recognize that new problems require new solutions. Often the real reasons for success go completely unexamined, because people are so eager to embrace it as proof of their own brilliance.

To the proponents of counterinsurgency doctrine, every war looks like an opportunity to apply counterinsurgency doctrine. To the GitHubber, every corporation should work like GitHub.

When people propose that all problems look the same, or even worse, that problems look different but that old solutions are still ideal, it’s a strong sign that they’re operating from within their dogma rather than starting with the problem and working their way out. There’s nothing that invites disaster more than falling in love with your own good ideas.

1 Comment

  1. Yes. There is also the fact that all people are different. One style of management may work well for one company whereas another style will be perfectly suited to another company. It shouldn’t be glossed over that Github has purposefully hired people that fit the way the company is run.

    I also think it usually takes age and distance to see this is the case. I know in my days fresh out of college I thought I had all the answers and knew the perfect way to run a company. Now it’s clear I have no clue. I figure as I get a little older I’ll find myself somewhere in the middle.

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