A Nuclear Arsenal

I just finished working with my editor on an article about Enterprise 2.0 to appear in the November Harvard Business Review. I wrote long, knowing that my draft would have to be cut down a fair amount. And knowing that content that didn’t make it into the article could still appear on my blog…

So here are a couple paragraphs that aren’t going to be in the conclusion of the article when it appears this fall. I like them because they contain a great quote from a very smart person who found a way to be an effective leader and agent of great change within a huge, tradition-bound organization:

The father of America’s nuclear navy, Admiral Hyman Rickover, was highly effective within a large bureaucracy, yet never ceased to point out its deficiencies and fight against them. He saw that too much deference to formal authority and expertise could hamper effective problem solving, and said:

“The Quakers have an excellent approach to thinking through difficult problems, where a number of intelligent and responsible people must work together. They meet as equals, and anyone who has an idea speaks up. There are no parliamentary procedures and no coercion from the Chair. They continue the discussion until unanimity is reached. I want you guys to do that.”

Emergent social software platforms are ideal technologies to enable this style of problem solving; they impose no procedures on interactions and cannot be used to coerce others. And because they make each individual’s contributions permanently visible and findable, they have another powerful property: they let people’s ‘slices of genius’ —   the domains of their expertise — emerge over time.

I’ll post an update here when the full article is available later this year. And in the meantime, here are a couple other great quotes from Rickover about getting work done in organizations that resonate with me. They’re all from his Wikiquote page. Hope you like them:

If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won’t.

Sit down before fact with an open mind. Be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abyss Nature leads, or you learn nothing. Don’t push out figures when facts are going in the opposite direction.

Free discussion requires an atmosphere unembarrassed by any suggestion of authority or even respect. If a subordinate always agrees with his superior he is a useless part of the organization. In this connection there is a story of Admiral Sims when he was on duty in London in World War I. He called a conscientious hard-working officer in to him to explain why he was dissatisfied with the officer’s work. The officer blushed and stammered when Sims pointed out that in all the time they had been working together the officer had never once disagreed with Sims.

To doubt one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man. Don’t defend past actions; what is right today may be wrong tomorrow. Don’t be consistent; consistency is the refuge of fools.

Avoid over-coordination. We have all observed months-long delays caused by an effort to bring all activities into complete agreement with a proposed policy or procedure. While the coordinating machinery is slowly grinding away, the original purpose is often lost. The essence of the proposals is being worn down as the persons most concerned impatiently await the decision. The process has been aptly called coordinating to death.

One must permit his people the freedom to seek added work and greater responsibility. In my organization, there are no formal job descriptions or organization charts. Responsibilities are defined in a general way, so that people are not circumscribed. All are permitted to do as they think best and to go to anyone and anywhere for help. Each person is then limited only by his own ability.

Everything new endangers something old. A new machine replaces human hands; a new source of power threatens old businesses; a new trade route wipes out the supremacy of old ports and brings prosperity to new ones. This is the price that must be paid for progress and it is worth it.

The Devil is in the details, but so is salvation.