How do we know things? Largely through our senses and our experience. Fire burns, sugar tastes good. As Seth Godin recently put it, “We’re hardwired to believe and understand the things we can actually experience.”
Soaring with science
If we relied on our senses and on our hearts instead of our educated minds, we would be overcome by fear. The development of science helped us evolve to a higher level of knowledge beyond our senses and fears, one where hypotheses could be formed and tested and general laws abstracted from that empirical information. With knowledge, as a species we have learned to extend our capabilities, from navigating and plumbing the depths of the seas, to flying through the sky and beyond into space. Scientific knowledge has propelled us towards increasingly broader and deeper dimensions, from the sub-atomic realm to the galaxies. This exploration has been made possible by solid theory and an epistemological framework to guide on-the-field practice.
When it comes to management, important knowledge beyond our senses can come, for example, from a statistical understanding of how processes are behaving. This knowledge allows managers to predict and assess the impact of decisions. This is just one example of knowledge that comes from solid theory and that allows informed management practice. The problem is, statistics don’t “feel real” and humans find it hard to rely on them.
Still today, in spite of all that we have learned from science about systems, complexity, networks and the collaborative nature of work, so many leaders and managers still operate “by the seat of their pants”, inventing the wheel, repeating old ways. They are unaware that a theory of management exists to guide their practice. Ignoring it is inherently self-limiting. It is also dangerous.
When John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane crashed into the sea in 1999, I asked my brother, a former “top gun” RAF fighter pilot what he thought. He had little doubt. The pilot had not yet learned to fly a plane by instruments. In the daytime, pilots can be guided by what they can see, but at nighttime, their perceptions are faulty and they can become disoriented. That is why they must learn to fly by instruments for flights later in the day and at night. My brother himself, who had flown fighter jets, Shackleton’s, even a friend’s Spitfire, found it challenging when he had to learn to fly large commercial planes that were highly computerized. He had to acquire a new set of skills and fly not just with instruments but with a computer. He had to adapt his knowledge and experience to the times.
Knowing the mission and the destination
A captain has to take responsibility for the mission, the destination and the lives of all those on board. Leaders and managers are in a similar position when it comes to organizations. Today we are living in an age of complexity and this requires adequate knowledge and skills. Leaders and managers can serve their mission, destination and everyone involved much better by acquiring the knowledge to guide organizations beyond the seat of their pants and Excel sheets.
When the heart informs the mind, there can be an excess of fear. But when the mind informs the heart, we become unstoppable,
This post is dedicated to the memory of Captain Charles M. Montgomery and to all those pilots who make our lives bigger.
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About the Author
Angela Montgomery Ph.D. is Partner and Co-founder of Intelligent Management and author of the business novel+ website The Human Constraint , so far purchased in 22 countries around the globe. This downloadable novel uses narrative to look at how the Deming approach and the Theory of Constraints can create the organization of the future, based on collaboration, network and social innovation. She is co-author with Dr. Domenico Lepore, founder, and Dr. Giovanni Siepe of ‘Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization’ from CRC Press, New York.