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Robert McNamara and Vietnam: The Lesson for Business

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on July 7, 2009

I met Robert McNamara once in the 90s at a presentation at the Council on Foreign Relations and was stunned at his continued hubris and inability to see how, as Department of Defense chief, his reliance on metrics and top-down planning brought tragedy to the US and Vietnam—and how, as head of the World Bank, it was continuing to bring tragedy to the Third World. He didn’t get it.

What he didn’t get is what most CEOs and political leaders don’t get—understanding the culture and what its people want and need is far more important than measuring inputs and outcomes.

McNamara was a Harvard Business School professor before WW11 broke out and taught cost-effectiveness statistical control to the Army. It is an important thing, of course, cost-control, but not a process that allows people to adjust to unknown terrain, uncertain behaviors, and volatile circumstances.

I remember drinking in a bar in Manila in 1969 when a US Special Forces

soldier on R&R came in. After a few, I asked him about the strange necklace he was wearing. The soldier said it was made up of ears, ears cut off from Viet Cong. That way, they could count the number of enemy killed. Metrics. McNamara's metrics.

The Special Forces soldier said it was all bull. Changing minds was the key and how do you measure that? And how do you change the minds of people who had been fighting the Chinese, the Japanese, the French and now the Americans for independence for centuries?

Special Forces people study culture to swim in the culture. That's what they do.

Business schools have been teaching metrics management for far to long and it has deeply hurt US companies. Efficiency, cost-controls and the "space" of corporations are important in mass marketing, mass manufacturing--mass. The rise of consumer control, co-creation, IT connection to real and digital communities and villages around the world obviates this model.

Shoshana Zuboff, former HBS professor for 25 years, has written a critical piece, in which she says:

"I have come to believe that much of what my colleagues and I taught has caused real suffering, suppressed wealth creation, destabilized the world economy, and accelerated the demise of the 20th century capitalism in which the U.S. played the leading role.

We weren't stupid and we weren't evil. Nevertheless we managed to produce a generation of managers and business professionals that is deeply mistrusted and despised by a majority of people in our society and around the world. This is a terrible failure."

We need to get back to culture--to where people live, to what they use, what they need and want. Design and Design Thinking has the anthropological focus to do this. It's time CEO's and business schools embraced the new methodology of design.

Reader Comments


July 8, 2009 2:56 AM

Bruce...It is refreshing to hear the baby boom generation own up to their failures that have made it so difficult for younger generations of Americans seek happiness.

The ivy league has a lot of explaining to do...


July 8, 2009 5:45 PM

All the souls being locked up in this world's longest facescar are going after the bankster now. No way the bankster can R.I.P -
Here was how the guy saved money for Wall St:


July 8, 2009 6:52 PM

Steve - McNamara was born in 1916 - hardly a baby boomer. Boomers must answer to many ills they have created or participated in, but some of those ills are the result of things thrust upon them by the WWII generation that McNamara was a part of. Full disclosure - I'm 49 so debatable whether I should be included as a boomer.

El Senior

July 8, 2009 7:44 PM

Measuring is less the problem than is where we choose to point the rulers. There is nothing inherently evil in the use of metrics. In my mind the problem is four fold.
1. Our choice of metrics will follow our values, which are in need of overhaul (by any objective measure) :-)
2. The operational significance of any metric is determined by whoever has the biggest d**k
3. We pretend that points one and two are not the actual fact of reality in practice
4. As a subset to number three we lurch from one paradigm to the next proclaiming "SOLUTION! SOLUTION!" with Caesar's trumpets blazing in the background -- while leaving issues 1 - 3 fundamentally unaltered

...What's in your wallet?

Wai L. Chui

July 8, 2009 9:03 PM

I do not believe there is anything wrong with metrics management per se. It is a tool. THe problem is that the managers who clearly do not know the environment (or culture) use their own metrics without bothering to find out if they use the correct metrics. And these are usually the people who think their own tool kit is the be-all-and-end-all. McNamara's problem was such a case of abuse of management tools. He would have totally failed too, if he would have used total tonnage to measure automobile production while he was in Ford.

In Vietnam, McNamara would have done much better if he would have used metrics such as opinion polls (metrics used by politicians) to find out the sentiment of the Vietnamese and act with that in mind. However, listening to the Vietnamese was something that arrogant people like McNamara could never do. The common Vietnamese did not go to Harvard.


July 9, 2009 9:57 AM


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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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