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Robert McNamara and Vietnam: The Lesson for Business


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??nd how, as head of the World Bank, it was continuing to bring tragedy to the Third World. He didn?? get it.

What he didn?? get is what most CEOs and political leaders don?? get??nderstanding 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.


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