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A collective of highly intelligent people thinking stupidly

by Jon Foster-Pedley: Dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.
Putting experts into a room and expecting them to emerge with a perfect solution when we don’t know the nature of the threat we are dealing with is a guarantee for failure. Most of us who have sat in working groups or excos have experienced how easy it is to be among highly intelligent people collectively thinking stupidly – or disappearing down rabbit holes of irrelevance.

We appear to be living in an age of committees and commissions of inquiry. Is it the best way to manage, or is it a ruse to appear to be managing? The answer is not immediately obvious for the simple reason that most of the issues that these bodies are established to investigate are not clear cut.

South Africa’s government is much enamoured of committees, which has much to do with its past as a broad-church liberation movement striving for consensus and democratic centralism, while President Cyril Ramaphosa, who was one of the architects of our much-admired but poorly enacted Constitution, is himself a notable fan of judicial commissions of inquiry – but once again, so too is his party.

There is no doubt that committees and commissions of inquiry are very important tools of governance. Invariably committees have to be established to consider the findings of commissions. But the question is often asked, does anything practical – or tangible – ever emerge from them?

In the words of civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby from the well-known British TV comedy series Yes, Prime Minister: “The purpose of a committee is not to reach a decision. The purpose of a committee is to delay a decision.”

But actually, that’s not the fault of committees. What they should do is create collective wisdom, help collaboration, establish checks and balances, and solve complex challenges with informed decisions and shared accountability.

And, lest we think that it is just government that likes committees, corporate South Africa likes them too. There are plenty: audit committees, remuneration committees. Excos are committees. And then there are strategic committees, study groups and working groups; some that might be ad hoc following an annual bosberaad – or even a steering committee to plan the imbizo in the first place.

Being a leader in a complex environment is complex. There is a theory known as requisite variety – as HL Mencken said: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

This tells us two things: the first is that there’s no percentage in rushing to the wrong decision. The second is that there is a world of difference between simplifying something that is complex and just being simplistic. Many of the world’s conspiracy theories can be attributed to being simplistic rather than searching for a simpler and more elegant answer to a complex problem.

It’s also incredibly difficult to find consensus about the correct approach to resolving a problem when you have warring factions around the table. Much like the famous Avro Shackleton aircraft was described as 50,000 rivets flying in loose formation with one another, so too organisations and government administrations are rarely homogenous.

When you look at a country like South Africa with our fractured past overlaid by an incredible cultural, linguistic, religious and ethnic diversity, it becomes even more complex.

There’s a tendency in this country towards magical thinking; imbuing our leaders with mythical powers and then expecting someone like Ramaphosa to step in and resolve the issue immediately. He can’t. This is a democracy, albeit flawed, and he owes his position to the support of different coalitions within the ruling alliance.

It’s immensely difficult working in an environment where people who are ostensibly your allies may actually be working to subvert what you are trying to achieve.

Boardroom politics are no different. It is an enduring irony though that democracy is the only system of government that can subvert itself through the laws that its own practitioners pass. And when they do, and we end up with dictatorial leaders, then we will have individuals who wield immense power by themselves. But thankfully, this is not the case in South Africa.

When you are faced with an intractable problem, sometimes the answer is masterful inaction; delaying the urgency of those who have a vested interest in the outcome. It’s axiomatic that urgent vested interests are normally financial and individual, whereas long-term vested interests are normally statesmanlike and aimed at the greater good of the greater number.

I was listening to a podcast on the issue of Britain repatriating the Benin Bronzes, the majority of which are held in British and German museums after being stolen from Nigeria more than 120 years ago by British soldiers. It’s a wonderful example of precisely this.

Overlooking for a moment the context of the wealth behind the Benin Bronzes, partly the product itself of the African slave trade in other Africans, who do you repatriate them to? The oba, the king, or the federal government? What happens if the king keeps them in a vault as his private possessions and the ordinary Nigerians – and the rest of the world – aren’t able to see these treasures, as they were when they were in European museums?

But the biggest question is why is it an issue right now? And if, in spite of the passion of the momentum there isn’t a compelling reason for the timing of the issue, then why must a decision be taken right now? Why rush to make the wrong decision and set up a domino effect of other bad decisions because of it?

Committees help buy time and they help make sense of incredibly complex issues. It’s vital too to understand the difference between complex and complicated: your watch is reasonably simple, the wiring diagram for the Airbus A380 is complicated, with 530km of wiring, but your marriage is complex.

If you put the two together – the wiring diagram and your marriage – you have multiple levels of complexity; informational, relationship, time. You can have an intuitive understanding of what to do because you have experienced it in the past, but what happens in a new situation?

We saw this during the Covid-19 pandemic – there wasn’t a playbook, because we had not experienced a public health crisis of this scope and scale in living memory.

What made it even more tricky was that the knowledge that we were dealing with, the science, was continually evolving as we began to learn more about the virus and the threat it posed. We were also dealing with experts – the scientists and the others whatsapping in their groups – when the rest of us didn’t have any knowledge at all.

Putting experts into a room and expecting them to emerge with a perfect solution when we don’t know the nature of the threat we are dealing with is a guarantee for failure. Most of us who have sat in working groups or excos have experienced how easy it is to be among highly intelligent people collectively thinking stupidly – or disappearing down rabbit holes of irrelevance.

It is vital that the right chair is selected to keep everyone on track and focused. Sometimes, as we heard during the Zondo Commission testimony, “capture” boards can be handpicked and established precisely to thwart any attempt at good governance and in fact green-light corruption and corporate malfeasance.

But committees, whatever their rationale, can be incredibly useful. It’s said that maybe over half of management decisions are wrong at the start, but they still end up alright because they allow the team or the company to get moving and self-correct en route, as you allow time for your natural sense-making and trial-and-error skills to take over. Covid-19 was a little like that.

And then, sometimes, leaders have to listen to their committees, excos and commissions and then make their own decisions – even if those decisions fly in the face of expert opinion. Knowing when to do that can be the true mark of leadership. Intuition doesn’t shout, it whispers.

As Steve Jobs said: “Intuition is the secret weapon of exceptional leaders. It’s the art of making wise decisions in the face of uncertainty.”

First published on Daily Maverick

Useful resources:
Henley Business School
At the core of Henley’s philosophy is the belief that we need to develop managers and leaders for the future. We believe the challenge facing future leaders is the need to solve dilemmas through making choices. We work with both individuals and organisations to create the appropriate learning environment to facilitate the critical thinking skills to prepare for the future.
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