A Nobel Laureate’s Advice to Leaders

By Guy Higgins

I recently read a short article on Richard Feynman. The article is titled Who Is Richard Feynman? The Curious Character Who Mastered Thinking and Physics. The article briefly discussed Feynman’s approach to learning and included a few quotes from him. This post is going to look at three of those quotes:

  • “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird… I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
  • “I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad.”
  • “The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.”

So what do these quotations have to do with leadership? Let’s look.

Leaders spend a substantial amount of time thinking about how to achieve their goals or winning or improving, and an entire industry has arisen to “help” them do those things. There are Lean ideas and Six Sigma ideas and Integrated Product Team ideas (IPTs for folks who don’t remember way back in the dark ages before the acronym was canonized) and Disruptive ideas and Blue Ocean ideas and lots of other ideas. I recall an instance when Vice Admiral Mike Boorda, observing, somewhat sarcastically, that every problem was getting an IPT thrown at it, said “Admiral Smith and I ran into each other in the passageway (that would be a “hall” for non-Navy types) the other day, convened an IPT and solved the XYZ problem.”

I think that Admiral Boorda was exactly right – an idea is pitched and, too often adopted before it is thoroughly understood. That leads to the idea being misapplied or poorly applied, which, in turn leads to poor results, disillusionment, and abandonment of the idea amid a waste of time and resources. I will boldly assert that leaders too often learn the name of the “bird” without ever learning enough about the “bird” to understand that it can’t solve all their problems. I can hear the pushback now – but people did and do understand Lean and Six Sigma and IPTs. If that is true, why were (and are) six sigma tools applied to creative processes – the admin side of the creative process can be improved and made more efficient, but the content of creative efforts is the thing that matters. I remember when an electronics company bought a major, motion-picture company. The electronics company had had great success in leaning out their processes, reducing costs and improving quality. They tried to apply the same improvement concepts to the creation of hit movies, and they turned out a string of major flops.

So Dick Feynman’s first two quotes seem to me to directly address the importance, for leaders, of understanding new ideas, concepts, tools, and processes and applying them appropriately and not as some “mystic formula.”

When applying those new ideas, concepts, tools, and processes appropriately, leaders need to not anticipate the results and risk biasing the actual outcomes by succumbing to confirmation bias (or any of the other biases). Feynman, in his third quote, emphasizes the importance of writing it all down. That may seem superfluous, but the discipline associated with that effort contributes to ensuring the completeness of the effort.

Bottom line – understand ideas, concepts, tools, processes, etc. before applying them and then apply them appropriately, ensuring that the inputs are complete and neither abridged nor truncated. If the results (facts) don’t match your expectations, you must, perforce, change your expectations (that’s another Feynman-ism and it dovetails perfectly with John Adams’ observation that, “Facts are stubborn things.”)



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