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. Continue reading

“Science Gone Wrong”?

By Guy Higgins

I’ve just finished reading a book by Dr. Paul Offit, Pandora’s Lab (Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong). The seven stories (and they actually are well told stories) capture the histories of seven episodes involving science. Those episodes, in order, cover:

  • The centuries-long creation of the opioid epidemic
  • The decades-long creation of the trans fat health hazard
  • The two sides of the discovery of a way to make atmospheric nitrogen chemically useable
  • The lengthy history of how genetics begat eugenics (simplistically, the idea that “inferior” humans should not have children)
  • The decades-long rise and fall of surgical lobotomies
  • The forty-year creation of an epidemic that has killed millions of people
  • The continuing health risks created when genius colors outside the lines

Continue reading

Executive Meetings – Critical Forums or Kabuki?

By Guy Higgins

Patrick Lencioni wrote Death by Meeting in which he explored the usefulness of meetings and made some recommendations about meetings – not just their conduct, but when and whether they were needed. I want to take a look at the effectiveness of “less structured” and “more structured” executive meetings by considering some meetings in which I have participated.

First, I want to look at two (very) small executive meetings that I prompted as a Navy Program Manager. In both cases, I planned to raise issues concerning resources with the three- and four- star admirals who controlled the needed resources. Both of these meetings fall into the “less structured” category. Continue reading

Hedgehogs in Action

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I posted thoughts about the tendency of some people to make bold, assertive predictions that are frequently wrong (hedgehogs) and other people who make circumspect, caveat’ed predictions that are usually usefully accurate (foxes).

While we were posting those thoughts, the UK voted to leave the European Union (Brexit). The hedgehogs went wild. They were busily forecasting the end of all interactions between the UK and the EU. They were forecasting the collapse of world capital markets. They were forecasting the end of NATO. These bold and assertive predictions caused the various stock markets to fall precipitously on June 24th and 27th. The news media loudly proclaimed that $2 trillion had been lost in the market “collapses.” As an aside, it would be interesting to know how much of that massive selloff was driven by artificial intelligence algorithms. By the 30th (that would be the third day following the market sell offs), the markets had nearly recovered to the levels immediately before the UK vote on the 23rd. Apparently, someone started listening to the foxes and recognized that, in fact, the sky was not falling (tip o’ the hat to chicken little). Continue reading

Predictions – Foxes and Hedgehogs

By Guy Higgins

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin published an essay in which he philosophized on an ancient adage, “Foxes know many things, but hedgehogs know one important thing.” Sir Isaiah expanded on that adage by observing that some people (hedgehogs) view the entire world through the lens of their deep and narrow expertise (one important piece of knowledge) while other people (foxes) view the world through the lens of their broad knowledge (knowledge of many things). Continue reading

Don’t Let “It Looked Good Going By Me” Be Your Next Crisis

By Guy Higgins

Harvard Business Review recently published a short post on a serio-comic issue facing the UK Ministry of Science. You can read the post here. It seems that the UK was considering a name for their brand new, best-in-the-world, $287M oceanographic research ship and someone proposed to Minister of Science Johnson that the ministry should turn to the public via the Internet to find a name through voting.

To make a long story short, The winner of this contest, by a factor three over the second-place finisher, was Boaty McBoatface. The irony is that it was a Ministry of Science employee who put that suggestion up on the web site – as a joke. Now, flash, in your mind, to an image of Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. I can’t speak for you, but I cannot ever see a ship flying the Union Jack and representing that most august monarch with “Boaty McBoatface” on the bow and transom. Not in a million years. But what is Her Majesty’s Government going to do? They set up a process for proposing names and voting for them. The rules did not make any stipulations or restrictions on the name itself. I’m sure that the idea of letting the public choose the name “looked good” when casually reviewed by some senior civil servant in London – engage the public, built support for national research, etc. Continue reading

When to (and Not to) Innovate

By Guy Higgins

Last week, I posted about taking advantage of cognitive and temperamental diversity in improving organizational innovation. In that post I touched on the decision to stop incremental innovation. I also alluded to the reality that innovation might endanger one of the organization’s important programs or products (its ‘cash cow’). I want to follow up on those areas this week. Continue reading

Doctor Martin Luther King Day – a Prospective

By Guy Higgins

Today, we honor the memory and achievements of Dr. Martin Luther King. Almost fifty-three years ago, Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave his I Have a Dream speech. If you haven’t listened to it or read it, I urge you to do so. You can find it here. The speech is certainly stirring, and Dr. King spoke of many injustices that needed to be righted. Many of those injustices have, for many people, been righted, but it is still a work in progress. However, I want to focus on one very small (albeit oft quoted) part of that speech.

Dr. King proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Continue reading


By Guy Higgins

Television talk and news shows have recently been inundated with highly charged arguments over various issues. I used the word “arguments” rather than “discussions” or “debates” because there doesn’t appear to be any actual effort on the part of either party to the argument to actually listen to their “opponent’s” position in an effort to understand where the disagreement exists.

That failure to listen and to understand the disagreement or the challenge is not isolated to public arguments on television. It also exists in private sector organizations. Whenever a leader summarily rejects an idea or simply ignores an idea or a challenge to the “party line,” there is a failure to understand the basis for the disagreement. That failure is the foundation of a further failure to take advantage of the disagreement to better understand weaknesses in the existing situation (and in the different idea) and to seize an opportunity to improve the existing situation. Continue reading

Three Kinds of Lies (Lies, Damnable Lies & Statistics)

By Guy Higgins

I was recently struck by a headline that boldly proclaimed “Professional Basketball Players at Risk of Pulmonary Embolism.” As a basketball fan, I found that interesting and read the article.

It seems that a review of pulmonary embolisms among professional basketball players found that six players had experienced such embolisms over the period of the study – a rate about fifty percent higher than among the general population. The doctor who conducted the study admitted that the study population was very small, but that “there may be reason to believe that professional basketball players are more at risk than other people.” He then went on to list a numerous possible reasons for such a risk. I’m certainly not an expert on pulmonary embolisms, but no potential cause on his list of possible reasons was unique to basketball players, professional or not. Continue reading