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Culture and the Perils of Guesswork

April 17, 2010
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A friend of mine recently received some pretty critical feedback at work. She had carefully responded to a request from a senior executive, a request that was very vague, broad, and came to her third hand. As a result, what she delivered was necessarily broader than the senior executive really wanted or intended.

There were significant barriers to access the senior executive, including power, available face time, and physical and relationship distance. These barriers, as well as a lack well defined goals, caused her to put more work into the project than was necessary. It caused her to guess.
The consequences were what you would expect. There was no reward for her effort, and the project did nothing to improve her relationships with any of those involved. Quite the opposite.

When I heard this story, it reminded me of Guesswork from Art Kleiner's 2003 book, "Who Really Matters." Here is that story:

The king had been betrayed. Henry II, twelfth-century of England, had arranged for his bosom friend, fellow bon vivant, and military partner, the archdeacon Thomas a Becket, to become Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry assumed that, this way, he could better control the Church. But the new Archbishop suddenly got religion and shifted allegiance; be broke contact with the King, gave up his palace and rich clothing, and refused to agree to Henry's demand to have clergy tried in the royal courts. When Becket excommunicated some of the bishops who were loyal to the King, they went to Henry to complain. At dinner one evening in 1169, the King was overheard grumbling, "Shall a man who has eaten my bread [meaning Becket] insult me and all the kingdom, and not one of the lazy servants whom I nourish at my table (meaning his knights and courtiers] help me fix this affront?"

Four of the knights took Henry's remark as a command. They slipped out, rode to Canterbury, and killed the Archbishop. This murder, which the King apparently never intended, cost him nearly everything he valued: his former friend (with whom be bad hoped to reconcile, and whom he missed terribly); his standing with the Church (he was immediately excommunicated); the love of the people of England (despite humbling himself in his own pilgrimage to Canterbury); the political concessions Becket had spent years demanding from him (which he now granted with no further argument); and the respect of his own sons, who fought him in a series of wars that lasted the rest of his life. (And the hapless knights? Henry imprisoned them.)

- the passage above comes directly from Who Really Matters, by Art Kleiner, pages 74-75, and starts a chapter on the topic, Chapter 8, titled Guesswork.

All of us, as leaders, play the role of king. All of us as direct reports to higher kings, the C-suite or the BOD, play the role of Becket from time-to-time in our careers. For me, the moral of this story seems to be, it's in everyone's interest to eliminate or at least reduce guesswork. But changing communication patterns is not always an option.

In terms of outcomes, the king has the greatest organizational burden to reduce guesswork, if he hopes to execute his vision through his subordinates. And those subordinates have the highest risk of sudden, unavoidable organizational death as a consequence of guesswork.
We all need to be aware of the destructive role guesswork can play in our organizations. And as leaders, we have a responsibility to build direct communication into the culture of our organizations, in part by continually setting a good example.



One of the highest complements a favorite CEO bestows is to describe a person as having an eclectic blend of expertise. You always bring that to your posts and comments. Thank you!

I haven't disclosed this here before but I worked for time for the Army, as a civilian, on several classified projects. I had several good friends in the Signal Corp. When I worked for HP, my bosses bosses boss had been a high ranking officer in the Marines. During my informatics fellowship, one of my closest friends, now retired, was career army. And, during my undergraduate days, my roommate was ROTC and I recall reading his textbook (for fun) called "Contemporary American Military Issues." I got hooked because it was actually pure (yet applied) psychology.

I learned two things (which I now appreciate relate to Guesswork):

  • 1) Once you fix upon your target, anything the target does "will only confirm" what you already wished to believe about that target.

  • 2) The appropriate stance for any subordinate in a superior-subordinate relationship is "You will know what I think, then I will do what you say."  Any superior that acts before listening does so at their own peril.

To your point, I strongly agree, there are important lessons from the military regarding perception and communication.  Both reduce the risks of interpersonal guesswork.

While the military is often caricatured as the ultimate in bureaucracy and stultification and disconnection between senior management and the "grunt" on the ground, the truth of the matter is that they probably have a better handle and system for translating strategy into operations into tactics than just about any other large organization on the planet. There is a formal and clear process by which orders are written at each level of command, and a formal and clear process in how each lower level of command is to interpret, implement and extrapolate those higher level commands into their own orders to be passed down.

You can find a taste of this here:

Similar rules exists for strategic orders and tactical orders with many shades in between.

My point is not to say that we should all slavishly follow military procedure here. But it is to say that a good communication plan and policy will apply, and provide guidance, to all levels of an organization.

Joe, You really struck a painful chord with this post. This is so much more common, especially in large organizations than you suggest. I am involved first hand in several, multibillion dollar enterprises where the senior leaders are on the verge of throwing away existing infrastructure. They have little or no knowledge of that infrastructure and no plans to replace it. It's apparent that they aren't working closely enough with their subordinates. And, their subordinates are in pain - clear about the likely negative course their leader is enthusiastically pursuing. They have spoken up. But, as you said, the culture of the organizations involved are dismissive. The resulting behavior is guesswork. Apparently, that's easier for the senior-most management than working on cultural improvements. Things like disciplined listening.

Thanks for your comment, Frank.

Your suggestion brings up the topic of techniques to address guesswork.

Yours is very Drucker-esque. I love it.

Another softening technique is to apologize for not being able to read minds. This reminds all involved that certain dialogues that we take for granted that should happen haven't, and need to, without being unnecessarily critical.

Thanks again.

You make terrific points. I think one challenge that's inherent in the operations of any organization is the fact that often, senior leaders in an organization are themselves guessing, a lot more often than anyone wants to admit. Thus, there is often a chain of guessing happening some of it is communication-related, as you pointed out some is also strategically relatedor, more precisely, related to a lack of strategy and clarity. At the very least, senior leaders can get better at communicating clearly, even when they themselves aren't certain exactly what they need and wantand therefore can direct their subordinates to execute on.

I found what you and "Insightful" have written here to be "scary true" in far too many organizations. And the problem of disgraceful communication policies on the part of corporate kings is too often perpetuated from one CEO to the next in many large institutions.

For example, I know of one organization that has had five CEOs in the past 12 years, yet it has remained stagnant. Paraphrasing those who have left over the years, they have almost universally been quoted as saying that the culture of poor communication appears to self-perpetuate from king-to-king. After more than 25 years in the industry, I find this truly inexcusable business practice to be not at all uncommon.

However, I will play a little devil's advocate with your statement, "But changing communication patterns is not always an option."

I believe this is always an option IF the CEO has the foresight and management skills to identify the problem and lead by example to correct it. Taking the guesswork out of the work environment is not all that difficult, and it doesn't take much in the way of resources to get quickly on track.

Unfortunately, never has the "Peter Principle" thrived or been more apparent than it is today among the ranks of CEOs. I find this most perplexing, if not outright discouraging.


I agree 'guessing' is a risky business. It reminds me of the old saying - If you assume - you make an Ass of U and ME.
So I always found that the best way to deal with situations where you are not clear or sure on what is asked/needed is to send out an brief email (a memo in the old days) stating your understanding of what is needed to be done, and how it is to be done, and by when. This may not be necessary in small projects (less than a four hours) but it is particularly useful if it will require more than a days time.
That's my 3 cents worth..keep up the good work.

Thank you IA, Jack and Mark, for your comments and clarifying insights.

IA, you raised the important perspective that "we are all incomplete." That simple perspective can lead to more effective management practices practices regarding decision rights, information flow, and motivators, that determine how we use our time (meetings, email, reading blogs.) The convenient simplification or arrogance of ignoring incompleteness drives unnecessary and harmful guesswork.

Jack, you made reference to the Peter Principle. At the risk of going cynical, I thought that Scott Adams evolved that idea in an interesting way. He added, or so I thought, the notion of being promoted without having first demonstrated competency at a lower tier in an organization.

The Dilbert Principle is a variation of the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle addresses the practice of hierarchical organizations (such as corporations and government agencies) to use promotions as a way to obtain greater advantage from employees who demonstrate competence in their current position. It goes on to state that, due to this practice, a competent employee will eventually be promoted to, and remain at, a position at which he or she is incompetent. The Dilbert Principle, on the other hand, claims that incompetent employees are intentionally promoted to prevent them from doing harm (such as reducing product quality, offending customers, offending employees, etc.) The Dilbert Principle draws upon the idea that in certain situations, the upper echelons of an organization can have little relevance to the actual production and the majority of real, productive work in a company is done by people lower in the power ladder. It is possible for both Principles to be simultaneously active in a single organization.
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Mark, I always get a huge kick out of your pragmatic perspective, born in part from your close work with so many senior leaders. I, too, have seen the need senior leaders have to 1) work with incomplete information, and 2) paint with a broad brush, leaving it to subordinates to figure out details. My point, and I think yours, is that we all need to pay close attention Guesswork, and manage to minimizing that where it matters. Otherwise, we will live out the outcomes of Henry and Tom.