Managerial alternatives to leaving smart people alone

I’ve often quoted Tom Davenport’s observation that the default HR strategy for knowledge-intensive organizations is to “hire smart people and leave them alone.” While there’s wisdom in that perspective, I fear it is no longer a desirable strategy.

I once had the office next door to Tom’s when we both worked at the Center for Information Technology and Strategy in Boston. The Center was an experiment by Ernst & Young to build better connections between academic research and business practice. It was an embodiment of Tom’s observation, grounded in our experiences in organizations that had pursued other approaches.

What does it mean to “leave them alone?” People don’t become managers to leave things alone. Managers set direction, they marshall resources, they evaluate and interpret results. Why should smart people be exempt from these eminently sensible actions?

They’re not.

But managers of smart people often aren’t qualified to do these essential management tasks. Setting direction, marshaling resources, and evaluating results depend on understanding practice. This is where managers struggle. In a world of manual tasks and procedural paperwork, managers could be expected to have a good grasp of how the work was and should be done. Managers understood practice. Thus, they were qualified to manage it.

We no longer live in that world.

In a world of knowledge work, it is knowledge workers—the smart people—who best understand practice. In this world, Tom’s strategy is a safe and responsible one; if you don’t know how to do what you manage, you’re well advised to resist the urge to meddle.

“First, do no harm” is commendable but not the same advice as “do nothing.” Setting direction, marshaling resources, and evaluating results depend on understanding practice. But understanding practice tells us nothing about whether that practice is advancing the goals of the organization. Practice is anchored in where we are; we also need to know where we would like to go.

Blending these perspectives implies that managing smart people requires a collaborative effort. Smart people provide sense-making of where we have been. Managers provide insights on desirable places to go. Smart people and managers jointly develop the maps and plans that connect the two.

It is not yet clear to me how this collaboration should play out in practice.

Smart people must be able to articulate what they do for those who can’t be expected to know as much as the smart people do about their domains. This places a responsibility on smart people to be able to educate others—particularly managers—about the point and promise of their expertise. Smart people who can’t, or won’t, explain how their expertise matters do a disservice to their organizations.

When smart people were a rare phenomenon in organizations, smart people and pretenders could both get away with jargon and faux-complexity. The numbers were small enough that a few wise gatekeepers could contain the downside risk and the upside of actual smart ideas was worth the trouble.

There’s an old, likely apocryphal, story told of Tom Watson in the early days of IBM. Seems an engineer had made a 10 million dollar design mistake. When asked why the engineer hadn’t been fired, Watson’s response was “I spent too much money learning from that mistake to get rid of the one person who won’t make it again.”

The calculus changes when smart people represent a significant proportion of your work force. For one, tolerating a single 10 million dollar mistake is reasonable; managing a hundred simultaneous potential mistakes—and upsides—becomes an existential problem. There is too much chance to leave the process to chance.

The organization needs a view into the mix of potential smart ideas. Further, the organization needs to actively shape the mix to align with the goals of the organization. This becomes a conversation about “command intent” and how that interacts with “ground truth.”

Leaving smart people alone makes sense when the alternative is to give orders that are ignorant of context and possibility. Far better to combine the perspectives of smart people and forward-looking managers and increase the smarts applied.