Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Are judgment and experience irreconcilable?

I've just got around to reading "Judgment Trumps Experience," the Wall Street Journal article serving as a teaser for the forthcoming book "Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls" by Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy. (Thanks to HBS Working Knowledge for the pointer.) In the article, Bennis and Tichy write,

After a five-year study of leadership covering virtually all sectors of American life, we came to the inescapable conclusion that judgment regularly trumps experience. Our central finding is that judgment is the core, the nucleus of exemplary leadership.

At the same time, I read this article in our local business newspaper about the longtime Harrisburg electronics entrepreneur Izzy Schwab.

Bear with me; these fit together.

Here is one quote from each piece:

Bennis/Tichy: "Our central finding is that judgment is the core, the nucleus of exemplary leadership. With good judgment, little else matters. Without it, nothing else matters."

Schwab: “What I bring to the party today is all the experience of 50 years of mistakes. If it didn’t work five times in the past, it won’t work today. Keep it simple.”

Of course, both judgment and experience are needed for the best decisionmaking. Bennis and Tichy say as much: "We are not discounting the importance of experience. Seminal and appropriate experiences must be drawn on and understood before judgments can be informed."

Yet, how do we reconcile these viewpoints? Are Bennis and Tichy right, or Izzy Schwab? Thinking about learning from mistakes can help. We can't learn much from things that go well. We can learn a lot from failures. Note that Schwab focuses on the things he has done wrong when he talks about his experiences--not his many accomplishments (here's an overview of his company, D&H Distributing).

Bennis and Tichy bring up the Cuban Missile Crisis as an example of Kennedy's brilliant judgment. Yet it was only eigtheen months before that another Kennedy decision, the authorization of the Bay of Pigs invasion, ended in utter failure.

The same person made both decisions. So thinking of "judgment" as distinct from experience rings false to me. Without being able to reflect on the Bay of Pigs tragedy, it's entirely likely Kennedy would have handled the missile crisis with far less restraint.

Judgment may trump experience, but to me one type of judgment may be best of all: the judgment to know when your experience can help you, and when it cannot.

(Photo by vivre via stock.xchng)

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