We are approaching the end, we hope, of the worst hurricane season in U.S. history. I am sure most of my readers have been following the stories, so for those who have, please bear with me as I engage in a quick exercise in revisionist history. Pay attention — there will be a quiz at the end.
It is the morning of September 6, 2017, and things look grim. There are hurricane warnings for dozens of islands in the eastern Caribbean. A major hurricane, Irma, has just leveled Barbuda, stripping away most of the trees and damaging almost every building on the small island. From the U.S. point of view, there is reason to worry. This is one of the biggest hurricanes ever seen in the Atlantic Ocean, and it appears to heading almost directly toward the United States’ most important territory, the island of Puerto Rico.
Fortunately, when that hour comes, the hurricane passes by to the north. Puerto Rico is close enough to sustain wind damage and power outages, but the damage is surely nowhere near as bad as it might have been. Emergency managers in Washington hope for the best in Puerto Rico while they cast a worried eye on Florida. Evacuations there are underway as the hurricane appears to heading in that direction.
As news trickles in from Puerto Rico, though, damage is worse than expected. On September 22, aerial photos arrive showing a major dam that has sustained damage from the excessive rainfall. Engineers say the dam could collapse within hours. Evacuations are ordered downstream. The dam stands, and the military is sent in to do what they can to stabilize it and slow the erosion. Elsewhere across the territory, the damage is severe. Hospitals are operating on emergency power if they are open at all. Reports are slow to come in because communications and electricity are out almost everywhere. More supplies are sent, but progress continues to be slow. The U.S. President reluctantly agrees to visit Puerto Rico to see how the recovery efforts are going. The visit is delayed until October 3, and as the President hands out paper towels and tries to cheer up residents, he is puzzled by the disaster scenes he sees. The hurricane on September 6 had delivered only hours of tropical storm-force winds. What had happened? Puerto Rico must be badly managed indeed. By October 12, with electricity restored to only one tenth of Puerto Rico, the President is losing patience. Puerto Rico, he insists, was already a disaster already before the hurricane arrived. Federal disaster workers cannot stay there indefinitely, he says.
Those of you who have already spotted the error in preceding paragraph, please consider: there are also a great many people who will not see anything wrong in this narrative. People who think this way — for my purposes here, I will call them strategic thinkers or strategists — are in positions of power everywhere in the world. As long as this point of view carries so much weight, it is important for all of us to understand it and its strengths and limitations.
It is not even really about the often-cited differences between the “big picture” and “details.” If it looks like I have perhaps falsified the details of my narrative, I assure you that I have not. You could look up and verify each detail one by one, but that would not help.
For those who still don’t know where the problem is, I must not keep you in suspense any longer. The problem with the narrative above is that I failed to mention the most important thing that happened in the whole sequence of events. On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria crossed Puerto Rico. The entire island was in hurricane-force winds for the entire day. In the areas with the worst damage, most of the trees were brought down and those still standing had only a few leaves. Elsewhere, there were places where most trees stood, though most of the leaves were ripped away. One-day rainfall from Hurricane Maria ranged from 10 to 40 inches across Puerto Rico.
When you know about Hurricane Maria, the narrative based only on Hurricane Irma no longer makes any sense at all. But this also means the White House response to Puerto Rico no longer makes any sense. Maria must have failed to register on the television screens at the White House, which continued to respond to the crisis in Puerto Rico as if this second hurricane had never occurred. The White House response to Puerto Rico is proportional to the disaster if you know about Hurricane Irma and its near-miss. The White House response to Puerto Rico becomes nonsensical only after you add in the effects of Hurricane Maria, something that, I feel comfortable saying, the White House somehow failed to do.
Whoops! Needless to say, this is a pretty big mistake, but it’s important to see that it is not just a dumb mistake. Such mistakes occur every day in some form when people look at the world through the “strategic” lens. To those who stick to this point of view, numbers are details that don’t matter. One hurricane, two hurricanes — who cares how many hurricanes there were? The same point of view also may confuse hurricanes with earthquakes. It’s a form of confusion that most of us have difficulty imagining, but consider: both are natural disasters that may have effects in a short time period across a wide area.
You really don’t ever want strategists running anything because the results are regularly this embarrassing. Americans are going hungry because the White House lost track of the biggest hurricane in U.S. history? Yes, that is actually happening, literally today, right this minute, and it’s no wonder if those who are hungry are angry about the situation and those who are more distant from the problem are embarrassed.
I like to imagine that strategists make such big mistakes because they are comfortable dealing in abstractions but uncomfortable dealing in observations. This also tells you why strategists are useless most of the time. We get most of our results by observing what is going on in the world and reacting accordingly. Adding a layer of abstraction, most of the time, just muddies the waters. The recovery in Puerto Rico is being conducted by local workers and officials who go from building to building, finding the survivors and dead bodies, identifying the hazards, seeing what’s working and what’s broken. To have these workers criticized from a distance by someone who says that “Puerto Rico” (as if the territory were a person) could have built more hurricane-resistant buildings and avoided much of the current work is not only counterproductive but embarrassing.
Alas, these mistakes of context occur daily when a strategist is in charge. You ideally don’t want a pure strategist running anything that creates real-world consequences, yet Washington and much of the world are run by strategists. Many large businesses hire only strategic thinkers as executives. The world is regularly embarrassed by Trump’s out-of-context declarations. Equally embarrassing situations occur when the head of Hewlett-Packard or Uber threatens journalists, when Amazon issues a statement implying that authors deserve to starve, or when a Microsoft executive explains why fixing bugs is a waste of the company’s time. In practice, strategists are in charge in many places, and if we cannot replace them, we are left to find ways to work around them.
It is important to have strategic thinkers because they help us make some of the big leaps that a more concrete and prosaic thinker would never even think of. I want to be careful not to overstate this point, because equally big advances can emerge under the leadership of people who aren’t given to the strategic mindset. Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Franklin D. Roosevelt are prominent historical examples, and currently, Tesla, Apple, and Ikea are companies moving the world without leaning on strategic thinking. On the other side of a big advance, an initiative based on strategic thinking can flame out when it runs into a problem that the strategists can’t think their way around, as seen currently at Chipotle Mexican Grill and Uber, and you can doubtless think of dozens of other examples. We want to have strategists, but when they decide on something harmful, we need to be able to set their decisions aside and do something sensible instead.
In the case of Puerto Rico, the President is saying in essence that if Mr. Rico is starving it’s his own stupid fault. There are legitimate questions about Donald Trump’s brain function in recent weeks, but this conclusion has nothing to do with Trump’s mental decline. This is an everyday example of a strategic thinker led astray by his own strategic mindset. What we need to do is set Trump’s conclusion aside and say instead that these are our people and with an entire agricultural season wiped out, we are going to make sure that they have food.
For those in a position to choose leaders, it is important to look past the appeal of the great leap forward that strategic thinkers promise and see the inevitable blunders. With strategists in charge, breakthroughs and flameouts are all but guaranteed — except that after the first flameout, there might be nothing left. In politics, strategic thinkers are usually advisers, not executives, and that is the way it should be in business too.