San Francisco, California

A Vacuum of Courage

I’ve been a big fan of Matthew Ström’s blog lately and his latest piece on the management strategy that saved Apollo 11 is likewise excellent. Matthew writes:

In today’s companies, decisions are made at the highest level; by the board, the c-suite, senior vice presidents, etc. Leaders with great decision-making abilities are sought after. Entire classes at the most selective business schools are taught on how to make decisions.

But in 1969, the people in charge of Apollo 11 trusted a 23-year-old engineer in a back room of mission control to make one of the most consequential decisions of this decade-defining mission. And they did so in seconds, without deliberating or debating.

Next time you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself: how can this decision be made on the lowest level? Have you given your team the authority to decide? If you haven’t, why not? If they’re not able to make good decisions, you’ve missed an opportunity to be a leader. Empower, enable, and entrust them. Take it from NASA: the ability to delegate quickly and decisively was the key to landing men on the moon.

I was talking with someone a rather long time ago about the organization we worked at at the time and he mentioned that there was “a vacuum of courage” – everyone was terrified to make decisions and so no-one was given the respect or authority to act swiftly on a problem. Every decision had to be punted to the level above them, almost like a Communist regime where clueless politburo yes men have no experience of the field over which they manage. Their inexperience led to delays in decision making and lies pumping throughout the company like a cancer, even though there were dozens of people beneath them that could quickly make a decision to fix the issue at hand.

This is not how I like to work and it’s certainly not what good management is. It’s clear to me now that delegating decisions, and making them at the lowest possible level as Matthew writes above, is how you build a great organization.