While in Grad School I became familiar with the work of Norbert Weiner, originator of the theory of Cybernetics and a brilliant mathematician who contributed a great deal to numerous fields – only one of which is organizational leadership.
Aside from having a name that virtually guaranteed a career path involving MIT, Weiner is famous for a variety of things but my favorite is the approach he took when studying where to most effectively place armor on military aircraft:
As the story goes, Weiner looked at planes coming back from the front lines to see where they took damage. Rather than armoring the areas where the aircraft were hit most often, he instead advised armoring the areas that weren’t struck by anti-aircraft fire. His brilliant line of reasoning was essentially if the planes made it back despite being shot in those areas – it meant they weren’t vital to the operation of the aircraft and thusly could go without as much protection.
I’ve recently been a part of a variety of projects in which the success of operations depends on the opinions and attitudes of stakeholders. The problem is – we tend too often to ask the right questions of the wrong stakeholders.
Take college admissions for example. If you’re trying to find out what problems students are having enrolling at school, the obvious thing to do would be to ask students what problems they’re running into.
That, however, is likely less effective than trying to ask that same question of the students who DON’T enroll successfully or who drop out of school in their first semester.