Ever since President Barack Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed in a mansion in the leafy, upscale town of Abbottabad, Pakistan, everyone has been asking: How had the world’s most wanted man managed to go undetected in a place like that for so long?
While we’ll leave the issue of possible Pakistani complicity to the geopolitical experts, the episode has reminded us of some broader organizational lessons.
In the case of bin Laden, everyone in our intelligence services “knew” that officials in Pakistan had no incentive to hide such a high-profile target. Besides, bin Laden could never be hiding in such plain sight; he had to be holed up in a remote mountain region.
“Although I had left the CIA before 9/11, I can well imagine its internal conversations on bin Laden’s whereabouts,” former CIA field officer Robert Baer wrote in Time. “Every time a junior analyst suggested the al-Qaeda leader was hiding in Pakistan proper — perhaps in a military cantonment area like the one in which he was killed — an old hand would have jumped in telling him that was too far-fetched to even discuss. ‘It’s not in Pakistan’s interest to hide bin Laden,’ the argument would run. ‘They get too much money from us. The generals who run the country are smarter than that. And anyhow where’s the intelligence?’ There were no intercepts of bin Laden calling from Pakistan proper; no defectors showing up putting him there.”
[EXPAND More]And yet, as Peter Druckerwas fond of saying, “What everybody knows is frequently wrong.”
“No management is blessed with omniscience,” Drucker wrote in his 1964 book, Managing for Results. “Unless one’s vision is systematically sharpened, one overlooks the most obvious things or misinterprets the clearest signs.”
Indeed, it’s often the most “obvious” things—the ones that you take for granted—that are bound to trip you up most severely. That’s why, for any effective organization, it’s so important to continually discuss and debate the seemingly self-evident, such as this fundamental question: What business are we in?
“The answer never emerges as a logical conclusion from ‘facts,’” Drucker wrote in Management: Tasks, Responsibilities Practices. “It requires judgment and considerable courage. The answer rarely follows what ‘everybody knows.’ It should never be made on plausibility alone. It should never be made quickly; it can never be made painlessly.”
What about your organization? What’s hiding in plain sight that you should be dealing with?[/EXPAND]