Robert McNamara’s Life-Lessons and Strategic Planning

One of Robert McNamara’s controversial accomplishments was putting in place a rigorous strategic planning process in the Defense Department. Essentially, McNamara elevated strategic planning from the individual forces to the departmental level, and assigned it to a small group of people chosen in his image – brilliant young quantitatively-oriented civilians – and reporting directly to him.

His bright boys wanted to deliver the most bang for the buck and proposed options that integrated across the forces to achieve this goal. The forces bitterly resented this attack on their cherished autonomy. While McNamara unleashed this model of strategic planning on the Defense Department, over the years it has been applied to many other public sector organizations, generally under rubrics such as Program, Planning, and Budgeting Systems (PPBS) or Zero-Based Budgeting (ZBB).

I applied this model of strategic planning against the eleven lessons from the life of Robert McNamara that are set out in Errol Morris’s documentary The Fog of War. Some of the lessons, such as “get the data” and “maximize efficiency,” are clearly consistent with his strategic planning model. But many of the others are not.

“Belief and seeing are often wrong” casts a skeptical eye on data-gathering, implying that the data are always filtered through the biases of the analyst.

“Empathize with your enemy” makes the point while organizations interact with other organizations, the interactions come down to relationships among people. Strategic planning often imagines the world in an abstract way that ignores the human element. One lesson McNamara ultimately learned from the Vietnam War was that the North Vietnamese weren’t governed by simplistic stimulus-response psychology, but were rather a proud people with a history, and this self-image drove their decisions.

McNamara’s deepest, and most skeptical, lessons for planners are that “you can’t change human nature” and that “rationality will not save us.” However rational your plan, it doesn’t take into account the frequent irrationality of human behavior.

A nuclear policy of mutually assured destruction depends on the critical assumption that all protagonists prefer life over death, but as McNamara discovered during the Cuban Missile Crisis there were some, most notably the Cuban leadership and the American military, that were willing to countenance millions of deaths for ideological reasons.

In a speech given in 1966, McNamara himself clearly recognized the limits of our rationality:
“Who is man? Is he a rational animal? If he is, then the goals can ultimately be achieved. If he is not, then there is little point in making the effort. All the evidence of history suggests that man is indeed a rational animal with a near infinite capacity for folly. His history seems largely a halting, but persistent, effort to raise his reason above his animality. He draws blueprints for utopia, but never gets it quite built.”

Bearing in mind these limits on human rationality, the question that arises in my mind is whether any other strategic planning process would do better than McNamara’s quantitative and elitist approach. I tend to believe that a more populist approach, engaging both the people who will be implementing plans and will be affected by plans, would do better. They would provide greater empathy while demonstrating the limits of rationality, leading to conclusions that are likely less subtle and complicated than those that would result from an elitist process, but, conversely, more likely to win widespread approval.

I will be away next week, so my next post will be the first week in August.

1 comment

  1. Thanks for the excellent post Prof. First learned of McNamara in your management course and I know some of his strategic thinking will come in handy when I return to school in September.

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