Paint by Numbers Management

Ten days ago, the Wall Street Journal headlined HP’s boardroom clash between no-longer-chairman Patricia Dunn and Director Tom Perkins. It’d be a great made-for-TV movie.

There’s venture capitalist and Silicon Valley legend Tom Perkins (as in Kleiner, Perkins, Caulfield), an early HP employee himself, used to getting his own way, his reputation apparently exceeded only by his own self-image.

Then there’s Dunn. Dunn had a very tough life, her career success a tribute to her strong will. But her route to the top was mastery of “the book,” as in “doing things by…”

“Failure avoidance has been a large motivator my whole life,” Dunn says in the article—an astonishing comment from any leader, much less one in the tech sector. “She became fascinated with the way Wells Fargo used academic theories to whittle away the role of human judgment in investment decisions.”

Indeed. Those pesky humans gum up the works every time. HP’s board was clearly dysfunctional, but the impact of leaks on Dunn was outsized. She set about making things orderly again, seeking salvation in process. The Journal says, “adamant in her desire to ‘fix’ the leak problem, she succumbed to tunnel vision.”

She’s not alone in the tunnel. The dominant thinking in business today reinforces her instinctive attraction to things quantitative, impersonal, process-based, statistically measurable, and susceptible to management-by-procedures.

No surprise, then, that Dunn said, before Congress, “I do not accept personal responsibility for what happened.” The absence of a sense of the human in business leads almost inexorably to the denial of personal accountability. (See Tom Peters’ blog for a refreshing rant of outrage at Dunn’s comment).

How can you trust someone who appears not to grasp the concept of accountability? Responsibility can be delegated; accountability cannot. It is a distinction apparently lost on Ms. Dunn—and again, she’s not alone.

From “management by numbers” to “paint by numbers management” is a slippery slope. Perkins may have his flaws, but he apparently has the great virtue of being human.

You can trust people. You can’t trust human calculators.

Update: This article was also in the Carnival of Business.