The many legacies of Robert McNamara

Robert McNamara recently passed away. He's best known for being the Secretary of Defense who promoted a war of attrition in Vietnam. Tyler Cowen highlights how he shaped the World Bank into a modern technocracy. FP Passport remembers his advocacy of nuclear disarmament later in life.

In Ahead of the Curve, which I recently discussed, Philip Delves Broughton uses HBS grad McNamara as his closing example of the pitfalls of applying "modern business management" in other spheres:
The journalist David Halberstram wrote that McNamara mistrusted people who did not speak his language of statistics and hard data. If it ever came down to one person saying something "just didn't feel right" or that it "smelled wrong," McNamara would always go with his facts over their feeling. Fatally, in the case of Vietnam, the data he received were not accurate, and yet he trusted more in the illusion of reality generated by the faulty data - the clean, impersonal, objective facts - than in the messy yet accurate eyewitness reports brought home by journalists and soldiers.
Reflecting on McNamara should remind us that, for all its "scientific" appeal, data-driven management is eminently subject to the crap in, crap out principle.

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