The Fog of War, or: when being vague is useful

I've always been a straight shooter. Perhaps it's the Dutch culture or the protestant roots, but mystery, rituals and concepts annoy me. If a company can't say clearly what their product does, I am annoyed. I don't need you to tell me that my team will be 5% more effective, let me figure out myself how useful your product is on the merits of what it actually does.

Recently I had the pleasure to work with a CEO and got some feedback that I shared plans with our suppliers too clearly. He said he didn't like that at all and he wanted things to be as vague as possible. My gut reaction was that this was ridiculous. If they don't understand our plans and motives how can they deliver a good service? It goes against everything I've read about leading people.

But, when I reflected a bit, I though of the idiom "Knowledge is Power".

If knowledge is power, then the absence of knowledge must be weakness. By keeping the people around you weak, you keep the upper hand. 

I don't know which way is right when dealing with your own team or with suppliers (although I know which I personally prefer). But: the insight has opened my mind and I now see the pattern of hiding information all the time, so I am really grateful to the CEO for teaching me this lesson. It gave me a new mental tool to understand how the world works.
  • In strategy games, the Fog of War is crucial. You can't see what your enemies are doing and they can attack you from any corner of the map, until you put up scouts, watchtowers, etc.

  • By not sharing salary ranges, companies keep power to compensate people how they wish. If they are asking you to give your desired salary, you lose power by giving it.

  • In a consultancy company you have no one-size-fits-all product so you might want to have a vague website saying things about "digital transformation" etc. It sounds very important without sharing any information!

  • By not publicly committing to a roadmap, your company keeps the power to change its mind when it wants to. On the other hand, some customers might want to see whether your roadmap aligns with their needs and you might not close the deal without sharing a roadmap.

  • If you lead ambitious people and you want to keep your cozy management position, you might want to hide information from your team to prevent them from being promoted. On the other hand, if your team is stable, your team's power is the sum of the power of all the members. By giving your team the full information available, you can create amazingly powerful teams that do the right things the right way.

  • By not sharing plans with a supplier they might suspect you have other options, and they might work harder to get the contract.

  • By setting clear objectives for people and linking them to bonuses, promotions and salary increases, you give your people a LOT of power. If you can't set the right goals this will mess up your organization. By keeping these things vague you keep the power with management. This is often the right thing to do, because setting the right goals for a year up front is downright impossible.

  • In project planning, there is a 5d chess interplay of estimations, budgets, deadlines, scope. Think about the role of information the next time you are trying to figure out what is going on.

In stable, high-trust, mission-oriented organizations power is not so important and knowledge is shared freely. In highly political organizations with lots of infighting, power is everything and information is guarded closely.

Knowledge is indeed power.


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