What Lincoln can teach us about systems engineering

What Lincoln can teach us about systems engineering

In April, we read Part I of “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The Recharted Territory reading for May was the second half of book, which covers Lincoln’s presidency from 1861-1865.

The first half talked about the events building up to the Civil War, and the previous post focused on the rivals’ internal struggles as they searched for a platform to enact change. In Part II we’ll look at decisions Lincoln and his cabinet made in their fight to preserve the Union. We’ll examine how they tackled the root causes of problems, managed teams, and phased their “roadmap.” Who knew that the rivals were also in some ways systems engineers?


Address the root causes of problems

The beginning of the war did not go well for the Union. After the disastrous Battle of Bull Run, poet Walt Whitman wrote that he admired Lincoln for not giving up,

“If there were nothing else of Abraham Lincoln for history to stamp him with, it is enough to send him with his wreath to the memory of all future time, that he endured that hour, that day, bitterer than gall- indeed a crucifixion day- that it did not conquer him- that he unflinchingly stemmed it, and resolved to lift himself and the Union out of it.”

– Walt Whitman, on Lincoln’s reaction to the Union loss at the Battle of Bull Run

To move past the defeat, Lincoln’s strategy was to review what went wrong and use that information to improve military policy. He sat for hours with senators and congressmen who had witnessed the fight in order to understand what happened. Since the defeat was partially caused by chaos in the ranks which led to a full retreat, Lincoln emphasized the importance of drilling troops and improving discipline. When he learned that the retreat was being led by short-termers who were leaving service in a few months, he decided to speed up the discharge process. He looked at the sequence of events that day, identified problems and quickly suggested solutions to avoid the same results in the future.

This strategy was also used by his second Secretary of War to improve the War Department. At the beginning of the war, the first secretary (Simon Cameron) ran into difficulties running a War Department that needed to coordinate a dramatic increase in supplies, troops, and logistics. His political skills didn’t translate well to the needs of the position and within two months there were reports of disorganization, corruption, and inefficiency, including the approval of contracts that provided faulty supplies to soldiers.

In 1862, Lincoln choose Edwin Stanton to replace Cameron and Stanton took immediate steps to remedy issues and reduce waste in the War Department. Rather than allowing senators and office seekers to interrupt department work at any time, he restricted visiting hours to specific days of the week. To reduce communication delays he mandated that all communication needed to happen first thing each morning. He also replaced Cameron’s people with his own who had more passion, devotion, and drive. The team worked longer hours and held shorter meetings. All of this coupled with Stanton’s passion and warm-heartedness helped to invigorate the staff and turn around the War Department.

Application to daily life

Lincoln and Stanton were essentially process engineers. Stanton was basically doing Lean Six Sigma before it was the cool thing to do. They reviewed the process, saw what wasn’t working, learned why, and proposed targeted actions to fix it. There are multiple tools to help you do the same, ways to map your processes, dig into the core problems with root cause analysis, and identify a mix of short and long-term initiatives to address the problems.

It may sound like trite advice: solve the problems. But so many people and teams either don’t act or they prioritize the wrong problems. Both Lincoln and Stanton took action quickly to address the main issues that blocked progress towards their vision of a Union victory and unified country: retreating soldiers and communication delays. If you’re not sure which problems to tackle first, think about the ones that most influence your likelihood of success.


Aim for team balance, not tranquility

Lincoln’s cabinet had some drama and shake-ups over the years. Like anyone today, he clicked well with some co-workers personally and professionally. Others were a little more challenging. However, Lincoln always considered the alignment of a team member’s skills to the needs of the country. He was not hesitant to make staffing decisions and job recommendations based on that pursuit. For example, Salmon Chase actively campaigned against Lincoln while serving on his cabinet but Lincoln kept him in place as Secretary of the Treasury and later recommended him for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. All because he thought the country benefited from Chase’s service.

Lincoln also recognized that having a more diverse cabinet helped increase the number of supporters for the cause, even if it often caused internal conflict. There was an incident where Secretary of State William Seward was feeling pressure to resign. Lincoln was hesitant to respond, but once Chase handed in his resignation, Lincoln was overjoyed with the fact that now he could refuse both resignations and keep the balance in his cabinet. Lincoln was aware of not only how roles align to people’s skills and the nation’s needs, but also how the support of his team members’ followers could influence the mission,

“If I had yielded to that storm and dismissed Seward the thing would all have slumped over one way and we should have been left with a scanty handful of supporters.”

– Abraham Lincoln

Application to daily life

In stressful situations, sometimes people turn to scapegoating or retreat into their tribe of supporters. Lincoln turned to logic and faith in his team. As long as people were contributing to the goal of preserving the Union, Lincoln kept them in their position and supported them even if they had some less than ideal qualities. If someone was calling for a resignation, he asked for evidence of how that person was underperforming. Consider your team. Do you have a balanced representation? Are your team members in positions that can allow them to use their skills in order to impact the mission? Do they have followers or supporters that could influence your mission? Consider moving people around or bringing in new people if necessary. Short-term drama may be worth the long-term outcomes.


Focus on purpose, but pay attention to timing

While many people were making reactive decisions, focusing on past defeats and current critics or rivalries, Lincoln was driven by his long-term goals. He looked to the future to stay motivated after the many defeats that the Union suffered. At the same time, he was very conscious of the events and sentiments of people around him and used that information to decide when to make certain statements and information public. The timing of decisions made the difference of the exact same change being embraced vs. rejected.

For example, he gradually introduced more legislation promoting African-American rights as the public sentiment changed to avoid alienating border states too soon. His administration leaked information about General Fremont’s incompetency before news of firing him became public so that the public would not object to the decision. John Forney described Lincoln’s ability to move along with events to advance his mission, instead of being bogged down by them,

“… he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.”

– John Forney of the Washington Daily Chronicle

Application to daily life

Lincoln’s purpose of preserving the Union guided his decisions. If you or your team feel yourselves becoming reactive and switching gears often, refer back to your vision (or create one if necessary). With your end goal in mind, evaluate your roadmap phasing given current information about stakeholder or public sentiment. Take some tips from Lincoln and look for examples where your team had a win, where a concept was proven, where there’s already grassroots support, or positive media coverage. That might indicate a good opportunity to pull a future item forward in the roadmap.

If there doesn’t seem to be enough public support yet, consider waiting a little longer or phasing out the change over stages. You could consider sharing information to prime the stakeholders to be more receptive to a particular decision. It may make more sense to adapt your plan based on current perceptions than to have good ideas rejected because the people who benefit from and can influence your solution were not prepared to accept them.


Related reading


What other insights did you draw from Part II of this book? How will you apply them?


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