How Not to Manage Your Country (or Project)

Having returned from a 2-week vacation in Cuba, it is interesting to see that managers can learn a lot from this unique country in the Caribbean Sea. The people in Cuba are ruled by one of the last authentic socialist regimes in the world. Socialism is a fully top-down management system. It doesn't work.

Cuba is a perfect example of how not to manage people and their daily lives.


Here is a collection of random thoughts I had while driving around this beautiful country…

There is No Progress
Cubans are still driving the same old cars they were driving 40 or 50 years ago. Not only because they cannot afford new cars, but also because the system gives the people no incentive (and no means) to change. When parts of a car break down they are simply replaced by ropes, toothpicks, cookie jars, and anything else the smart Cubans can come up with to get those cars working again. Sure, people are very flexible, but they don't move forward. (And with Ladas from the 60's, you can often take this literally.)


Top-down management (whether in a country, an organization or in a project) does not facilitate a system to evolve with its environment.

There is No Quality
The lack of direct responsibility for customer feedback results in a lack of quality of products in most (state-owned) restaurants. A "salad" with a meal is likely to contain just some dry cabbage, and green beans from a jar. Not even goats enjoy eating that! (And in Cuba many goats are used as vehicles, which means they probably run on fuel from sugarcane anyway.) At one time, one of the waiters was very surprised that I asked for something more interesting to spruce up our "salad". We made some suggestions. Ehm… a fresh avocado maybe? Perhaps some olive oil? Just a crazy thought.


Top-down management prevents employees from using their own brains. It prevents people from feeling responsible for a customer, and trying to anticipate his desires.

There is No Variety
Most of the time you cannot choose between competing options. In Cuba there's only one brand of cola. (The state-owned one, of course.) There's only one brand of mineral water. (The same brand as the cola.) And there is usually only one type of dish (rice with beans). I enjoyed one of my favorite moments when I found out I could order a "pizza" in one bar. The waiter asked me: "What kind of pizza? With ham or with cheese?" Being already in a wild mood I said, "Oh what the heck, let's do both… pizza with ham and cheese!"


Top-down management does not acknowledge that people are different. Nobody likes to be treated as if they are the same as everyone else.

People Need Freedom
Note that these depressing results apply to most of the standard bars and restaurants throughout the country. Of course, quality and variety in some of the most touristic places are higher. (As are the prices.) But those places are not accessible to the average Cuban. They are the places where top-down socialist control gives way to bottom-up freedom of movement. Freedom to initiate, freedom to compete, and freedom to earn.

I believe all managers of other people's work and lives should take to heart the lessons from Cuba, and find ways to translate those lessons to their own organizations.


Fortunately, there was also a sunny side to my vacation in Cuba. The beach, the sea and the mojitos made me very happy. At least, until hurricane Gustav nearly blew me back all the way to Holland. (If you want to see my other pictures from Cuba, you can find them here.)

Afterword: Please note that I despise the Cuban social-economic system and its leaders. I am not criticizing the people of Cuba themselves. In fact, I thought the Cubans were very nice. Especially some that were not wearing a t-shirt.

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  • Wille

    I think the analogy between Agile and Market economies vs. Socialism and “waterfall” command-and-control projects can be taken quite far. I’ve written about it way, way in the past.
    Effectively an Agile software project has a lot in common with an efficient market: teams are self organizing, there is a focus on accountability, there is a feedback loop etc etc.

  • Karl Katzke

    Jurgen, what I didn’t see you mention anywhere in your post is that there are STILL active trade embargoes against Cuba for it being a communist country.
    For more details, see:
    And I’m not sure why you got such horrible food on your trip — I absolutely love ethnic cuban food and was delighted to have some cuban friends in the last city I lived in the US that would make ropa viejo and fried plantains for me.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    @Wille: I agree completely!
    @Karl: Cuba’s main income is from tourism now. Ironically, it is the (capitalist) Canadians, Europeans and South Americans that are keeping the country afloat.
    Oh, and I did have a nice ropa viejo in Cuba. But it was in an (expensive) tourist trap.

  • Jorein Versteege

    What you see in Cuba is not socialism. It is stalinism, bureaucratic collectivism. Also because of the Trade Embargo US made products are not allowed to be sold to Cuba. Sure the undemocratic stalinist planned economy has many flaws, but I think capitalism would not be an alternative. Look at the rest of Latin America, there you see capitalism at work. Poverty rules in capitalist nations like Colombia.
    Cubans needs genuine socialism. Yet genuine socialism is a threat to the elite of the Cuban Communist Party. Genuine socialism would mean workers power and not bureaucratic party power. Raul Castro is already making deals with capitalism, stalinism is dying in Cuba.

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