So the idea for this post began last week when a GovLab fellow was telling me that he thought he was finally figuring me out. (GovLab is a leadership development/innovation program I work with at Deloitte Consulting; actually I think of myself as the GovLab Yoda. I was of course interested in anyone willing to talk about me for an extended period of time. Bring it on!) And he said that a phrase he associates with me now is “And another way to look at this is…” This pleased me as I pride myself on being a contrarian thinker–a natural rebel trait. (I was going to edit out the word thinker and just say contrarian but I actually believe there is a difference between a contrarian and a contrarian thinker. A contrarian will say NO to many things; a contrarian thinker just wants to always examine the other side before coming to a conclusion–if indeed a conclusion is appropriate.) (I can tell already this post will contain many parenthetical statements.)
Anyhoo, I said, “Well Yes. I think that’s right. But another thing I’m trying to impart is that…”
1. Nothing is insignificant. My 32-year career as an intelligence analyst taught me, at least, that anything and everything can matter. In the early 1990s I read a book called Complexity by Mitchell Waldrop, which pretty much changed my intellectual life forever. (If indeed it can be said that I have an intellectual life.) The book is an easily-digestible introduction to the principles of Complexity science. What it taught me is that big changes can be started by little things and ever since then I have thought of myself as an Analyst of Little Things.
2. You never run out of bullets. While we’re on lessons drawn from my analyst career, this phrase was told to me by a manager early on in my apprenticeship. He was recounting some work he had done as a young analyst on an insurgent or guerrilla group somewhere in the world. He had figured out, literally, how many bullets this particular group had, how many bullets they used per day, and therefore thought he knew exactly the date when the guerrillas would run out of bullets. My boss’s manager had saved him from this rookie mistake with the sage advice that “You never run out of bullets.” I.E. something will happen, some contingency will occur, that will upend your careful projection. As you can tell I never forgot that piece of advice. A more general and perhaps useful way of rephrasing it is: Linear Projections Ain’t So.
3. Everything stays the same…Until it changes. The last of my analysis-related rules. Change is a slippery rascal. It taunts you with false hope. (Or endless anxiety if you fear the change.) And then, many times when you’re least expecting, it pounces on you like a cat. (All blog posts benefit from a Cat Gif)
The world is just chock-full of rulers, practices, conventions, assumptions long past their Best By Dates. (It was even worse 30 years ago I think.) Estimating when the change will occur is pretty much a loser’s game. Even guessing correctly just once will mark you as a genius forever.
This rule also draws upon elements of complexity thinking. Everything looks like it’s staying the same because the change energy is brewing underneath the status quo line. Up until the moment it breaks through, you probably won’t be aware of the change. It’s not unlike how little earthquakes presage huge volcanic eruptions.
Being able to anticipate the imminence of big change is the ultimate test of any analyst, I think. As I said prediction is difficult, but understanding what is brewing below the status quo line should be the goal of every analyst. Always unpack claims that any kind of analysis is right 90% of the time. How much of that number is accounted for by correct predictions of continued stability?
4. The ends never justify the means because rarely do human projects reach their ends. So LIVE your Means. I don’t think this needs much explanation really. Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans. Live your principles…all..the…time.
5. The best thing God made is one day after the other. My grandmother used to say this. My grandmother’s name was Obdulia, but she was better known as Doña Yuya. (A friend of mine enjoyed that name so much that she called her car that.) As I write about my abuela I realize I never once heard her boast about herself.
6. Try to see the humor in everything. It is particularly important to see the “funny” in things that are making you mad, like bureaucracy, or people who aren’t thinking, or the Internal Revenue Service, or our current political system. (Come to think of it the American political system has zoomed way past humor and is now making a strong bid for absurd.)
7. Everything has meaning. It’s your problem if you don’t appreciate it.