Monthly Archives: March 2010

Why Decisions are Like One-Night Stands, or Lesson 2

In my posting on Lessons from a CIA manager, Lesson 2 was:  “Remember, your decisions are going to have much less staying power than you’re expecting them to have. Decisions are not committed relationships; they are more like one-night stands.” As perhaps this analogy is not eminently or even imminently clear, it deserves some elucidation.

(Writing the word elucidation above, fine Norman English word if there ever was one, reminded me of the distinction between Anglo-Saxon English and Norman English, of which I learned while I lived in London in the early 90s. When William the Conqueror and the other Normans (i.e. French) invaded England in the 11th century, they brought their Latinate language with them. It promptly began to mix it up with the more Germanic/Norse language of the locals, which is one of the reasons why English is such a rich language, with many more synonyms than most others. We have Anglo-Saxon words, such as start, and Norman/Latinate words such as commence. And because the Normans were the conquerors and the Anglo-Saxons the losers, society began to associate or, to use the A/S word, link Norman English with the better, higher class of people. And to this day, many of us slip into Norman English, i.e. use long, fancy words, when we want to impress with our intelligence, or A/S word smarts. But, I digress…)

Much is made of decision-making. And as my responsibilities grew over the years, I began to appreciate the importance of making decisions promptly. I believe that nothing gums up an organization more than interminably-delayed decisions. Even bad decisions are to be preferred over no decisions because, unless they are nihilistically-awful, any decision at least keeps people moving in an organization, which is always preferable to being stopped dead in one’s tracks. It is simply a matter of physics: it is easier to be agile and quick if you’re already in motion. It requires less energy than getting going from a dead start. This is Lesson 18.

It is important, however, to think of decisions as temporal, even fleeting things. Too many individuals and the media these days think of decisions as these EXTREMELY IMPORTANT EVENTS that will have a permance that merits people like WOLF BLITZER talking about them in BASSO OSTINATO tones. Just flash back to the interminable coverage of the Afghanistan decision made by President Obama late last year. The world we live in today has become so fluid and complex that I actually have come to believe it is counterproductive to think of decisions as having much permanence at all. They need to be made but, even more important, they need to be constantly reconsidered. Hence, the analogy: are decisions one-night stands or are they committed relationships? Well, actually most are probably neither–they fall somewhere in between. But the dynamics of our era continues to shorten their lifespans.

I wrote on this issue about year ago in a piece that was published in Studies in Intelligence, the CIA’s professional journal. In the piece I was mostly discussing the learnings intelligence officers could draw from the economic crisis, but I also touched upon the delusion that our decisions are or should be permanent or longlasting. The folowing chart was included in the piece.

Decisions are clear because the world is:
straightforward enough to understand
in this world we need intelligence


Decisions are fluid because the world is:
not predictable
outside the control of humans
too complex for rules
in this world we need sense-making

Editorial note: Given that I am unlikely to stop myself from including the occasional, bordering-on-long tangent in my postings, I will delineate them with green text, so the reader can just jump right over them.

Is this Social Networking Contagious or Something?

Here it is after 530 pm on the East Coast, and I have hardly tweeted today and I haven’t facebooked and I haven’t checked into FourSquare anywhere and I certainly haven’t blogged, and I actually get this physical sensation of incompleteness, like a hunger, but not a hunger to eat but a hunger to share.  And I’m struck with how powerful the imperative to share becomes once you’ve switched your mental model–from hoarding information for yourself to telling everyone everything you think you know. It’s like geometry or algebra–it’s exponential. In the first model, you take many instances of knowledge and reduce them to a factor of 1. In the second model, every unit of information is multiplied by the  factor of infinity. Now I ask you, which is likely to be the more productive model?

Jonah Lehrer who writes on cognitive issues in his great blog The Frontal Cortex touches on the multiplying aspects of generosity in his piece from yesterday. Also check out this great piece from Signal Magazine about the Air Force’s emphasis on collaboration. They cite many reasons but of interest is the importance of collaboration to deal with the projected shortage of skilled labor in the decades ahead.

Oh and what was I doing today that kept me from being part of the great collaborative flow? Breaking in my new laptop. Transferring all the data. Figuring out what programs I’ll have to repurchase. GRRRRRRR…

We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules–or Lesson 17

If you recall my post early on regarding the lessons I learned from 25 years as a CIA manager, I was able to recall 16. (And I also promised to flesh out most of them in individual posts–still planning on it.) But I ran across this useful piece yesterday on how the controls imposed by managers create unnecessary complexity in organizations: by Ron Ashkenas over at the Harvard Business Review site. And it reminded me of yet another lesson–#17–Management by rule-making is almost always a mistake.

I wanted to write on this right away because it’s an issue that particularly afflicts the federal government. Most of my adult life the news media have been perched on poles, like vultures in the Texas Hill country, waiting to catch reports of the federal government doing something exquisitely stupid–which unfortunately is not a rare occurence, we are humans after all–so they can publicize it and mock it and therefore jack up advertisement rates. Of course, nothing much works for the news media these days to jack up advertisement rates, but the bloggers and social network outlets have taken up the slack just fine, thank you. Leaving aside for now whether this constant focus on the negative is productive or fair, the fact the federal government is everyone’s favorite GOTCHA doll contributes to its tendency to react to mistakes by making new rules–Ashkenas uses the Transportation Security Administration as his first example in his piece. And as these rules add up, “the accumulation of these “reactive” controls often creates complexity, confusion, and unnecessary cost.”

The public focus on government mistakes and the call from them and from Congress to do something about it  is one of the dynamics that contribute to management by nonproductive rule-making. But there are others.

  • The role of ideology in setting government policies. When a policymaker has an ideological belief that concept X is essential to the survival of the republic and concept Y will only hasten its destruction, the tendency to create a rule is strong. These ideological debates could be settled by the use of data, but often neither side wants to take the risk.
  • The tendency for government functions to have legal and/or authoritative foundations. Much–but not all–of what government does is not suitable for market solutions–i.e. choices. Society functions perfectly well whether you shop at Walmart or Target, but we have yet to figure out how to run a society where individuals can shop for the legal structure  they prefer. So the culture of making rules or authoritative decisions slides over into the process of government itself. Related, many of the appropriate functions of government, like national security, are REALLY important, and organizations that carry out these responsibilities like to ensure absolute conformity in execution.

Conformity in execution is important, but what is even more important is conformity in outcome, and that is where the complexity generated by constant rule-making gets you into trouble. A very smart consultant once told me that if you manage everything like it is an exception, then nothing is an exception. This captures the folly of reacting to every mistake with a new rule. So the next time you are tempted to make a new rule, think hard about the message you’re delivering to your work force. Do you want them to think or do you want them to follow rules? Your choice.

Cedars of Change

When I’m in TX, where my mom and I have a house and 14 acres north of San Antonio, I spend about two hours every morning clearing cedar, so-called but they’re actually members of the Juniper family. These invasive and water-hogging trees have pretty much taken over the grasslands of the Texas Hill Country and they’re just about impossible to kill. The only animals that will eat them are goats but even they only like the seedlings, so first you’ve got to whack out all the growth. I’ve taken to going out every morning when it’s cool with a good quality tree lopper to commit cedarcide. (eventually I’ll have to burn the stumps too) When friends visit, I put them to work, and it is emotionally very satisfying. (I’m tempted to say it is emotionally satisfying for me to have them do the work, but I’m out there with them too.)

I got to thinking yesterday there are plenty of metaphors to be drawn from clearing cedar that can be applied to clearing organizations, i.e. organizational change. (Organizational change being such a complex and daunting subject you can actually draw lessons for it from just about every moment of life–the movie Finding Nemo, for example, is rich in lessons to be learned…but anyway, I digress…)

When you clear large cedars, i.e. those taller than a person, and your tree lopper can only handle about one inch-diameter trunks, it is best to lop off the tall skinny parts first. Then you’re able to look down at the remaining cedar, see its pattern, and attack the radiating branches killing new beneficial growth underneath.

So it is with change. To really do organizational change well, you have to acquire a proper vantage point where you can really see the best places to attack. This place is probably somewhere near the top of the organization, where the different processes meet to confront success or failure. Otherwise, you’re like the blind men and the elephant, whacking away at whatever you touch first.

The toughest cedars to attack are the ones that have become huge spider webs, with many entangled branches. They usually send out what I think of as running branches low and parallel to the ground, often difficult to see in the brush. But it is critical you attack these.

Any organization around for a while will have its share of spider web departments and processes, which have a pernicious effect on the bottom line but are difficult to identify unless you are standing right on top of them. And you will also find spider web people. They can be unhelpful–i.e. they form the center of unhealthy dynamics in your group, but they often can be good–they are the master hubs that allow otherwise disfunctional processes to deliver worthy output…or they are the key advisers whom others turn to for knowledge. Many change efforts fail when they are unable to account for the complex dynamic of real work.

Unless you have powerful equipment, your cedar attack campaign will leave behind many stumps upon which others can trip. Eventually you have to remove these stumps but if you try to dislodge each one as you go, it bogs you down and I, at least, find it more psycholigically motivating to look back each morning on a larger field of accomplisment.

Similarly, organizational change efforts can get bogged down tackling wicked problems that no doubt need to be removed at some point. But be wary of  the psychological costs tackling these tough spots impose on your followers and lukewarm supporters. Steady momentum in most cases is more valuable than perfection.

When I go out to clear cedar, I never wear a watch or carry anything that would reveal the time. I just set myself a target area and proceed until I’m finished. It strikes me as pointless to use time to measure my effort given that I’m in it for the long haul, but I find that I’m usually ready to break after about two hours of work.

This “time consciouness” seems to be the most important learning from cedar clearing for organizational change. The imposition of what, when you cogitate, are arbitrary deadlines on change efforts is usually one of the dynamics that most undermine them. Think about it! If you have correctly determined what your group needs to move forward, you should want to do it no matter how long it takes. Few change efforts actually need to have drop dead-lines, but these are imposed because of the expected tenure of a particular leadership team, the exigencies of some budget cycle, or, worst of all, the sense–I think perverted–that new, better things either have to be done in accordance with some arbitrary schedule or… not done at all. I remember once being told that time was the cheapest type of literary device.  I would simply offer that time and schedule should almost never be the key organising principle for your change effort, and yet observe how often they are.

There is another reason why time limits are so common. Discombobulation and a decline in productivity often occur early on in a change effort, as individuals struggle to learn new ways of being and doing. The response then is to work through the change process as quickly as possible, which is usually a mistake given the complexity of what you’re trying to accomplish. The best approach, barring an emergency where change is necessary to prevent disasters,  is to be a tortoise–or perhaps a trotting horse, when it comes both to organizational change and cedar clearing. Move at a steady pace, keep your wits about you and your head up so you know when it is time to take a break.

Check out this slide package for a good presentation on this and other pitfalls on the way to organizational change.

Change is Hard, but how People judge Change is Harder

The tale of the goddess Athena, springing fully formed (and fully armed!!) from the forehead of Zues is one of the great stories of  Greek mythology, although perhaps it is more accurate to say of Mediterranean basin mythology given that people living there in ancient times shared many of the same myths.  The story is quite colorful, as it actually has Zues swallowing Athena’s mother who busily kept forming Athena inside Zues until she was ready to be launched–a perfect creation. (Here is the Wikipedia version of the tale.)

But unlike the emergence of Athena, everything we have around us in society, in biology, in organizations is the result of a long, often messy, incremental process. (Another word for that is evolution, but I don’t want to get involved in an ideological fracas just yet–although I do hope to tackle the perils of ideology at some point.) None of our current institutions, whether it be the Department of Transportation or the Cable Television System or marriage or astronomy, emerged fully and intelligently formed out of some brilliant individual’s forehead. No, they usually began as half-baked ideas and almost always took turns and detours unanticipated by their originators and early supporters. And, this is the important point, we shouldn’t want it any other way. For only through a process that allows a “thing” to react to the environment around it, change and adapt, can we hope to produce organizations, processes, customs, and institutions that actually work, that deliver most of their promise, that are organically one with their environments.

But if you’re an advocate of a Change Initiative for an organization or a group, the first thing you hear from anyone you brief is: “Well, how is the whole thing going to work?” The only honest answer to that question is “I don’t really know. We’ll have to monitor that carefully.” although by so admitting you might as well just slink back to the advanced methods lab from whence you came. The status quo may have had a 50-year development process with abundant beautiful messiness, but if you as the Change Advocate can’t present the future operating environment as a beautiful schematic in a series of Powerpoint slides, with some vaguely inspirational and symmetrical logo in the corner, then you’re as doomed as doomed can be.

This then becomes a real leadership moment for a Federal Government or any other senior executive. Don’t be the senior executive whose expectations for neat and orderly change are so…well..delusionary that you force your enthusiastic future-thinkers to become hypocrites and to package their proposals in Power-pointless slide decks. Because if you demand certainty, you not only will buy into intellectual fraud, you will also eventually tear the heart out of your change champions.

Approach change for what it is–the normal course adjustment process that keeps your organization alive.

Lessons from Peter Drucker

Before I go any further in my self-indulgent listing of lessons from my 32-year career,  let’s link to lessons from someone who epitomizes life-long learning, the great management consultant Peter Drucker. This lovely piece, which is making the rounds of Twitter today,  has Drucker reflecting on the 7 most important lessons he learned as a knowledge worker. A couple that stand out for me:

  • An editor-in-chief early in his career who reviewed the team’s performance every six months or so by discussing as a group what 1. they had done well; 2. things they had tried to do well; 3. areas where they had not tried hard enough; and 4. areas where they had failed.
  • The only way to make a difference is to make a difference in the lives of other people.

All 7 of the lessons are gems, but the two I cite above resonate most with my career experience. We have to find a way to engage everyone on the team in productive conversations about our performance; this is too often not done well or not done at all in the federal environment. And the secret to managing is to focus on helping people learn and grow. We don’t manage organizations; we facilitate people.

Lessons from a CIA Manager (U)

OK…..I know…this is a cheap, manipulative title, because in fact my lessons from almost 25 years as a federal manager, almost ten of them as a member of the senior executive service, really have very little in particular to do with the CIA, even though that’s where I was for the duration. So I’ll be curious if putting that word in the Blog Title will drive up  visits. The (U) is an homage to my CIA past; it stands for unclassified. We would have to place such little classification markings after every paragraph we wrote.

So over the years I collected many aphorisms and other concise insights about being a manager and a leader in the government.  Some I’m sure I read somewhere, but can no longer identify the source. Others just came to me, usually in the context of a conversation with others. Again, many if not most of them probably aren’t that unique to government either; I think they have broad application to a wide range of organizations. Because I want to keep my blog postings on the short side, what I will do in this post is list them with a short description when necessary, with the plan to return to most of them individually as subjects of individual posts.

In no particular order:

  1. Executives are individuals who are held accountable for things they cannot control in detail.
  2. Remember, your decisions are going to have much less staying power than you’re expecting them to have. Decisions are not committed relationships; they are more like one-night stands.
  3. Consensus decision-making is an oxymoron. By definition, processes that drive to consensus are actually ways to avoid decisions, except in those very rare cases where everyone in the room is in violent agreement. So really you have two dynamics–you can have a consensus, or, much more likely, you will have to make a decision, i.e. a choice.
  4. Conflict-free meetings should NEVER be your goal, particularly if the issue is at all important. Organize your meetings so  they are argumentative and crunchy–those will always be more productive.
  5. Perfection is never the goal. Progress is the goal.
  6. Leadership is an optimistic activity. Optimism is always the greatest act of rebellion.
  7. Leadership is an emotional activity.
  8. Leadership is, at times, a corny activity.
  9. Leaders must be willing to change their minds, which is another way of saying that leaders must be eager to learn. If you have never changed your mind about some fundamental aspects of your business, then you have not learned.
  10. Your calendar reflects your priorities. You can talk about x or y issue being important to you, but if it never makes your calendar you’re lying to yourself and, worse, lying to others.
  11. Listen to yourself when you’re arguing a  point. Are you arguing to achieve clarity or are you arguing to win? Do the former, not the latter.
  12. Successful leaders are able to disappoint their followers at a rate they can tolerate. This is probably my most important learning and I know where I learned this one, from Ronald Heifetz, who is at the JFK School at Harvard.  Check this link to hear him talk about the difference between technical problems and adaptive challenges.
  13. Heroism is not a leadership strategy.
  14. Breaking through bureaucratic resistance requires the skills of an all-pro running back in American Football. If a hole opens, you have to hit it as quickly and as hard as you can. If you dawdle or hesitate, the hole will close.
  15. A great process is the manager’s best and, I would argue, only true friend.
  16. All excellence in groups derives from individuals providing the group mission with their discretionary energy. But the difficult truth is that managers/leaders can never demand an employee’s discretionary energy. It can only be freely given. At best, the manager/leader can co-create the environment, along with the other group members, that encourages the commitment of discretionary energy.