Malcolm Gladwell has a piece in this week’s New Yorker on the nature of espionage and asks some very penetrating questions about the psychology of the business: essentially once you’re in the hall of mirrors is there anything or anyone you can really trust or accept at face value? It’s very much worth reading and also an amusing read, because Gladwell makes his points while reviewing what looks like a really fun book on the WWII exploits of the British intelligence service, Operation Mincemeat.
But what I really thought was worth sharing were some more overarching points about the business of intelligence or sensemaking. (I really don’t like to use the term intelligence because I think it has too many negative or at least questionable connotations.) Gladwell notes the point made by political scientist Richard Betts that in intelligence analysis there tends to be an inverse relationship between accuracy and significance. Boy, does that ring true, although I would just generalize Betts’s point by applying it to just about all knowledge activities. We almost always can be most specific about that which is least significant. This actually relates to the phenomenon of attaching disproportionate importance to activities you can count. To wit: When trying to fix something, as managers we tend to concentrate our efforts on the parts of the process we understand well, even though those parts may not really be what are causing the problems. I’m sure you’ve suffered through this in your organization. Some large problems are identified but you and all your coworkers know intuitively that the solutions offered–often rolled out to great huffing and puffing–just don’t tackle root causes.
Gladwell also points to the work of Harold Wilensky, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley who has done some groundbreaking work over his career but whose book, Organizational Intelligence, which Gladwell quotes from, appears to be out of print.
As Harold Wilensky wrote in his classic work “Organizational Intelligence” (1967), “The more secrecy, the smaller the intelligent audience, the less systematic the distribution and indexing of research, the greater the anonymity of authorship, and the more intolerant the attitude toward deviant views.” Wilensky had the Bay of Pigs debacle in mind when he wrote that. But it could just as easily have applied to any number of instances since, including the private channels of “intelligence” used by members of the Bush Administration to convince themselves that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
I’ve been searching the internet all morning for more on the book Organizational Intelligence, because anyone who made the wonderful observation above has got to have more to offer. Sadly, I can’t find it, although, as is the way of the internet, I was next-linked to this very nice presentation by Richard Veryard. He asks a wonderful question: what stupifies your organization?
Each organization has its particular form of stupidity–It is up to the consultant (or the above average manager) to recognize the way that stupidity manifests itself and to find a way of doing something about it.
I would just note that organizational culture is probably the number one factor that stupifies organizations.
This presentation is chock-full of gems. “Stupidity is not making errors. Stupidity is repeating them.” I also love his discussion of the Algebra of Intelligence. Intelligence is not arithmetical: “lots of intelligent pieces doesn’t add up to an intelligent organization.”
So to summarize, what did I learn in the last 24 hours about intelligence (sensemaking), organizations, and networks?
- Closed networks have a hard time determining if what they know is really significant. (In part because determining significance invariably requires perspective and context, which can only be gained from a vantage point. Closed networks lack vantage points.)
- The smaller the network, the less room it will have for diversity. (So, a diversity solution that is self-contained is no diversity solution at all.)
- The smaller the network, the less it can tolerate differences of opinions.
- Every network has stupification points. You must constantly be hunting for and eliminating them or they will destroy you.