Category Archives: Collaboration

Sisters Are Doing It for Others

I don’t know what my readers think of Catholic nuns, if they think about them much at all, but I bet very few of you see religious orders as women-owned non-profits having tremendous social impact. But that’s what I learned last weekend when I visited the Sisters of Notre Dame in Chardon, Ohio. The sisters trace their beginnings back to 19th-century Germany, where two women established the order as a way of continuing their care for poor neglected children. I was there to visit my good friend Sister Pat, who has been with the order her entire adult life, serving primarily as an educator. She is now the Treasurer of the Chardon Province of the order–there are four provinces in the US, and so she could fill us in on how the Sisters are working to preserve their legacy of good works even as their numbers decline.

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Some of the artwork, mostly by the Sisters, in their chapel.

It’s no secret that few women in the US choose to be nuns. The number of Catholic nuns in the US peaked at about 180,000 in the 1960s, when Sister Pat joined the order, to less than 50,000 today. Sister Pat told us that the median age of the Sisters in their province is in the 70s. And yet the Sisters remain a key resource for their rural community east of Cleveland. The sisters run an elementary school and high school–the largest meeting facility in the county is on their property. The order has always been active in educating and taking care of children, but they are now extending their mission into areas such as health care, water security in Africa, and human trafficking. Their calling card appears to be compassion for all humans and for the planet.

But one of their biggest priorities now is to sustain their good works regardless of the future size of their order. As Sister Pat described the initiatives they’re pursuing, I realized the Sisters have had to develop business acumen and clear-eyed strategies. They know that religious orders are being disrupted, but they’re ready to innovate, not to stay one step ahead of “competitors” but to preserve the value they provide to others.

There’s some lessons all of us dealing with exponential and perhaps even existential change can learn from the Sisters of Notre Dame.

It’s about the mission. I was struck by how focused the Sisters are on preserving their outcomes, not necessarily themselves. I wish the Sisters a glorious future, and I suspect that their outward focus is what will best ensure it. I can’t help but contrast their strategy with the actions of many organizations, who seek to preserve themselves first, sometimes even at the cost of their mission.

It’s about BOTH tradition and progress. Sister Pat took us on a tour of their buildings, where they have a lovely display of the history of their order. And just around the corner she showed us where their IT staff works and told us about how they handled the recent live streaming of a funeral mass.

Art and Nature are always part of the Mission. The Sisters are proper caretakers of a charming rural property and they have built a dedicated arts center for their students. Their buildings are situated to be close to nature.

Taking care of each other is God’s work. This requires no explanation.

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We’re All in the Same Bathtub

When I was much younger, 34 years ago, I ended up having to take Economics 101, 102 before I could start graduate school. I was in the DC area, poor (in the way college kids are poor, which is different from how struggling families are poor), and so I enrolled at Prince George’s Community College. The professor, whose name I can’t remember, was a smart fellow, an engaging teacher, and clearly quite conservative in his economic and political orientation. It was fun and I learned a lot.

During one afternoon lecture, I remember Prof getting quite excited about how wrong it was for government to promulgate laws and regulations that imposed non-economic costs on businesses. How it messed up the purity of economics, I guess. At the time he was citing examples such as the relatively new requirement for companies to control pollution. Everyone in the class nodded in agreement but I decided I couldn’t let that one go. I raised my hand and noted, based on my not very commanding knowledge of economic history, that over the centuries many different “noneconomic” costs had been imposed on businesses: they couldn’t employ children just to get the cheapest labor; they couldn’t force workers to toil in unhealthy conditions; they couldn’t build cars that were firetraps. In the end, it seemed to me then and it still seems to me now, businesses are just another element in society and culture, and they essentially have no choice but to operate in accordance with whatever the socio-cultural norms are at the time. Being a business doesn’t exempt them, neither does the argument that certain costs are noneconomic. Given that currency itself is a social construct, in the final analysis all costs are noneconomic, or so it seems to me. (I know that last sentence doesn’t really make any sense, but it does accurately convey my thinking (muddy) here.)

The “occupy” events of the past few weeks and the growing discussion of Corporate Social Responsibility have reminded me of that Economics 101 class. I can’t help but think that we keep making silly distinctions about what category things fall into–such as economic vs. noneconomic, domestic vs. international, nature vs. man-made–when the rather obvious reality is: We’re All in the Same Bathtub. The “occupy” protests really are about trying to change the current social norms as they apply to business and profit. My guess is the very act of protesting is already changing those norms, but it is also probably true that the fact the protests are occurring indicates the norms are already changing.

In doing a little research for this post, I found an interesting discussion on this blog about economic and noneconomic costs in society. The following expresses what I’m thinking much better than I ever could:

Donohue-White submits (with very good reason) that every “market economy is shaped by the culture in which it exists, and, in turn, it affects the daily practices and customs of the people that comprise it.” By the rather broad term culture, she means the sum of “customs, traditions, and practices of a people.” In turn, the market exerts an influence on the culture in which it subsists, fostering particular sets of virtues or vices. Market and culture–while certainly conceptually distinct–are inextricably bound up in the concrete, practical affairs of a people. On this view, the market cannot be properly evaluated without recourse to the culture and society that shapes it AND to the impact the market has on this same culture and society. The “economic rationality” exhibited by many contemporary corporations seems to be largely devoid of the consideration of non-economic “costs,” particularly with respect to treatment of workers (wage, outsourcing, lay-offs), wealth accumulation and disregard for local and expansive tradition.

Because we’re all in the same bathtub, the argument that socially responsible behavior is not relevant to corporations or doesn’t make good business sense just falls apart.  US companies for example are already feeling the consequences of our declining education system. They can’t find the highly skilled workers they need, or at least not enough of them. Their transportation costs are rising because of the decaying transportation system. Internationally, I remember people making the argument that Somalia was not worth anyone’s attention, and so we ignored it. Ten years later, Somali pirates over the last two years have cost business $7-12 billion once you count all the related costs.

As automation and internet networks intrude into every line of business, I’m betting these changes will not only cost jobs; they will eventually shrink the size of corporations, including their profits and revenues. I can imagine a day when corporations evolve away from being primarily money-making activities to actually embracing their social responsibilities as one of the fundamental reasons for their existence. Business and government both will become less important organizing concepts for society. At first corporations will embrace greater community involvement as a clever way to market what they do; eventually I think some of these community activities may actually end up generating revenues for them and perhaps creating new types of jobs for the economy. They may no longer be profit-making entities, although they will still make money. Already I think you can see signs of this in the rise of NGO’s and other nonprofits in the world economy. Public Services International notes that NGO’s are now the 8th largest economy in the world, employing more than 19 million paid workers. The US is currently home to about 1.5 million nonprofits, with 30-50K being created every year.

Being in the same bathtub applies to the world economy as well. When the bathwater gets dirty–i.e. during the global financial crisis–everyone suffers. Until we discover sentient (and prosperous) life on other planets, we will have to find a way to make this financial system work, despite its imbalances. There is simply no other place for China, or any other country, to invest its trillions.

One final link. The latest piece in the Harvard Business Review by Rosabeth Moss Kanter powerfully discusses some of these dynamics. Money quote:

Only if leaders think of themselves as builders of social institutions can they master today’s changes and challenges.

Revisiting Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Events in Middle East have led me to reflect on the talk I gave in September of last year at the Business Innovation Factory. (You can read the prepared text here or see the video of my speech here)  I was noting how the world is changing and how that in turn requires a different sensemaking method. The key paragraphs:

If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

(A little later in the talk.)  

Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals.

A Political Statement, of Sorts

This morning I wrote back to a friend who had asked me what I was up to these days. This particular friend, whom I haven’t seen in 20 years probably, is very interested in politics of the conservative spectrum and so I wrote a rather long paragraph that connected my interest in social media to my political views, such as they are. After rereading, I’m resposting here. Parentheticals represent text I added here but were not part of my original email response.

“…I have over the years developed a very small brand as a senior government executive who really believes in social media and the need to reconceptualize the concept of work. And let me tell you…I really believe in the transformative power of what these technologies achieve, which is effective connectivity between people, effective enough to let people self-organize to do important things together without the need for government or some other artificial authority. When I was in college 35 years ago it struck me that government was essentially “middleware” in human society–that conviction has never left me–so in that sense I am definitely not a liberal (at least not as it is understood today.) (The idea that government is something humans created to deal with transactions they could not otherwise handle themselves did actually invade my head at some point during my undergraduate years at Catholic University, where I majored in Comparative Government. I couldn’t at all imagine how humans could or what would allow us to thrive without government, but I developed the conviction that we would in fact evolve to this point. In the work context, managers fill that government role, and I similarly think social work, social business, networked work–pick the term you think least inadequate, will change the role of managers. Instead of controlling the work of individuals, they will transition to monitoring the health of the business network.)

(Although this view would seem to place me at the conservative end of the political spectrum), I am extremely turned off by the ethnoracist/xenophobic beliefs of some “conservatives”–not all. Some of the anti-intellectual bent is also a turn-off; I don’t care what they say, Ayn Rand was not the acme of intellectual achievement in the 20th century. I think perhaps I might vote for Carl Reiner, P.G. Wodehouse, or Preston Sturges! I am almost equally turned off by the elitist views of many liberals–not all. So I find myself not really represented by any political party, which would bother me more if it weren’t for the case that I think there are much more important things to spend energy on than partisan politics. My essential political/philosophical conviction is belief/faith/trust that human society still has a lot of upside potential–so in that respect I call myself progressive. I tire very quickly of individuals who have a kneejerk reaction against any new idea. My bias definitely is to be much more tolerant of individuals who are enthusiastic about the new.”

You Feel the Earth Move Under Your Feet

You feel the sky come tumbling down.

EGYPT

Egypt is about much more than a popular uprising against a ruler who has stayed in power through what can only be described, charitably, as a corruption of the democratic process. Egypt is the most compelling example to date of how the physics of human society are being rewritten. In much the same way that Quantum Physics turned Classical Physics on its head, the twin revolutions of information and connectivity are turning society upside down or perhaps better put, every which way and loose. 

The fact that Egypt, the society political scientists always marveled at for its stability even in the face of daily, accumulating disasters, is the country that’s exploded has concussed even the most loyal adherents of the Status Quo. When the Tunisian regime fell you could discount it as the kind of thing that happens to small countries, even the Colored Revolutions of the former Soviet Union didn’t really capture the elite’s attention, because in these revolutions you often were replacing one elite-based power construct with another. (And this might still happen to Egypt, by the way.)

But Egypt seems different right now.

And everyone should be paying attention. Not just the political scientists, the national security experts in their dark suits reciting by rote the laws of classical society, the intelligence agencies. Everyone should be paying attention, particularly anyone supposedly in charge of an organization of any kind. Steve Denning today writes a blistering post on what the dynamics behind Egypt mean for American business leaders. There’s very little I can add but these two points:

  • The history of the world has been dominated by the machinations of men, and they’ve usually been men, making secret deals in backrooms. Transparency and Collaboration are destroying the backrooms of all institutions. Open, dynamic forces that carry with them their own advantages and disadvantages will take their place. Start adjusting now.
  • All institutions of any age are disconnected from this powerful dynamic. Their survival depends entirely on how quickly they adjust to it. Time grows short.

What To Say about Wikileaks

Now that Clay Shirkey has posted the following on Wikileaks, there’s very little left for me to say. Shirky expresses I hope the discomfort of many when they read of otherwise wise individuals embracing the idea of extralegal action against Wikileaks (including thinly veiled threats of violence.) Are people nuts?

So I’ll restrict my comments to some thoughts about how the Wikileaks/open internet controversy appears to me to be part of the next big battle in the millenia-long war over the proper relationship between government and society.  When I was a kid in college, some 35 years ago, I came to hope that government is in essence a temporary construct, a necessary evil. Humans need to cooperate on a whole host of transactions to make living with each other more pleasant, particularly as we clumped into larger and larger groups, and for millenia we’ve decided to hand over day-to day responsibility for this management function to something we call government. Actually we didn’t quite always hand it over; in the beginning some people or institutions such as warriors, priests, or religions actually just kind of grabbed the power and the populations essentially acquiesced. But even before the ancient Greeks, some communities were trying to figure out ways to handle these transactions and resolve differences in ways that didn’t require the creation of a permanent governing class, which unfortunately throughout history has tended to acquire a PERSONALITY OF ITS OWN, and, darn it, not always a very pleasant one.

So for all my adult life, I’ve been kind of a practical libertarian in the sense I always thought government was a lamentable but unavoidable fact of the human condition. (Along with this conviction, is the related view that the worst characteristic of humans is the desire to control others–the conviction that “I know the best way forward and you’re going to follow me or else.” (I’m afraid, based on admittedly incomplete knowledge, that Julian Assange suffers this all-too-common affliction) That’s why I tweeted the other day that the people I most admire in history have been those with radical goals who adopted moderate tactics. It’s always seemed to me that your pursuit of change always has to leave open the possibility you might be wrong and/or that better ideas exist. Going a little bit more slowly than your ardent followers would want is one way of accommodating that possibility.)

But back to imagining a good world with minimal Government. In the last ten years or so,  the internet revolution, the ability to link millions across the globe in essentially peaceful dialogue (Twitter) got me to hoping  we might eventually think our way through to a self-organizing planet. Woohoo!! Now there are lots of problems, not the least of which is the “I’m right, you’re wrong”, the “I’m better, you’re not”, and the “We’re together, you’re the ‘other'” pathologies that plague the planet. I know, I know, but, gosh, a Puerto Rican can hope.

This revolution underway is not, of course, the first global revolution against previous concepts of government. The Age of Enlightenment marked by the American and French Revolutions, essentially discredited the “divine right of kings” concept of government.  And the collapse of the remaining aristocracies at the beginning of the last century brought down the idea that only a particular, genetically-defined group of people could serve as the governing class. (I know this is a distorted thumbnail view of history, I’m leaving out all the really thrilling economic bits, for example, not to mention the cultural dimension, but I’m already at 580 words…)

And so the Wikileaks controversy is unfortunately part of the next battle in this effort to define the relationship between government and society. What’s at stake in this battle is the idea that governments require secrecy and control of information to protect its citizens and that there are a lot of things that citizens just don’t need to know. Many people are arguing against this concept, including many politicians who are winning elections based on the call for more open and transparent government. Many existing governments  in power, in fact, are demanding that other governments be more open.

Now, unfortunately, I don’t think Wikileaks is a particularly good ally to have in this battle, because it is taking an absolutist position–nothing needs to be secret –and because it is increasingly clear it’s agenda is not really about open government and transparency. Before its most recent leaks, most advocates of open government probably viewed Wikileaks much in the same way Winston Churchill viewed Josef Stalin during World War II; now advocates of open government and transparency need to be clear as to whether they want Wikileaks to represent their goals and vision. I don’t.

But that doesn’t mean I completely support how governments are reacting. One of the lessons I’ve learned in life is that when something unfortunate happens, it is difficult to contain the damage; lots of other suboptimal consequences follow. Eventually we will navigate  through this period and come to a better understanding and an agreement between government and the governed as to what is appropriate transparency. I suspect this transparency will be much greater than most members of the governing class can imagine today. And it will be a necessary precondition for much greater social self-organization and much smaller and less secret government.

Do We Have to Choose between Transparency and Real Authority?

A friend sent me this email in response to my last blog post. He has agreed to let me post his thoughtful reply on my blog:

I enjoyed your recent blog post “Five Scary Thoughts for Halloween“.

I wanted to push back on your first scary idea (actually listed as number five) about making your ideas public.   The story you used involved a man who doesn’t even own a computer and his inability to comprehend why someone would want to share their ideas.

My question to you is who is more out of touch?  Him or you? How powerful was this man?  How much authority does he wield?  If refusing to share broadly is such a disability in today’s networked world, why do so few people who have power and authority actively engage in the conversation?  Could it be because they have real power and authority?

I may be reading more into your scary idea than you intended as you only speak about the complexities of the challenges we face.  However, your statement exudes the air of someone who feels all but certain their view is right when all of the evidence around us suggests that traditional power comes through quiet networking amongst a select group of individuals of roughly equal stature.   Even powerhouses who participate broadly in today’s global conversation make their deals in private meetings, not in public.   The real decision over who will partner with whom to accomplish something remains opaque until well after the deal is sealed.

I do believe we are on the fault line of two tectonic plates colliding (opacity and transparency) and that, at least at the moment, transparency is putting up a good fight.   If history is any guide, the opacity plate has tremendous resistance to movement and often lurches back in earthquake-like convulsions.   I think the lack of trust of large organizations today is interlinked with this idea.  Large organizations are always complex jumbles of partially formed deals, challenges, and new ideas.  Organizations have to lie to anyone outside their walls to protect those ideas (intellectual property, legal issues, pre-decisional material, etc) as well as their very existence and thus there is real schizophrenia in their actions.  When confronted with one of these falsehoods they rationalize their actions by saying “we weren’t at liberty to divulge that information at the time” or “that was proprietary information” or “it would be improper to talk about the deal before it is finalized” or “it was classified”.  To those outside though each episode is another withdrawal from the trust bank account.   Yet, the folks in charge of these organizations wield tremendous power and can, for the most part, weather these storms because the entire apparatus around them is designed to protect them and keep itself going.   They have tremendous capital.  They have tremendous legal authority.  They have tremendous ability to legislate, investigate, shape, pressure, buyout, and influence.

In your recent speech you described two possible models for the “motor” that runs the world and then proceeded to categorize people by which motor they believe is the true driver of world events.  This duality, IMHO, misses nuance and complexity.  For instance, a third model, can be some weird hybrid in which the benefits of large high-mass organizations as described above sustain opacity and give those who run them very real advantages even if they aren’t consciously and intentionally undertaking “secret agreements and machinations” but rather just trying to advance and protect their organization. That same size and complexity creates vulnerabilities and blind spots to the organic and unpredictable nature of the world in which they reside.  Historically, the benefits of the large organization have outweighed the disadvantages.  The question in my mind is whether that equation is changing.

As a complex planet with complex problems will we always need these large complex organizations from Exxon to the USG to Salvation Army to manage the globe’s complexity?   If the answer is yes, then I believe it is likely the primary centers of power will almost certainly continue to reside with folks who do not broadly share their views and ideas  in a global conversation because the organizations around them will demand they remain silent for a whole host of reasons and because to succeed in those organizations requires cunning and bureaucratic savvy that is the antitheses of a dynamic dialog.   When transparency gets too close to unraveling these centers of power, they use their heft to put things back in the bottle.  As one example, a researcher used publicly available information to show all of the infrastructure that was below Manhattan only to have the “system” react by classifying the report and having it removed from the web. When RIM provides security that is too good, India demands a back door, as does the US, as does Saudi Arabia, and countless others.   Products quietly are discontinued.  Tools quietly disappear.  Information quietly disappears from Google.  Capabilities are hobbled.   The examples are too numerous to count.

If the answer is no, large organizations are not required (maybe not even healthy) for the planet to effectively deal with the complexity of the challenges we face as a global community and a global society, what does that transition look like?

Lessons from a CIA Heretic

Last week I told a story at the Business Innovation Factory Summit, a wonderful event that I was blessed to attend. The storytellers were awesome. (Let me also give a big shout-out to my friends and reverse mentors Tony and Jen Silbert of Innovation Partners, who were the kind folk who connected me to Saul Kaplan and all the wonderful people at the Business Innovation Factory.) I was talking to a friend last night about all the interesting people I met and I couldn’t talk fast enough to keep up with my memories.

Anyway, even as a retired CIA person, I still need to get public or published comments approved if they deal with subjects pertaining to my CIA employment. And so this forced me to actually write out a draft of my extemporaneous comments to submit to the publications review board. You can catch the differences (not that significant) between what I wrote and what I said here, where you can download the MP-3 file of my remarks. So I thought I would post that text below. I think particularly toward the last half there are some ideas I rushed through or omitted that might be of some interest. I’m sorry it’s so long…

TALK BEGINS

My hope is that 15 minutes from now you will have developed your own answers to the following three questions or at least be provoked to think about them.

The questions are:

1.  Is the perception of the CIA in the popular media accurate, distorted, and/or useful to the organization and US national security?

2.  What is the motor that runs the world? Is it the secret agreements and machinations of men (and historically it’s been men) getting together in smoke-filled rooms generally up to no good; or, Is it the large dynamic and trends that emerge on the planet from God knows where and set in motion events that elude our attempts at prediction and manipulation.

And

3.  Are we the world?

So question 1. The perception of the CIA. Now first I have to tell you that I hate spy fiction and spy films and I even dislike nonfiction about the topic, so I’m not the best person to have an opinion as to whether the common perception out there is accurate. But I can tell you a little bit about my early days at the Agency. That’s a start.

Unlike many young people I’ve met over the years, I never dreamt of working for the CIA. As the first person in my extended family to graduate from college, I of course had no idea what I was supposed to do with the degree I was earning but because I was a college debater I’d always assumed I would be a lawyer. Until at Catholic University I started meeting law school students and went “OOOO….I don’t want to end up anything like them.” At that point I was at a loss. The only thing I was really interested in was the world, and so I thought well, I’ll go to Georgetown for graduate school. And so I did and the first semester there was a CIA recruiter on campus and I said sounds good. That’s the sum total of the story.

Now when I first joined the Agency, in 1978, it wasn’t what we would call a very diverse environment. (and even today Agency leaders are not satisfied with the level of diversity in the organization.) In later years I would tell people that I used to wander the halls searching for another Latino or Latina, because someone had told me there was another Puerto Rican working in the Agency and I was determined to find that person. Now that story is not specifically true, but it is generally accurate, if you get my drift. I used to get strange comments, like people in a conversation suddenly volunteering, in a culinary non sequiter,  how much they liked Mexican food or assuming that I would only want to work on Latin America. But for the most part, the Agency environment was a meritocracy, specifically I can say that about the analytic directorate where I worked, and I can’t point to any particular issues. In fact, when I would speak on college campuses kids were always asking me to comment on how being a woman and Latina affected my career, and I always told them the truth, that neither had as near the effect as being a different type of thinker—but I’ll talk more about that later.

I soon learned that most of the work at the Agency was, well, like the work at any other knowledge organization, although of course we didn’t use that term then. (By the way, given the malodor in which managers and management are generally held, I just don’t understand why consultants banded together and decided they could make a lot of money pitching organizations on Knowledge Management, but I digress.) True, the CIA is by law responsible for carrying out covert actions, an activity that, for my taste, assumed a heck of a lot about the planning abilities and foresight of the average American, whatever, but for some time now great powers (another term I rather dislike) have assumed they needed the ability to do some things secretly to make their way around this big, blue planet and, rather endearingly, the US decided to give this activity a legal structure. But much, most of what most Agency employees do has very little to do with covert action. It has to do with trying to make sense of the world, and trying to gather information about the world that others would rather us not know, so it’s a bit like trying to figure out what Steve Jobs is going to do next at Apple. But for the press the CIA is like the Lindsay Lohan of government. No matter what we do, how insignificant or banal really, it makes headlines and it’s always bad. “CIA uses solar-powered lawn mowers!!” Ridiculous!! I guess stories about the CIA sell newspapers, if anyone bought them anymore. I had a colleague at the Agency, wonderful fellow, who started every morning reading multiple newspapers (and he also has his office decorated with Brooklyn Dodgers memorabilia, so you know the type—salt of the earth.) And for the last six or seven years, I would stick my head into his office and say, “You know, newspapers are dying.” It was really mean of me.

So this is a good point to start making the segue to the second question, which as you recall has two parts. So I’ll repeat them.

What do you think is the motor that runs the world?

Is it the secret agreements and machinations of men (and historically it’s been men) getting together in smoke-filled rooms generally up to no good or

Is it the large dynamic and trends that emerge on the planet from God knows where and set in motion events that elude our attempts at prediction and manipulation.

So right about now, I’m going to start connecting my comments to the topic of innovation, which will be very exciting, I think.

So my point in asking you to think about this question is that how you choose and/or what reality is tells you a lot about what kind of intelligence organization you’ll need. If you think that the world is driven mostly by the secret deals and aspirations of powerful people—the Hitlers, the Communist Party of the Soviet Unon, Mao Tse Tung, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, I’m desperately trying to think of a likely woman here—then you will conclude that you need some kind of capability to figure out what these people are doing, to ferret out their secrets. To protect our nation from some very nasty ideas these individuals cook up. And you may also want an organization that can impede their plans, cross your fingers.

But if you think that most of the forces the US will need to navigate are not specifically man-made, or at least not specifically made by one man or a small group of them–then you need a different kind of organization. If what matters is that the US understand the trends in the world, like globalization or the emergence of new economies such as India and China and Brazil (which clearly no one is like trying to keep a big secret) than spending a lot of time digging out secrets seems not as important, and what you really want is to have your hand on the pulse of the world, to be out there sensing and in many ways just being part of the whole big ride.

Now of course the question is a false dichotomy, because it is not either/or, and both dynamics can exist at the same time. But what is critical for understanding the CIA and why I spent my last 20 years there as a frustrated innovator, is that much of the Agency’s theology and modus operandi are built on the first assumption. This was the driving principle in the Cold War—countries hostile to us are planning to destroy us and do us harm and we’ve got to get out there and figure out what they’re up to. And of course it’s a Mad Magazine Spy vs. Spy world and the bad guys are trying to figure out what you know, so you have to be secret about everything, be very, very quiet, and trust no one.

It’s all very tiring but it was all very important up until about 1990 or so, which curiously, now that I reflect back on it, was when I published my first article in Studies in Intelligence arguing that we needed to do analysis in new and different ways. We needed to recognize that policymakers often knew as much about the open world as we did and that these newfangled operations like CNN were providing news faster than we could and well we needed to adjust. And then the internet came along and the Agency was really thrown for a loop. One has to understand that for intelligence organizations how one handles information is not a secondary or enabling activity. Handling information is the essence of our mission so that changes here are doctrinal and theological. Well, of course, we had a really hard time figuring out what to do, and I would argue we are still having a hard time.

This period, the 90s, ended up being the most difficult of my Agency career because it just became harder and harder for me to reconcile what I believed needed to be done with what the Agency was actually doing. There was a small group of us that I in any case referred to as the Rebel Alliance. We tried to raise the Agency’s awareness of how the world was changing around it, we would bring in guest speakers to talk about Change—how naïve it all seems in retrospect. During this time, and I’m afraid this is a danger all innovators run, I began to get the reputation of being cynical and negative…positive thinking has its limits, you know. During a reception up in NYC around then, I was approached by someone who had been watching me, I remember she worked for DuPont, who said. “I can see you are a heretic in your organization. And I just want to tell you that you need to learn to live with the feeling of discomfort all heretics get. In fact you need to learn to be comfortable with these feelings of discomfort. Not just comfortable, you need to learn to like, love them, because when you get those feelings then you can be sure you are being true to your convictions.” I never spoke to this person again and I’m convinced she was one of the two guardian angels I’ve encountered in my life. (If you want to know the other one, catch me later!!)

Despite all this doom and gloom, I spent the last ten years or so of my Agency career as a senior executive—and ended up in positions of increasing responsibility. I wish I could tell you exactly how I as a heretic innovator managed to succeed in the system anyway, but part of it was just sticking to it, many good friends and mentors—especially reverse mentors, and that extremely important variable in all plans—luck. By 2005 I was part of the executive team that led the analytic Directorate, the Directorate of Intelligence. Very soon after I assumed that position, a young man and his manager approached me about an idea they had at that time to use the media wiki software to create an Iraqipedia so that analysts throughout the Intelligence Community could collaborate and work together on the problem set. I thought what a great idea but did they know that the Agency was OK with using collaboration software as long as you only collaborated with people within the Agency. No, they didn’t, they said. And I said that was OK because I doubted anyone in the bureaucracy realized any longer this stricture existed so let’s proceed, full speed ahead. (It never ceases to amaze me how bureaucracies create rules at a rate no human can ever remember, not even bureaucrats.)

So that was my small role in getting Intellipedia started, which is still viewed by many as the most important adjustment the intelligence community has made to the Internet Age. Nothing came easily and I remember Sean and Don, the two heroes who ended up pushing the concept throughout the intelligence community and winning last year one of the Service to America awards given to outstanding civil servants, often asking in frustration if we couldn’t just MAKE everyone use Intellipedia. To which I said, wrongly or rightly, no, we can’t. I happen to believe organizational change is a lie—organizations don’t change, people do, and each person changes for particular reasons of their own. You can’t make people think differently. You can create an environment where they can have a Eureka moment. You can MANIPULATE them into thinking differently. But you can’t FORCE the issue.

Not only that, many in the intelligence community then, and perhaps now, didn’t think ideas such as Intellipedia were such good ideas in the first place. Virtues of Intellipedia such as transparency don’t sound too hot to intelligence professionals accustomed to clandestinity. The CIA and Intelligence Community also were hung up on the concept of authoritative views. National Security intelligence is just too important to be handled through collaborative processes, they would argue. During this period I came to the exact opposite view. Making sense of the world is so hard and so important that it demands collaboration with as broad a network as possible. It was around this time that this thought entered my mind: The CIA will end up being the last secret organization in the world. And being the last of anything is never a good thing.

And so back to the question. I actually think the answer to it is very complicated. But I do believe that more of what will be important to US prosperity in the future will lie in the second dynamic and our success will depend on how well we understand these large shift changes underway and are able to engage them. Here’s where the imbalance of the Intelligence Community really can hurt us. To deal with the first circumstance it’s important to be a closed network. But to understand and prosper in the second dynamic it’s best to be an open network.  What we have here is a real innovator’s dilemma.

Which brings me to the last question: Are we the world? In the immediate aftermath of WWII, the US was 50% of the world economy. We also make a big deal of how we led the world in innovation, but of course most of that was probably just a function of our size. So during the Cold War we dealt with the world as if we were the world. We called the shots. And that is the world our intelligence community learned to function in. Of course individuals were ready to share secrets with the US government because we were after all where the action was.

That world is ending very rapidly. The world to follow will be a good world too. A world in which the US will remain very influential and prosperous. But once the US represents, let’s say 10% of the world economy, which could happen in most of our lifetimes, the arithmetic of dealing with the world from a position of absolute strength sort of falls apart. Much of the American public, from what I can tell, doesn’t appear ready for this turn of events. We learn, as kids, that America owes its prosperity to its independence from the rest of the world. It is part of our founding myth. We also believe that the world and its problems scale to the capabilities of individuals or small groups of individuals, freely associating. So in a very real sense, Complexity is Un-American!

That’s why one of my passions now that I’ve retired from the Agency is to do what little I can to help Americans think about connecting, about working in open networks, about transparency. I believe as a successful multicultural society the US is poised to be innovative in this new world, and this time perhaps all out of proportion to our size. I love all social networks and in particular Twitter because of its power to spread ideas faster than the speed of light. Just think of it. One thought can reach a thousand people much faster than a single beam of light could physically touch those same individuals. I found myself a few weeks ago teaching a group of 20-somethings my Twitter secrets. This is nuts, I thought, but what a blast.

So there you have it. My last lesson: All organizations, no matter how reactionary or conservative, always have people in them thinking how we can be better.  All organizations need to find better ways to tap into what these individuals have to offer, because they often have an orientation to the outside environment that you may be lacking.

And for you frustrated innovators out there, form a Rebel Alliance. But remember, that optimism is the greatest act of rebellion.

Thank you.

Starts and Evens (Lesson 21)

I spent five hours in a meeting yesterday during which I asked many “stupid” questions. A couple of weeks ago I tweeted:

When it comes to asking “stupid questions” in meetings, I like to ask mine early and often.

Asking stupid questions is Lesson 21  I learned as a CIA manager. The questions you hesitate to ask are precisely the questions you probably most need to address. Now, why do people hesitate to ask “stupid” questions?  I think it’s because the asker doesn’t want to look foolish. She presumes that she is the only person that doesn’t know the answer or thinks the question is too simplistic or fundamental to ask. Surely, the briefer, discussants thought of this already, she asks herself. But my experience in asking “stupid” questions reveals they have a high batting average of uncovering faulty assumptions and other basic process/thinking errors.

It is particularly important that managers step forward to ask the stupid questions.

  1. The other people on your teams, you know all those small people in subservient positions, they believe, and truth be told they are probably correct, that they run the risk of more consequences by appearing stupid in a public forum.
  2. The individuals briefing the project are also more likely to dismiss a question from the small people or try to doubletalk their way through it.
  3. But the most compelling reason why managers need to ask the “stupid” questions is that, in most organizations, people already think we’re incompetent, a nutcase, or stupid, so really what do you have to lose.

Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future just wrote a passionate and excellent blog post on the need to develop different organizational and revenue models. It really is a must read. For those of you who think the idea of moving away from current economic principles is unworkable, a fantasy, just remember that up until 150 years ago half of this country ran on an economic model based on slavery. And its defenders argued it was inconceivable to move away from it. We have over-learned the lessons of capitalism. Tens of millions of people around the world have become used to providing value to others for no direct monetary reward–think Wikipedia and Twitter. This is a trend we can build on.

Speaking of Wikipedia, I was in San Francisco last week and had an opportunity to visit the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit engine facilitating the wiki community. What a great vibe!!!! Clearly the individuals there believe in the upside potential of human beings working together. Cynics need not apply.

It’s the Pace, Stupid!

Digitial Capital Week (#dcweek) is well underway in Washington and yesterday I attended a half day of sessions on the new media. During the morning panel on social networks and the new media with representatives of National Geographic, USATODAY, NPR, and Aviation Week (just too cool that Orville Wright was an original subscriber to the magazine),  the NPR rep noted how difficult it was for NPR’s small operation to keep up with the speed of change in technology. He cited specifically mobile apps and how NPR has chosen to support a limited range of apps because it simply doesn’t have the resources to keep up with all the technologies, particularly if they’re going to have to be updated several times a year.

OK, I thought, NPR seems to be assuming there is a certain pace to human events that is natural and well-ordered. Well who made NPR or any other company for that matter the judge of the best pace for human society, I snorted? (Politely, to myself.) No one of course; NPR was simply hoping for the continuation of a pace convenient to its structure. At that moment it became clear to me at least that the pace of normal human life, with digital and internet innovation as its new metronome, now overwhelms the structure of the great majority of organizations.

(I know I have a few readers outside the US, so I guess I should note that NPR stands for National Public Radio, although the NPR official at the panel said they now refer to themselves just as NPR to reflect the growing range of their activities, such as on the internet.  After listening to their news broadcasts and shows, I’m persuaded the acronym actually stands for National Pessimists Radio, but I digress…)

It’s commonplace to speak of the rate of change as being too fast for organizations but the phenomenon attains a different quality when we realize that it is the pace of normal life that now exceeds organizational capacity. Mobile apps are a great example of this. Many of these apps are being tweaked by gifted amateurs. (At the panel, NPR noted its first iPhone app was created by one of its avid listeners.) These individuals don’t think of these adjustments as change initiatives, the way industry or government would. Adjusting a feature often is not that much more significant for them than deciding to have lunch at 130 pm vice noon. WordPress, which hosts my blog–thank you, announces changes to its platform so frequently I hardly notice.

Legacy, 20th century organizations are designed for quite a different rhythm of life.  Any change in software code must be tested against the entire cascade of code lest some catastrophic consequences ensue. (For the person living to digital rhythm, you simply tackle these anomalies as they present themselves.) The assumption that implementation must wait until the system is completely tested dictates an operational rhythm with many, looong pauses. And of course, hierarchical and/or authoritative management philosophies always assume the process can be safely stopped for the management intervention that theoretically improves quality. For legacy organizations, pace and quality are to a certain degree in opposition to each other. In digital life, pace and quality are paired; quality occurs as a result of keeping up the pace.

I often saw this dynamic in my government career. Every change effort was attacked by the “first tell me how will the whole new system work” question.  And when we finally set off on a new change effort (Cue Angels and Trumpets), it took so long that by the implementation date we were already behind at least three technology cycles, even if we had been cutting edge at the decision point ten years earlier. The structure of government is particularly ill-suited to keeping up the pace. Just think of lengthy Congressional hearings and the marathon journey of legislation.

Organizations did not always lag the pace of normal human life. During the Industrial Revolution, factories powered by the new machines so accelerated the pace of life that many feared the human physiology would collapse under the pressure. As the British history section on the BBC website notes:

The Victorians had become addicted to speed and, like all speed crazy kids, they wanted to go ever faster. Time was money and efficiency became increasingly important…With greater speed came a greater need for industries and businesses to make more and make it quicker. Steam made this possible and changed working life forever. Gone were the days when work was dictated by natural forces: steam engines were servant to neither season nor sunshine.

An example of this I bet we’re all familiar with is this great scene from I Love Lucy, which is by the way the first I Love Lucy clip that pops up on YouTube. (For years I had a tshirt that read “Forget Lucy, I love Ethel” I loved that shirt so much I wore it to death, but I digress…)

But now the dynamic is completely reversed. Organizations hold the keys to very old machines and processes. But for most individuals under the age of 40, the digital pace is the natural pace. (Seems to me that the internet makes us dumb arguments of Nicholas Carr also have at their heart this unease with the new pace. Before I can take any of these arguments seriously, someone has to prove to me that there is some inherently desirable pace for human activity. Until then, I accept what is.)

This issue of pace also has implications for the John Hagel/John Seely Brown insight concerning how individuals and organizations today must learn to interact with knowledge flows rather than managing knowledge stocks. I believe organizations, just like Lucy and Ethel in the video, underestimate the pace at which the flow of knowledge will come at them. For sure they overestimate the ability of their existing structures to keep pace with that flow. And unlike Lucy and Ethel, it does you no good to eat the knowledge. I believe many of them will learn over time that the only way to keep pace will be to break down their organization walls and rely instead on their community of supporters. The NPR representative chuckled at the idea of someone outside the organization creating their first iPhone app but I think NPR would be able to support many more mobile apps if it embraced and developed this phenomenon into a new business model. Successful organizations of the future will share leadership responsibilities with their community of trusted supporters.)

(One last aside. While researching some references to the Industrial Revolution I ran across this very lovely piece about the pace of life in industrial countries on the BNET website. (It appears to have originally been published in the journal American Demographics.) The research looks to be about 15 years old but the piece has some great data and is also great fun to read. I think it would be a useful research project to update this work in light of the new digital culture.)