Category Archives: Knowledge Work

Thinking Ain’t What It Used To be

I’ve been reading a great book the last couple of weeks, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanehan. (I read books like I watch TV, I dip in and out, watching (or reading) several things at one time.) I recommend Kanehan’s book to everyone; it is not as hard to read as you might think–in fact the prose style is very pleasant, although the illustrative mental puzzles do take a bit of effort sometimes. I think most people will react like I have, reflecting on the implications of Kanehan’s findings for how I lead my life, how we make decisions. His major message so far is that all of us need to be aware of the shortcuts (fast thinking) we use and the likelihood that these shortcuts will lead us astray.

Thinking about thinking has ended up being a huge part of my life’s work. That’s a lot of what I did for CIA. It is no reassuring task to write or edit reports intended for policymakers, even for the President, and then pause to ask yourself whether the prose before you actually provides anything useful or insightful to the intended reader. Because the real truth is that facts (outside of science, and even there you gotta wonder!) rarely speak for themselves.  (And it hardly matters at all if they are secret facts.) In those rare instances when they do speak for themselves, then you don’t need an analyst or interpreter to make sense of them. Do you? Most facts require context, invite assumptions, have a back story, and probably also have a future. That’s what the analyst, the real thinker needs to bring to the conveyance of the fact. But it is all too rarely accomplished.

I can’t help but think we have a humongous thinking deficit in today’s world. (We also have significant values confusion and volatility, but that would be another blog.) I don’t watch any of the political debates because I can’t stand to watch people embarrass themselves. But I sort of follow them on Twitter sometimes so I know the various candidates drop Fact Bombs; Speaker Gingrich engages in carpet bombing and Rick Perry often misses the target. It doesn’t matter whether I support the candidate or not: they all misuse facts and encourage the sloppy thinking habits that haunt us today.

Some of our thinking errors have been monumental. For example you would think that when the US and other Western nations began investing in large social welfare programs in the 1950s and 1960s they might have actually done some actuarial planning, plotting out demographic, social, and economic trends to develop projections for how long the economy could sustain such benefits. Now my bet is that in some governments someone actually did something like this, but that inconvenient scenarios were dismissed as worst case scenarios and thus relegated to the low probability trash can. 

This is one of the most common thinking errors I encountered professionally: the association of worst case scenarios with low probabilities. Think about it. I bet most of you do it all the time. You hear worst case, you think “unlikely to happen”. The two values–probability, severity–move independently of each other, of course. There is a variation to this thinking pathology: that’s when worst case is is equated with high probability or even only possibility. In the past ten years, this has manifested itself in obsessive hoarding of gold.

Another area where a little long-range thinking and contextual analysis might cast some interesting light is the immigration debate. Some of us know that immigrants are an increasingly important part of US economic growth and that economic growth is a good way to ameliorate deficits. But these points aren’t often made. If the point can’t be conveyed in a soundbite or factbomb, then it isn’t conveyed at all.

What follows are examples of sloppy–even meaningless–analysis I see all the time even in the most serious publications.

The negotiations will be difficult. Now I’m betting that if the situation was easy to resolve, you wouldn’t need negotiations in the first place. Negotiations are supposed to be difficult. Also lengthy, bitter, hard-fought. This is one of my faves, because you SEE IT ALL THE TIME. (Also see below for discussion on use of adjectives and adverbs.)

It is too soon to tell and its cousin Only time will tell. No elucidation necessary.

The transition will be difficult or The transition will be smooth. I distrust just about all adjectives and adverbs in analysis. These slippery little modifiers disguise many errors in thinking. What smooth means to the writer may not be what smooth means to me. I would rather have the elements of the transition discussed so that in addition to considering the analyst’s judgment, I can develop my own.

The elections are too close to call. Basically, I don’t understand why we spend so much analytic and journalistic energy trying to forecast elections in the first place. An election is actually a specific event in the near future. Its timing is known to all. When it ends, we will know the outcome. If the election is rigged, then our forecast doesn’t matter. I’m gobsmacked at how American journalists in particular have convinced so many people to hang on their every word about events concerning which they have little insight and over which they have little control.

X dynamic is not a problem in Society Y because it only has the support of 10% of the population. Another classic mistake that you see ALL THE TIME and which, at this point, is absolutely criminal. When you hear about a particular revolution not being anticipated, you can bet that this type of analytic statement was at the heart of the faulty thinking. This analytic statement is flawed because it tries to capture extremely complicated societal dynamics in a criminally simple mathematical statement. Before making  such a statement, the analyst needs to examine his theory for social change. Is social change simply an arithmetic progression? Or do movements often gain support suddenly and/or exponentially?

Anyway I think I’ll stop now. Really I’ve just been venting on many of the thinking errors that get under my skin. For a much better discussion, do read Thinking, Fast and Slow.

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On CIA, typewriters, and sensemaking

Check out my guest blog post on IBM’s Smarter Planet blog.  http://asmarterplanet.com/blog/2011/09/10766.html

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.

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.

What is your Twitter Diversity Score?

How do we,  particularly us knowledge workers, expose ourselves to different views and perspectives? I’m asking this as a very practical question. I’m currently reading Amartya Sen’s The Idea of Justice and one of the most important concepts concerning justice is that it should represent fairness, and that in fact justice and fairness are separate concepts. (Except that many languages, including French, do not have separate words for justice and fairness.) But it occurred to me as I was reading that it is impossible to be fair if you are not aware of all possible views on a subject. (Now, of course, knowing all views probably is itself impossible for most complicated subjects…there would be a long tail of views that defied comprehension, so then you immediately get involved in deciding which views are relevant, etc., which puts you in another miasma of subjectivity. And this is one of the main reasons why I’ve always been rather dubious about the wisdom of authority and institutions, but I digress…)

To return to the main topic, diversity of thought is key to attaining justice and fairness in societies. And how can we hope to achieve such diversity of thought? Well, of course, one way is through the use of TWITTER. Roger Schank, a leading thinker in education and artificial intelligence, just wrote a piece in eLearn magazine on how Twitter  is capable of changing the very nature of what it means to learn from your peers.  Absolutely! The magic of Twitter is in how it has become a perpetual learning machine. But the question remains, is my Twitter stream diverse?

So I decided to do a manual check this morning of the people I follow. I only follow about 200 people so it wasn’t too hard to do it by hand, although admittedly my analysis is extremely primitive. (Is there a program that lets you analyze the diversity of your network? I just tried Google’s FollowFinder, which helps me find more people who are like the ones I already follow. I want the opposite. I want someone to analyze my network and provide me with links to people who are in the same intellectual domains but have different perspectives. Then I would like a tool that shows me other intellectual disciplines I should follow.) In any case here are the results of my Twitter Diversity Inventory. N=200 (Yes, I know the numbers don’t actually add up…I took several shortcuts which I can explain if you’d like…but the numbers are generally truthy.)

Companies/Groups 67
Male 68
Female 55
American 122
Non-American 25
Northern European 129
Not northern European 19
Internet/Social Media/IT Experts 64
Other Topics/Disciplines/Interests 77

Bottom line: I’m not very satisfied. Normalizing to a 100-point scale, more or less, my diversity score for American/non American and northern European/non-northern European is below 20. That can’t be good.  It must lead to personal blind spots in how I think about many subjects. The next step is to figure out how to fix this. More to come….

What is your Stupification Point?

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?

  1. 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.)
  2. 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.)
  3. The smaller the network, the less it can tolerate differences of opinions.
  4. Every network has stupification points. You must constantly be hunting for and eliminating them or they will destroy you.

Twelve Stupid Things People Say about the Internet

I remember when I was a kid people  would always say that to find life elsewhere in the universe, we had to look for carbon, because life was carbon-based. And I remember thinking, probably as a 10-year old, well who says that all life has to be carbon-based? Can’t we imagine a different kind of life? And people would say, no, that’s wrong, except now it isn’t so wrong to think that way. And I thought the same thing about the chances of finding life in the deep, deep ocean. I bet we will find weird life down there, I thought to myself, because these arguments that life can’t survive the lack of light and the intense pressure, they’re based on our very limited experiential base. After all, in terms of how life works, our N = 1. It can’t be right to be so sure.

So when I read critiques of the new culture we may be creating using all this internet stuff and mobile devices and Twitter and all the other things certain people like to make fun of, my ear is always listening for these unproven and unjustified assumptions. For example, almost all these critics assume that the good is self-evident and that the internet is displacing a wonderful tradition of knowledge, wisdom. and contemplation, offering very little of substance in return.  Hmmm…I’m just not so sure about that, and I offer the following list of shaky assumptions that we should question fiercely and for which we should demand either evidential or logical proof

  1. Heavy internet users have short attention spans and lack mental discipline. This is just plain silly, if you ask me. When I get deep into researching a topic on the internet, I have a very long attention span. And if I am traveling across many different topics, how is that proof of anything other than a curious disposition?
  2. Digital life is shallow. Says who? By what standard? Compared to what? Going to the movies? Watching old I Love Lucy reruns? Reading a thick economic treatise? And in any case, digital life itself is neutral. It’s the person who is shallow or not, if indeed we want to use this rather elitist formulation.  Even in the old analog culture, I never bought the line that going to the symphony is somehow culturally more significant than catching Bonnie Raitt at Wolf Trap. (I have to say I’ve even been to a Donnie Osmond concert in my lifetime….or was it the Osmond Brothers…the synapses misfire.)
  3. Slow is better than fast. You often hear the digital culture beaten up for its quick answers or its provision of instant gratification. But independent of all other values, such as accuracy, fairness, completeness, etc, there is nothing inherently bad about fast. In fact, fast will always, all other things being equal, be more efficient.
  4. Always “on” is bad. Prove it. As our societies and economies have become more complex, there are significant costs to periods of non-sentience. We may want to go back to an era of slower pace and tempo, but we can’t wish our way there. My experience as a manager is that organizations work best when they sustain momentum; there’s a favorite saying among managers: if you want something to get done, assign it to the busiest person on your team. And I actually believe that for many crackberry addicts, being constantly aware of the status of projects or other activities is actually less stressful than not knowing what is going on.
  5. Work based on reflection is better than immediate reactions. This is actually the ultimate argument of individuals who criticize the internet culture for being too fast or too persistent. And I think you have to admit that reflection has many advantages. Let’s unpack them. Reflection usually contributes to completeness and, in most cases, to accuracy. But reflection is at best neutral in terms of creativity; many argue for example that the best way to be creative is to generate as many ideas as possible without stopping to be judgmental. And there are certainly opportunity costs associated with reflection. As a CIA manager, I was always aware that one never had a monopoly on good ideas.  The longer you wait to propose a new way of looking at a problem, the greater the chance that some other entity will beat you to it. (Whether knowledge work should be competitive in the first place–now that’s another question.)
  6. Formal work is better than casual work. By formal, people usually mean work that has gone through some recognized quality control or expert process. Writing in a hurry is just not as elegant and good, goes the argument, as a carefully constructed essay. The arguments used in discussing reflection apply here as well. There are certain situations where formal work is obviously appropriate, but they are not as numerous as the critics would have you believe. And informality has many advantages in addition to immediacy. For example authenticity, directness, and, often, honesty.
  7. Correct spelling and grammar is essential for communication and is an indication of careful expression. Now I have sympathy for this position because I would tell people whose work I was editing that the worst thing that could happen was for me to gain the impression that I as the editor was paying more attention to their piece than they ever did. Finding obvious typos was one of the events that would create that impression. But that said, I also reviewed many pieces that were impeccable in terms of spelling and grammar but deplorable when it came to logic or original thinking. So sometimes correct spelling and grammar indicates nothing more than that.  The argument that spelling and grammar are essential for communication cannot be disputed. But special communication methods, such as the telegram for example, have always developed spelling and grammatical shortcuts that quickly became well understood. Twitter is just following in that tradition.
  8. It is more serious to do things by yourself than to do them in collaboration with others. Oh, for heaven’s sake!! This can only be accepted as gospel by individuals enamored of the great person theory of knowledge work.
  9. The internet is destroying literature. You’ve heard this. Nobody reads serious fiction any longer. Although I do believe classic forms of literature are threatened, I don’t buy the theory that it is the internet’s fault. Actually, it is probably more the fault of movies, television, DVDs, and video games. And in my view the real issue is that, compared to other, newer media for storytelling, the advantages of the novel just aren’t that apparent any longer.
  10. People who are playing Farmville on Facebook would otherwise be writing the great American novel or reading Proust. Please…(the game I like to play is Typing Maniac.)
  11. Most people don’t have anything interesting to say. This point is made peevishly in reaction to the fact that anyone now can blog or tweet. Again, I’ll concede that good writers of 500-word essays are not that common; but my experience, and I bet the experience of many others, is that lots of people actually do have something worthwhile to offer in the short form.  Twitter and Facebook –and let’s not forget YouTube–are great democratizers of the public space and, if anything, are giving many the confidence to share their views with others. I’m darned if I can figure out why that is bad for a democracy. Now in your average dictatorship…
  12. Our current culture, which has taken millenia to develop, is better than any culture we could develop over the next ten years. At face value, that sounds pretty reasonable, but given the explosion of information, connectivity and transparency, I’m not so sure we should  concede even this point. Knowledge is doubling in many fields at a faster rate than the education cycle for those disciplines. I don’t know about you but I’m putting my money on the future.

The Discreet Charms of the North American Knowledge Worker

Over a very pleasant meal yesterday, my lunch partner and I began to exchange ideas about how best to manage knowledge workers. Quite a challenge, we both agreed, and leaning toward hell when you need to manage knowledge workers against a deadline. This topic deserves more careful consideration, I thought, but given that I’m not in a position to do that right now, a blog posting will have to do.

How to attack the problem? Taxonomies can be useful. I’ve always said the first and extremely important step in analysis is putting things into categories. (Gathering information and studying it are also necessary, but these really are the key steps in research, not analysis.) So for your consideration, RecoveringFed offers the following schema for knowledge workers, at least certain pathologies among them, based on my 25-year career in managing them. (Caveat: These categories are largely based on managing knowledge workers responsible for writing papers. (shudder…) Many knowledge workers, (most?) are still judged against this metric, which I believe for the most part is unfortunate, because there are many more interesting and meaningful ways to measure the impact and productivity of knowledge workers. I am also hopeful that new technologies, represented most recently and dynamically by the iPad, will finally break the absolute bond that written argumentation has on our knowledge culture. All that said, many of the same issues that affect writing also apply to other presentational approaches, such as briefings or multimedia work. In the end, a knowledge worker is justified by sharing her knowledge to achieve or help others reach a desired outcome. Usually that sharing occurs within the context of a deadline.)

And now for the categories…

1. The Dustin. Stereotypically, analyst types are considered to be introverts with deficient social skills. In the extreme, some knowledge workers appear to be borderline autistics, who fail to make eye contact in conversations and lock themselves in their offices to meditate upon their work. Either they demand absolute quiet or can only work with some head-banging music on in the background. Not particularly effective in brainstorming sessions. (Named for Dustin Hoffman and his signature role in The Rain Man.)     Management Approach. Largely TBD by whether they are productive or not. But it is probably not wise to force them into settings and activities that make them uncomfortable. One rule of thumb I always used in management: I am not here to change your personality. If your parents didn’t succeed, there’s little chance any of my interventions will work.

2. The Organizer. I know you’ve met this individual. She is the one who researches the topic to the nth degree, always has a full list of conferences and seminars she can attend to get smarter, usually takes copious research notes and prepares extensive outlines, but somehow never actually makes much progress on the paper or presentation itself. Chatty organizers can be particularly problematic, because they will chat up everyone on the team with their latest research discovery, creating the appearance of progress but preventing its actual attainment. Often when they do try to reach conclusions, organizers find it quite difficult to distinguish the salient from the merely interesting. They are often unable to write for impact because they can’t see the forest for the trees. Management Approach. This is a case where more imaginative job design and collaborative work approaches can maximize the contribution of the organizer. Create the expectation that all research results will be deposited within a collaborative platform available to all. That way, her colleagues can make maximum use of her contributions. (Think about it. Shouldn’t this be standard operating procedure in almost all knowledge work?) Look at the expectations that you have on employees. Why does every knowledge worker have to independently produce a paper or briefing? If research is her strength, build upon it.

3. The Expert Pontificator. In some ways similar to the organizer, except that the EP, unlike the organizer who really does like to research and discover new stuff, usually huffs and puffs based on ideas harvested a long time ago in a galaxy far away. (I was going to call this type the Huffer-Puffer, the term I’ve used in the work place, but I didn’t think the meaning would be obvious.) There’s not much more really that needs to be said about the EP who, unlike the previous two types, is often not productive at all in my experience.  Unlike the Dustin, who just doesn’t participate in brainstorming sessions, the EP is capable of destroying them. Management Approach. It is important that you not allow the EP to dominate discussions and inhibit other team members. Talking privately to EPs about their behavior never works; they are impervious. But politely but firmly telling them in a meeting that it is time for others to speak usually works, although it may make them angry and lead them to sulk which, at least tactically, gets you what you wanted anyway–they shut up. (Remember the language: “it is time for others to speak” not “you’re dominating the discussion. let others talk.” Don’t personalize it.) Also, it is important for other team members to see you tackle the issue. As a manager you are judged by whether you tackle the hard problems directly and when you fail to do so, you diminish your leadership bank account. Another benefit accrues when you tackle the issue–the other team members become empowered to handle situations themselves because you have clearly established the norms of behaviors. In fact, perhaps the only hope of getting through to EPs and thus create the conditions that will motivate them to change is if they begin to hear the same constant message from everyone.

4. The Dominator. There is a striking difference between the EP and the Dominator; the Dominator actually knows his stuff and tends to have a low tolerance for those he considers less capable . (This is also different from the EPs, who actually like to be with people who are not capable because they are more likely to form the fawning audience.) Dominators are almost always productive because they are in fact competent; but their presence can stifle the development of other knowledge workers and lead to group think around the Dominator’s preferred solutions. Dominators epitomize the paradox of expertise–they are often the last ones to detect systemic change because they are such export defenders of the current paradigm. Dominators can be wrong but their usual expertise with rhetorical techniques can overwhelm the argument of others even when in the end they will be proven correct. Management Approach. Some of the same techniques you used with the EP are necessary with Dominators, but you need to be careful because they are productive and necessary voices on your team. Just because they are cocksure doesn’t mean they are wrong. One technique you might try is asking dominators to create Team B analysis to argue against the prevailing wisdom. If you make the task rewarding and very competitive (dominators love competition), they may actually do a very good job of tearing down their own arguments. It could just be a learning experience for them.

The next three categories in the schema deal more specifically with the productivity part of knowledge work, i.e. these types describe styles in preparing presentations against a deadline. They can be used in conjunction with the previous four categories, so, for example, you can have a dominator who is a crammer and an organizer who passes the trash. (Which gets me to think that an individual’s cognitive style can also be laid over these categories; there are many dimensions to knowledge work and I am in fact only covering a slice of it in this posting.)

5. The Vester. You’re a manager, you check with your team member who tells you that the paper due to the client in one month is already well underway. You chat about it again in two weeks and yup, we’re still on track but no, he doesn’t have anything to show you yet.  Essentially the same answer a week later; not only have you not seen anything, neither have any of his colleagues. When you and the others finally see the presentation a couple of days before the deadline, it is just not as good as you expected, there are significant conceptual issues, and the whole project would have benefited from others input much earlier on in the process. The Vester is the knowledge worker who wants to do everything privately, who keeps everything close to his vest, and yet is not always capable of executing well enough by himself,  putting aside for now the reality that in almost all knowledge work projects, the product that benefits from several inputs will be better than the single-threaded one. Management Approach. This is particularly difficult type because 1. it is common and 2. generally it is incentivized by our reward and recognition system. Knowledge workers want to be single or primary authors because they are not stupid and seek to maximize their rewards and recognition. One of the approaches I used, and to be honest I don’t know that I had as much success as I wanted, was to tell colleagues their performance would be judged not by how absolutely perfect their product was, but by whether their results were in line with what I expected from someone of that experience and background. So, for example, drawing implications out for a client is usually much more difficult than describing the possible solutions spaces. And I would point out that spending two weeks trying to get a difficult bit right was not a very smart use of their time if I or another team member could complete that particular task more efficiently. There’s much more to be said on this issue but in the interest of conciseness, which I’m afraid may already be a lost cause, I’ll move on.

6. The Crammer. This is me. This is my usual approach to working on projects. I don’t like to start writing until I know exactly what I want to say and mysteriously I often don’t know what I want to say until the night before the deadline. I’d like to think that I execute well, but I disappointed in my career. It is a high-risk approach to knowledge work. The most disconcerting part about being a crammer is that it also leads you into becoming a liar. I’ve had managers, for example, who were hoverers, who asked you every week, or more often, how your project was going. So every time, even though I may not even have put finger to keypad yet, I would invent some progress report–“yup, I did ten paragraphs this week.” When Knowledge Workers Lie!!! Management Approach. OK, some have suggested lying about the deadline. Your crammer is already lying to you; you are creating a vicious cycle. Or requiring them to turn in sections along the way. Also bad idea!! Usually crammers only do their best work when they are in that caffeinated, adrenaline surge of creativity. You may lose less hair as a manager in the short term, but the final product will suck. A better idea is to create another real deadline or event before the project deadline that forces the cramming to occur sooner. So for example, scheduling an important, desirable trip, conference that overlaps the deadline is always a good idea. I’ve also found that crammers, at least the well-intentioned ones, work better when they are teamed with another colleague who is more methodical, particularly someone you know they have good rapport with. It is one thing to disrespect a deadline; another to disappoint a colleague. Another benefit for collaborative work design.

7. The Garbage-person. For my money, the worst type of knowledge worker, at least in terms of productivity. They don’t even try to do good work, unlike the inexperienced or poor performer who actually is not yet capable of better product. The garbage-person, who in some ways is a product of the dysfunctions of knowledge work,  has decided that, because the quality control and editorial process mangles her intellectual property and/or does her work for her, it’s not worth her time to even try. So she turns in work that represents the minimum possible effort. Management Approach. Here is another type who would benefit from working in a more transparent, collaborative environment. One, the example of others work may penetrate. (cross your fingers) Two, contributing to the projects of others may be more rewarding and rekindle in them the desire to do good work of their own. But let’s not kid ourselves. The garbage-people are hard cases; they are cynics, which is  the most destructive force in a team.

My outline had me making a few more generic points about managing knowledge workers, but I’m sure I’ve exhausted your patience as a reader. I know I’ve exhausted my energy as a writer. Next post!!!