Category Archives: linkedin

Reality is the Land of Unintended Consequences

I was struck the other day by reports that President Obama last fall opposed the near unanimous recommendation of his advisors that the US arm Syrian rebels. (The USG has now decided, according to press reports, to provide some rebel groups with direct, non-lethal aid.) Although history may yet judge Obama’s reticence harshly, I couldn’t help but feel good that at least one senior US official–in this case the President–expressed concerns about the efficacy and unintended consequences of the traditional foreign policy “toolkit.” Certainly during my time in government and really just as a private citizen I’ve noticed that the actions of government don’t often seem to achieve their ends neatly, if at all.

As far as the world is concerned, we only have one “N”–there is only one earth and one history. We have no way of really judging the absolute efficacy of the grand schemes and decisions of government. We don’t really know how things would have turned out, for example, if we had never had the War in Vietnam. There is no John Madden-like sports simulation for foreign policy that would let us replay 100 times the US Government’s Asia policy in the 1950s and 1960s to determine statistically which gameplan would have fared better.

I think actually it may be in part due to this “unknowingness” that decisionmakers not just in government but in many industries stress the importance of making confident and fast decisions–why being a “J” on the Myers-Briggs is such a highly valued executive characteristic. The individuals who want to think through the decision a little bit longer–let’s call them the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters–are almost always argued down.

No doubt this chart –inspired by the Cynefin framework–is a bit unfair to strong decision-makers, but it nevertheless captures how I, a charter member of the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters, see the dynamic.Decisionmaking spectrum

As I hope the chart makes clear, even the Let’s-think-about-it Firsters miscalculate the reality algorithm.

At some point, months, perhaps years later, the decisionmakers begin to experience the miscalculation of their earlier solutions.  (I use the verb “experience” here purposefully. It’s hard to change a decision you’re invested in until you FEEL the mistake you’ve made.) The levers they pulled didn’t deliver the causal punch they expected and–usually worse–produced different consequences that appear to be just making things worse. That’s when the decisionmaking dynamic begins to look like this.Newdecisionmaking

It’s at this point that a different, more nuanced, and more flexible set of decisions becomes possible. The bold decisionmakers and Let’s-think-about-it Firsters are closer in their appreciation of the dynamic they are trying to “solve.” (Even at this point, only the most bold would dare suggest that no solution might be immediately forthcoming.)

As is usually the case, I don’t have a “solution” for this predicament. There probably isn’t one. Perhaps the best approach is for everyone to be a bit more humble about their recommended courses of action. And always be ready to revisit decisions you made, even if you were positive they were the right thing to do.

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What ARE Extroverts GOOD For? An Incomplete List

RecoveringFed is not an extrovert. I am an introvert. I was reminded just how much of an introvert I am in the aftermath of a talk I gave on innovation recently at a Federal Government agency. I think the talk went well. I really enjoyed it. I got asked lots of interesting questions, including–tough one–what I still wanted to do with my life that I had yet to accomplish. (I said write a book and learn to play the marimbas except, in hindsight, I would reverse the order.) I was up talking and answering questions for at least an hour I think.

But as I was driving home later that day I realized how desperate I was to get to my house so that I could, I realize, cocoon into my little den and recover my energies. My car couldn’t get me home fast enough. And that evening all I did was quietly play endless games of Bejeweled. By myself. Ecstatically….in an introverted kind of way.

And this got me to thinking….

What ARE Extroverts Good For ANYWAY!
And I came up with a LIST.

(Before I go any further please note position of tongue in cheek. I have very many extroverted friends whom I love dearly.)

Extroverts are Useful:

1. During snowmageddons and similar natural crises. Their penchant for volunteering information without needing to be asked can be very helpful when you need to know exactly how bad the roads are or where is the best bar to wait out the storm. (At other times, however, this is probably the quality I like least about Extroverts. When I meet one for the first time, and they start relating just about everything that’s ever happened in their lives, I always want to interrupt. “Forgive me but I don’t recall asking you how your drive into work went this morning.”)

2. Organizing Surprise Parties. I’m tempted to say this is a made-to-order opportunity for Extroverts. They are cracker jack at pulling everyone together and bring lots of energy to the festivities. A very good friend who is an Extrovert–of sorts–put together a whopper of a surprise retirement party for me a few years ago. Thanks again!

3. As waiters. This might be controversial, I realize, as many introverts want to eat quietly and do not want to be bothered with excessively friendly dining banter. But I actually like a waiter who–again–volunteers information about the menu and jumps in to prevent me from making a horrible choice. I would also put bartenders in this category.

4. At difficult business dinners. Over my career I had to host many lunches among analytic types who kept trying to look at their shoelaces even while seated for a meal. This put all the pressure on me to keep the conversation going. One day perhaps the only extroverted analyst at the CIA was among the luncheon guests and what a difference he made. He took his seat in mid-sentence and hardly stopped to eat or drink. He even seemed to have mastered some simple ventriloquist skills so he could talk while he was eating or drinking. His conversational flow was effortless and–I have to admit–even at times amusing.

5. Hosting charity telethons/fundraiders. Two Words: Jerry Lewisjerry lewis

6. As cabaret performers–or really any kind of one-person show. This also requires little explanation.

7. As informal social affairs coordinators at large US military commands.

Image

I’ve amended the title to indicate this is an incomplete list. I’ve already had one excellent addition posted in the comments. Yes, indeed, Extroverts are very good at dealing with customer service problems.

 

The Fallacy of Worst Case Scenarios

Hurricane Sandy has led to some pretty foolish thinking. Just the other night some high school classmates were involved in some dreary silliness on Facebook about what might have caused Noah’s flood. One, a proud climate change denier and I’m sure strong Christian, opined that perhaps global warming back then was caused by dinosaur farts. (I told you it was dreary.)

Hard to take that conversation seriously but there are other statements in the wake of Hurricane Sandy that strike me almost as inane. Several times I’ve heard officials say some version of “no one thought something like this could happen.” What a strange excuse that! First, of course, the Discovery and National Geographic channels have made some decent money the past decade entertaining disaster groupies with exactly how something like this could happen. Second, anticipatory thinking is an essential element of managing and leading. If you can’t generate vision well at least you might be able to anticipate.

So I think what people really mean  by that statement is that no one wanted to think about the scenario that just happened. No doubt they put it in the category of Worst Case scenario. Once you assign a possible event to the category of worst case scenario you are at risk of succumbing to a dangerous fallacy, one I saw with some regularity in government. To wit: the assumption that “worst case scenario” and “unlikely” are synonyms.

Think back on some of the meetings you’ve attended. Some Cassandra in the room starts warning of a frightful worst case scenario. Some other person, determined to avoid excess ruffling, says: “Oh you’re overreacting. That’s just a worst case scenario!” What they are also saying, of course, is “that’s very unlikely.”

(I am reminded here of something I once heard former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates say. Because he was a notorious “worst case” thinker he was often accused of being a Cassandra–the prophet who predicted the fall of Troy. At which point he would remind us that “Cassandra was right!”)

Severity of impact and likelihood are independent variables. It is entirely possible for a worst case scenario to be quite feasible, if not even probable. But the conflation of worst case with unlikely is quite common and potentially catastrophic. Unfortunately, things that we find unimaginable have a nasty way of becoming inevitable.

I imagine another factor was at play here, one for which I find more sympathy. When they say that they didn’t think something like Hurricane Sandy could happen, what they also might mean is that they didn’t believe the threat was likely enough to justify taking expensive preventative actions given other budget priorities. This strikes me as a much more honest statement and reflects a judgment that public officials must make on a regular basis. Nevertheless, consideration of “likelihood” must still be made independently of any other variable. We humans have a tendency to think we are bulletproof and to assume that bad things are unlikely to happen to us. When in fact the art of living, of government, of leadership in any sector is best captured by how well we deal with calamities.
For those who can, I am linking here to the donation form for AmeriCares, a charity I myself support.

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The Ten Habits of Non-Conventional Thinkers

One of the things I do a couple of times a year is lead a discussion on conventional wisdom. It wasn’t my idea to do this. I was asked a few years ago by someone who was teaching a class on intelligence who wanted to hold a session on conventional wisdom. He thought I was the perfect person to lead it. Whatever…

Conventional wisdom is like the monster under the bed for intelligence analysts. We’re all afraid of it but we can’t quite describe what it looks like. Some worry very much that they are actually guilty of it themselves. But we’d rather not talk about it.

I struggled with the assignment because I felt that to talk about conventional wisdom I needed to use examples. Otherwise it wouldn’t be meaningful. But of course my example of conventional wisdom might be someone else’s strongly-held beliefs. I finally hit upon the idea of talking about conventional wisdom in the context of cosmology. If you study the history of man’s understanding of the universe and its origins, you become aware that it is actually the story of conventional wisdoms (plural intentional). The prevailing theory is replaced by a new theory that sooner or later becomes conventional wisdom ripe for replacement by the next new theory. Second verse same as the first.

The lessons I draw could also be reversed and thought of as best practices for people who don’t want to be conventional thinkers. And so here they are. The 10 habits of non-conventional thinkers just in case you want to be one too.

1. Non-conventional thinkers are very suspicious of what anyone says they “know”.  They consider knowledge a pretty slippery character who is largely the creation of whatever sensemaking tools are popular at the moment. When we develop new tools, we develop new knowledge that often topples down all previous architectures of knowledge.

2. Non-conventional thinkers eschew tidy, neat thinking. They like messy ideas. They go looking for them. They are not taken in by common human crutches such as the desire for symmetry.

3. This is hard, but non-conventional thinkers try to avoid falling in love with their ideas. They are mean to them, even abusive. (or at least they should be!)

4. Non-conventional thinkers don’t censor themselves. They try to say out loud or write down everything they’re thinking. I think too many people don’t even offer up the good ideas inside their heads.

5. They talk to and listen to very diverse people. They enjoy reading about ideas that are way out there. Last night on Netflix I watched a fascinating biography of William Burroughs. My Netflix Horoscope right now says I enjoy watching cerebral biographical documentaries.

6. They don’t think much is sacred. Not even Albert Einstein. Albert Einstein was a brilliant man. It seems like he was also a kind person. But he famously hated the idea of an expanding universe. Because astronomers and physicists were so in awe of him, they tried to explain away for about 20 years data that pointed to a big bang.

7. Non-conventional thinkers love to attack disciplines and ideas that have been static for a long time. They like even better to attack truths.

8. They love to look at things from completely different angles. They want to see the very finest details. They actually prefer to know exactly how things work. Non-conventional thinkers take no perspectives for granted and expect to find an element of truth even in the most outlandish points of view.

9. Non-conventional thinkers like to stimulate their thinking with sillinesses. They will engage in little rituals that fertilize their brains. Today I colored.

10. Non-conventional thinkers never stop looking.

The Rebel Life: Random Observations and Learnings

Please do wander over to Rebelsatwork.com for my latest musings on being a corporate rebel. Here’s the link: The Rebel Life

What is your Toothpick? (and what do you do when you get screwed?)

So today I was assembling some Ikea outdoor furniture. I’ve probably assembled close to 50 Ikea pieces in my lifetime. This one was a little more complicated than I was used to. It was called Applaro, as Ikea is wont to do, but with Swedish double dots above the first A and the O. It had 14 total steps involving an adjustable back and the ability to fold and store it away.

ImageSo of course I was sweating it. I’ve had experiences when I’ve been assembling, let’s say a futon, when I’ve got to the like very delicate point where it’s supposed to do the futon thing and fold away, and realized that I’d put everything together exactly backwards. And I had the flu that time as I recall. (To be fair that was not an Ikea piece.)

Nothing that bad happened this time. My first problem though was when one of the screws wouldn’t tighten nicely into it’s groove. Luckily, a very good friend of mine who is very handy has told me that many such problems can be solved with the strategic insertion of a toothpick. And so I did. And so it did.Image

And this got me to thinking about management. Yup, just sitting there on my deck on a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the mid-Atlantic. I suddenly, in a flash of revelation, saw the toothpick as a metaphor. So as a manager, what’s your TOOTHPICK? What’s that thing you always do when things don’t go right? We all have toothpicks. I suspect we all revert to our primeval management instinct. Mine is always to have a conversation. I know, it’s not very commanding and certainly not very sexy. But I find it very effective. It fits my style. It builds on what I’m good at. During my career I fretted once or twice or more that my management style was not “strong” enough for the CIA. But no matter how hard I try, I do “mean and nasty” rather poorly. And I would like to think most people who’ve worked for me would say I’m not controlling. But you would have to check. In the end, however, I decided I could only be the very best version of myself. That was truly my only path to excellence. So my question to you is do you know your toothpick? You have one, I’m sure, and if you don’t know what it is, you need to figure that out.

ImageThe silly screw problem got me to thinking even further. Now in this case the screw just wouldn’t tighten from the get go. I never got a chance to overtighten it. But I’ve had that experience too. When you twist just once too often and the whole dynamic falls apart. Now that’s clearly a metaphor for management. The manager is always trying to influence matters she can’t fully control. And when he tries too hard, when he responds to uncertainty by becoming more controlling, almost always nothing good happens. In fact, he and his team gets screwed.

In the end the AAPLARO was assembled more or less as IKEA intended. I did lose a piece when it fell through one of the cracks in the deck and into the crawl space full of ivy. Luckily, I have a drawer full of leftover IKEA parts from previous assemblies. I can always find what I need there.

You can Act Like a Hero, Just Don’t Be One

The other day I posted an observation on Twitter, which I’ve posted once or twice before, that yet again I had been reminded that Heroism is not a viable Leadership Strategy.

Someone asked me to say more.

I included the same statement a couple of years ago in my Lessons from a CIA Manager, but didn’t expound there either.

So what do I mean?

Leaders sometimes have to take heroic actions. The occasion calls for it. Nobody else can do what the leader must do. It my be as “simple” as telling a higher up that their preferred course of action is not advisable. Or it may require real physical courage, as can be the case on the field of battle.

But it strikes me that heroism, almost by definition, does not work as a longterm strategy. Even for military generals, leading from the front has been replaced by a more complex blend of leadership styles. This is the subject of military historian John Keegan’s excellent book, The Mask of Leadership, where he observes how the brave and really reckless heroism of Alexander the Great and even the Duke of  Wellington has over the centuries been replaced by more measured leadership strategies.

Leaders in more quotidian situations, such as corporations, perhaps don’t see how they could ever be accused of heroic leadership. But I wold argue that they can fall into the trap rather easily.

What are some examples of heroic leadership behavior that can occur in any workplace?

  • Making all difficult decisions yourself.
  • Reviewing all important papers and data streams for accuracy.
  • Hiring the executive team that most resembles you.
  • Pursuing a failing strategy just because you don’t want to look weak by revisiting your decision.

Do any of these sound familiar?

Finally, the real problem with heroic leadership as a strategy is that it weakens the rest of the organization. Those who are led by heroism often fail to develop their own bravery. While a heroic leader on a winning streak can compensate for organizational weakness for a while, at some point he or she will falter and the organization will be worse off for it.

Check out my other website, rebelsatwork.com, for my latest post there where I discuss how heroism is also not an effective strategy for corporate and organizational rebels.

Federal Workers, Secret Service, Socialism, and Human Nature

It’s been a tough couple of months for Federal Workers, active and retired. The horrible judgment shown by managers of the General Services Administration has been exceeded only by the horrible judgment shown by members of the Secret Service and the US military. As is ALWAYS the case, these episodes have produced extreme makeover suggestions for the Federal workforce. Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has made attacking Federal workers a key plank of his fairness platform. I heard Greta van Susteren this week on her show wonder why Federal workers should EVER need to go to conferences.

Why Indeed!!! It always struck me when I was a member of the Federal workforce that we were the only employees in America expected to be motivated by socialist principles. Quite odd really. Our pay system, which emphasized seniority and paying your dues, was redolent of the best European socialist labor unions. So clearly, federal workers are a special breed of Americans who are completely unaffected by money or rewards. (One feels compelled to ask why not freeze their pay forever?)  And as far as going to conferences, well, clearly, federal workers, unlike employees in private industry, just don’t need to engage in the team-building and broadening activities so favored by private industry. Americans pay for these activities in the same way they pay for government activities–but for private industry these expenses are just part of overhead and not directly charged. (This is one reason why I worry that a single payer system for health care is not practical given the American political culture. We will pay more to private industry much more willingly than we will pay more to government.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not justifying anything GSA did in excess of the law or spirit of the government regulations they themselves create. (Hypocrisy has a particularly nasty odor.) But I do take issues with those who see socialism lurking around every corner and yet blithely want to impose these same socialist principles on the Federal workforce.

And now for the second scandal. The horrible behavior of Secret Service officers and US military in Colombia has elicited well-deserved, widespread criticism although the appropriate redresses are not so clear. Some suggest hopefully that the Secret Service should hire more women. Generally I think more gender and diversity balance in all organizations is always a step toward goodness, although I doubt men would think it fair to discriminate against them just because of their sexual organs. The most ridiculous thing I’ve heard is the intimation that somehow this kind of behavior is a function of having President Obama in office or a “lax” Democratic administration. To begin with, the Secret Service Director is a carryover appointee of President Bush.

But more to the point, men travelling away from home in groups have tended to engage in certain behaviors for Millenia. (We will truly have reached an entirely new evolutionary state when such behavior significantly declines, but clearly we ain’t there yet.) Entire genres of fiction and movies have been spawned by such behavior: The Hangover comes to mind. Port cities across the world steel themselves for the visits of naval ships. In fact the oldest profession could not otherwise exist. And then of course there’s pornography–the largest industry on the internet.

I’m not trying to rag on men. My targets are instead the commentators and individuals who like, Captain Renault, claim to be shocked, shocked to find that men behave in such ways. Really?

Last night I tweeted that I distrust Big Government and Big Business. That I believed in individual effort and community. And that people tend toward both goodness and bad decision-making.

Government and business will continue to make mistakes and bad decisions because both are built on the same raw material: humans. That’s why community standards and individual efforts both play a role in shaping societies and nations.

Such is life.

Useful Tactics for Rebel Managers

Another redirect to Rebelsatwork.com but I’m hopeful I’ll have some new RecoveringFed content up soon. Meanwhile, if you’ve ever wondered why being a rebel is just like being an NFL running back, then read here.

The Tao of Rebel Management

Nothing less appealing than a dour reformer and other advice for rebel managers. Check out my newest post on rebelsatwork.com.