Category Archives: Organizational Dynamics

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.

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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.

The Bearable Discomfort of Rebels

Check out my new blog post on the grittiness of being a rebel in the workplace. Rebelsatwork.com

 

Steve Jobs: Good or Bad Rebel?

Fifty years from now, I’m sure Steve Jobs will still be seen as one of the great business leaders of the 20th century.* But I bet the jury will still be out as to whether he was a good rebel or a bad rebel. What I’m referring to is my friend Lois Kelly’s excellent chart detailing the characteristics of good and bad rebels in organizations. What do we mean by rebels, or heretics as I often describe myself?  We’re talking about those people in organizations who have strong views as to how the organization can improve, how it needs to change. They are brave (or foolhardy) enough to stand against the prevailing doctrine of the organization and seriously argue for another way.

Whenever Lois or I have spoken recently about the need for organizations, in these times of demanding change, to make better use of the rebels within their midst, we get asked a very good question. How can you tell a good rebel from a bad one? Lois’s list is a good start at answering that question, but the curious case of Steve Jobs shows, I would argue, how in some cases you as a leader may never be quite sure what kind of heretic you’re dealing with.

Now to be fair to rebels/heretics everywhere, Steve Jobs doesn’t really qualify as a rebel in the way we mean it. Apparently from the very beginning of his corporate/entrepreneurial career, he was at the top of the heap, more or less calling the shots. In fact, it’s quite clear, once you begin to think about entrepreneurs, that being rebellious and restless is one of their essential drivers. One way to think about rebels is as the individuals in your organization who are one or two personality quirks away from being full-fledged entrepreneurs. As a leader, you should consider yourself lucky to have such an asset, if indeed you have a good one.

Which brings us back to Steve Jobs. Here is Lois’s list.

Stories about Steve Jobs suggest that he spent his life hopping back and forth between the pairs. (Confess I haven’t read the biography yet.)

  • Steve Jobs was a complainer….and a creator.
  • He was angry….and passionate.
  • He was me-focused….and mission-focused

Well, you get the point.

For me, the aspect of Steve Jobs character that is most difficult to excuse or explain away, and is implicit in several of the bad rebel characteristics, was his rudeness and meanness to other people. (He pointed fingers at others.) There are many stories to this effect, and my favorite (because it rings so true) is the account that Apple employees worried about being in the same elevator with Jobs for fear they would no longer have a job when the elevator doors opened. Jobs was indeed lucky that he was always the leader of organizations, not their employee, because we all know that such behavior in mere employees is rarely tolerated, and for good reasons.  In fact, it is hard to think of a more poisonous workplace situation than when a weak boss allows a strong but pathological employee to run roughshod over colleagues because she delivers on the mission.

Of course Steve Jobs’ personality did cost him the leadership of Apple during the 1980s, an event that he cited as one of the most important learning experiences of his life. But the occasional account that he mellowed over the past ten years or so just don’t ring true to me. The telling and convincing details just aren’t there. I suspect that Jobs, who reportedly ran through 60 nurses in the hospital before he found 3 he could tolerate, remained a difficult and demanding person all his life. But in the end, almost everyone, including some of the folks he abused, believed he was worth it.

The Rebel as Paradox, then, will pose the greatest challenge to the leader who wants to tap into rebel energy. Intensive coaching might help, but we all know spending disproportionate time and energy on one individual will often unbalance an entire team and/or mission. In the end, the Paradoxical Rebel may just have to move on, willingly or not, and your role as a manager/facilitator may only extend to providing the lesson that he might potentially learn from. His future might lie as an entrepreneur. Or the experience of failure may result in the necessary reflection to adjust behaviors. It is always more effective to reflect on experience than on advice. But in the end, it will always be the responsibility of the Paradoxical Rebel to demonstrate that his ideas are worth the price the organization must pay.

*Addendum:  As I was drafting this blog, I did some research on other great business leaders Steve Jobs might compare to. When you google “Great American Business Leaders” the first hit you get is Harvard Business School’s handy database on American business leaders of the 20th Century. It’s instructive just to scan the lengthy listings, scrolling past names such as Elizabeth Arden, Michael Bloomberg, Henry Ford, Edwin Land–the Polaroid genius whom Steve Jobs greatly admired, Edwin Luce, H. Ross Perot, David Sarnoff, and hundreds of others.

It is a pretty cool database, but you know it could stand some serious rethinking in terms of its categorization scheme. For each leader, several facts are provided: age, company, education. But the two categories that frankly struck me as odd were Race and work background of Father, i.e. skilled worker, small merchant, whatever. Why any institution would use the increasingly discredited “race” category as a discriminator of anything of value is beyond me. (I know Federal Law still mandates its use in many instances (and people increasingly are subverting it by picking other categories) but this database would not be subject to that law.) And the inclusion of the Father’s occupation but not the mother’s is just plain weird and totally inappropriate for today’s society. I do think Harvard Business School could do a little better here.

We the People

Four tweets I posted this morning in search of a blog:

“About 500 years after government as social institution achieved full operational mode, the socials themselves are having buyers regret.” It’s not easy to assign a date for when modern government began, but the 17th century, with its scientific revolution, the long reign of Louis XIV, and Europe’s expansion in earnest into the Western Hemisphere seems as likely a spot as any. During that century, you still had strong allegiance to the theological justification for government, divine right of kings and all that rot, but philsophers in the 18th century began to react by asserting some essential human rights.

“Governments, i.e. Functionaries, think themselves separate from and above people and groups. Au contraire Govt is below both, their creation.” It’s hard to resist thinking, if you’re a senior Government official, that you have somehow attained a higher level that the average Jane. (I know. I was one of dem for almost ten years!) And without you even realizing really, you begin to treat laws and regulations as if they are the primary source. WHICH IS LIKE REALLY WRONG!! Laws and regulations are secondary and tertiary sources: the primary source in democratic societies is the will of the people. My time in government taught me there really is no such thing as bureaucracy. Instead, what really happens is that we all become Bureaucrats. Bureaucrats worship false Gods.

Even in dictatorshps, government survives in large part on the consent of the governed. The people find it difficult to generate enough willpower and fortitude to overthrow it. (What we saw in Egypt was an inspiring example of what happens when the people do in fact get their Motivation going.) I don’t mean in any way to criticise individuals or blame the victims. I doubt I could be so courageous. But I’m simply repeating what my priest-professor once said in a Catholic University philosophy class: The only way you can be compelled to do anything is if someone physically picks you up and makes you do it. Otherwise everything is coercion, and the success of coercion always correlates to the strength of the will.

“Social networks, computing power allow individuals, groups 2 redress balance of power btw them & institutions of Govt. Trend will continue.” For much of human history, government, once established–even democratically, began to accrete to itself more and more power, in many cases, particularly with 20th-century authoritarian regimes, creating effective monopolies of power. Today, the balance of power is sliding rather
inelegantly but joyfully away from government and toward the Socials, the people and the groups they form. We are only seeing the start of a dynamic that will affect all institutions, even democratic ones and private businesses, that have allowed their actions to wander away from their popular mandates or customers.

“In a sense Govt laws and regulations are like the terms and agreements u receive when u install new software..cept u really can NOT ACCEPT.” As I wrote these tweets I was reminded of the Terms and Agreements you never can read–I mean really who would have the time and power of concentration?–but nevertheless must default accept to install new software. When we join a group we accept similar terms and agreements, except the ones written down are supplemented by unwritten ones you figure out yourself through trial and error, like playing a giant game of Myst. Demonstrations and popular uprisings are not unlike mass selections of the “I do not accept” and “I do not agree” options. To function better as societies, we need to make the “I do not accept”option much less traumatic–by the way, software developers need to do the same for this step to become meaningful again in software deployment. Government and business engagement in social activities and networks and their willingness to adjust in real time and meaningful ways to feedback are the only ways to ease the trauma of rejection.

The Angry Birds Guide to Organizational Change

This is such a cheap, exploitative blog post that, really, I’m just ashamed of myself. But at least I can say it’s authentic. Like  several other million people on the planet recently, I’ve been playing Angry Birds. I’ve completed all the levels, but haven’t gone back to get the 3 stars. And as I whiled away, oh I don’t know, maybe ten hours on the game, about half of them on plane flights, I got to thinking, there’s something about these crazy birds attacking the Pig Castles that’s like a metaphor for organizational change, more precisely for the quixotic charge of the rebel trying to bring down the status quo. And if you know me at all, I’ve yet to meet a metaphor I didn’t fall madly, if only temporarily, in love with.

So maybe there are some people out there that haven’t played Angry Birds yet. Or, like I ten days ago, had only heard of the mania but hadn’t actually seen the game. So let me explain it briefly. These green pigs steal the eggs of some local birds. The pigs construct these Rube Goldberg-inspired castles to protect the eggs and assorted other  treasures they pick up along the way. The now Angry Birds, which have unique offensive characteristics, launch themselves against the castles like Avian Kamikaze. Your task is to direct the birds in an optimum way against the pig castles until you bring them down. Here’s a nice little cinematic trailer that summarizes the setup.

So what have I learned about organizational change from directing my birds against the Château de Cochon (sounds cooler in French, methinks.)

1. It’s all about the angle of attack. Not all the birds are equally powerful, some drop bombs, some mirv into multiple birdheads, others speed up and penetrate the targets like torpedoes. But it’s rare for a bird, until the end when the Red Giants emerge, to be able to take down the Pig Castles or even do much damage unless you precisely aim it at a critical junction or weak point. We organizational heretics, we would-be topplers of the status quo really spend too much time on frontal assaults, getting beat up because we’re not willing to analyze the best place, time and way to make our arguments.

2. It’s all about trail and error. I know there are some gifted Angry Bird players who never waste a shot, but for most of us the sweetness of the game play is in the learning slowly, often painfully incrementally, the best way to get to the pigs. Here’s a part of the metaphor that doesn’t apply that well to organizational change. The rebels and organizational heretics certainly don’t get that many chances to reshape an organization. But we do usually get at least a couple. Observe what goes down very carefully. Learn from it. Share lessons within your rebel alliance. And then, like the birds, take a couple of aspirin, dust yourself off, and try again. BUT IN A DIFFERENT SPOT.

3. Stop banging your heads against Brick Walls.

4. Show some patience and let some of your moves play out over time. Angry Bird kamikaze attacks against Pig Castles often play out slowly. Sometimes when you don’t think you’ve landed a particularly powerful blow, the superstructure nevertheless begins to sway just enough to bring down the entire Château.

5. Resistance can be found in unexpected nooks and crannies. At the higher levels of Angry Birds, there can be upwards of a dozen pigs in the castle. Naturally, we concentrate on bringing down the obvious Pig Leaders, but even when we’ve used up all our bird attacks, a small seemingly insignificant pig lurks in the tall grass to defeat us.

6. It’s all about the sequencing. The larger Château de Cochon can require about ten Angry Bird attacks and many of your early launches appear to do very little damage to the superstructure. But your final assaults won’t succeed without those early attacks. All organizational heretics need to think hard about where to begin their campaign against the status quo. And organize it like a campaign!!! I think one of the things that kills change initiatives is that the status quo defenders have much better tactics and strategies than the change advocates.

And Finally…

7. Sometimes you just have to chip away.

Anyway, that’s what playing Angry Birds taught me about organizational change. Any others?

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.

Has Twitter Eaten My Brain? (Lesson 22)

It’s been more than a month since I wrote a blog post. Reasons:

1. I’ve started doing some hours as a consultant, so most of my pleasant “thinking and writing mornings” have disappeared. I need to develop a new routine.

2. I’m getting ready for a vacation to southern Africa. I have two more nights of good sleep left before it’s wheels up, and stay tuned to this space for pictures and reports of what we hope will be excellent adventures. My interest in the world has many antecedents, but one in particular was the show Discovery that ABC aired in the 60s and 70s as part of its weekend children’s programming. Perhaps some of you remember it as well? Hearing the jazzy score after four decades is Proustian in its effect.

3. I haven’t had anything to say that I couldn’t say in 140 characters or less. Is this scary? I can’t quite decide myself, but generally I quite like the discipline of having to convey ideas in short, digestible snippets, although admittedly the “telegraph” language and spelling used in twitter just seems to confuse/annoy some people.

I keep a list of topics, ideas I might want to blog about, but none of them seemed worthy of an entire posting.

  • On Diversity. One of the ways I can tell that Latinos haven’t really made it into corporate America yet is how easy it is to use my surname, straight and unadulterated, as a userid on business-oriented websites. On the Harvard Business Review website, I was able to walk right in as “camedina”. At the CIA I was just plain “medina”. No medina25, no convoluted acronyms. Medina is a pretty common Spanish surname; according to About.com it ranks 30th in frequency of use in Spanish-speaking countries. (In the US the 30th most common surname is King.)  The About.com list of 100 most common US surnames makes for good perusing. The two most common Spanish surnames in the US are Garcia and Martinez, which come in at 18 and 19, with Rodriguez just outside of the top 20.
  • More on Diversity. There have been some comments on my post from a few weeks ago on the essential Latino heritage of the US. I’ve really no interest in argument, because I’ve learned over the years that debate never really seems to change most people’s views. I’ve been struck recently, however, by the dynamic impact that new waves of immigrants are having on US society.  For example, the south Asian, specifically Indian, contribution to the US economy cannot be overestimated. I’ve read estimates that upwards of 25% of Silicon Valley startups are Indian-run firms. Personally, I think the most prosperous future economic scenario for the US is decidedly multicultural.
  • On the Difference between Government and Private Industry. As I dip a toe or two into work outside of government, my first impression is that the two are more similar than not. Both probably have about the same proportion of good/dumb ideas and competent/incompetent staff. The key advantage for private industry, however, appears to be that it can kill bad ideas/projects a lot more easily than the federal government seems to be able to.
  • Lesson 22 from a CIA manager: Be clear about what kind of management problem you’re facing. Sure, there are many sticky situations the artful manager can unstick, but be careful to diagnose problems correctly. There is a whole set of problems that managers can never solve. They can only be solved by the passage of time (and generations). Many of these can only be managed like some kind of chronic illness. The Arab-Israeli dispute comes to mind, for example. Really difficult people are also likely to “outclass” you. Remember, you will only spend at best a few years with this individual who suffers from really difficult emotional issues or pathologies. My motto was: If your parents weren’t able to correct your behavior, there’s very little chance I ever will.

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.