Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That vision thing


Strategy, vision, and leadership

What CEOs Get Wrong About Vision and How to Get It Right

When a leader must implement a new strategy, especially one that requires new systems, processes, and perhaps people, it is the start of a new era. Success requires more than the right combination of capital and technology; it also requires a critical mass of employees to adopt new behaviors and ways of thinking. But too often, CEOs and boards in these situations think through the capital and technology issues much more carefully than those involving behavior and attitudes. That imbalance is a primary reason new strategies fail.
All too often, when organizations start crafting “vision statements” it is a bureaucratic exercise undertaken grudgingly and with little commitment. The resulting product looks as if the Underpants Gnomes were lead consultants on the project.

1. Our current poor performance is unsustainable.
2. Vision!!! Strategy!! Leadership!
3. World class performance and rivers of profit!
As is always the case with the Underpants Gnomes, Step 2 needs a little fleshing out.

A while back Inc. magazine asked executives at six hundred companies to estimate the percentage of their workforce who could name the company’s top three priorities. The executives predicted that 64 percent would be able to name them. When Inc. then asked employees to name the priorities, only 2 percent could do so. This is not the exception but the rule. Leaders are inherently biased to presume that everyone in the group sees things as they do, when in fact they don’t. This is why it’s necessary to drastically overcommunicate priorities.
The Culture Code
Daniel Coyle
Field Marshall William Slim was one of the great commanders of World War Two. He took over a demoralized, defeated army that had known only defeat--Singapore, Malaya, Burma. In two years he had transformed it. In the reconquest of Burma, his Fourteenth Army inflicted the greatest defeat the Imperial Japanese Army suffered during the war.

His methods were not the stuff of soaring vision statements or Napoleonic bluster.

Training could inspire confidence, but not motivation. From past experience, Slim learned that the best approach was the most simple and direct -- to talk to as many troops as he could, man to man, cutting through the traditional barriers of military hierarchy. It was also the most time-consuming. Slim reckoned that this exercise took up a third of his time.
Churchill’s Generals
Slim also recognized that transformation must begin with small steps and small victories. That was the only way to restore confidence and gain the trust of the men in the ranks.

When it came to putting theory into practice, Slim took things steadily and carefully. Failure at this stage would have been psychologically disastrous, and his initial limited attacks, often deploying entire brigades against single Japanese companies, were designed to ensure success.
One sees the same idea at work in the leadership style of FM Bernard Montgomery.

Although he was fond of emphasizing that morale was the most important single factor in war, he knew that morale could not be maintained unless everyone from the top to the bottom was confident they could succeed. For that, the strategy, the 'masterplan', had to be sound, the tactics adapted to the circumstances and the soldiers thoroughly trained to implement them.
In contrast, there is no better example of the dangers of lofty, unconstrained vision than the Nivelle offensive in 1917. It provoked mutinies in the French Army and brought the Allies to the brink of defeat.

Related:

Smart talk on strategy

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable (Part Two)

Why corporate change is hard and failure almost inevitable (Part Three)

Waiting for our Clausewitz

Clausewitz (Part Two)


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Peloponnesian War or politics in the Age of Twitter?


An even more striking example of Thucydides’s concern with the corruption of language was found in his description of the uprising in Corcyra, which resulted in a bloody civil war between the democrats and the oligarchs. As he described the breakdown of social order, he also described the corruption of language. Recklessness became courage, prudence became cowardice, moderation became unmanly, an ability to see all sides of a question became an incapacity to act, while violence became manly and plotting self-defense. The advocate of extreme measures was to be trusted and those who opposed them suspect.
Lawrence Freedman
Strategy: A History


Monday, September 18, 2017

Coalition strategy and strategic fantasies


The first requirement for a student of Allied grand strategy in World War Two is a high tolerance for boredom. Anglo-American strategy was not the stuff of Napoleonic genius translated into instant military action. Instead, strategic decision-making was a matter of memoranda. Memos setting out each partner’s proposed strategy. Memos responding to those memos. Memos preparing for conferences. Memos memorializing the decisions reached at those conferences.

It makes for dry and often tedious reading. Yet this memo-laden process (Eisenhower called it a “trans-Atlantic essay contest”) was vital to forging the war-winning strategy of the Allies.

The contrast with the Axis is stark. Despite all the bumps along the way, the allies were making joint strategy: all the memo-writing led to decisions that bound both the US and Great Britain. The Axis resolutely refused to do anything like this.

This article illustrates just how disconnected the Axis powers were as they fought a global coalition.

The Italian Navy and Japan: Strategy and Hopes, 1937-1942

The Japanese advances in the Southeast Asia and the fall of Singapore produced a sort of ‘cascade effect’ also on the Axis naval position: Rome (and Berlin) at least perceived this. The Italian Navy was increasingly confident that now the Tripartite could launch a global assault on the enemy sea-lanes. The Japanese guarantees fueled Italian expectations that establishing a naval contact with the Axis via the Indian Ocean was a priority. In April 1942, the raid of the Japanese Fleet against Ceylon seemed to anticipate further projection in the area, while the Japanese dismissed the British occupation of the naval base of Diego Suarez in Madagascar in May 1942 as unimportant. The Italians envisaged the possibility to send the largest number of their submarines in the Indian Ocean to attack enemy shipping that was resupplying British forces in the Middle East, but the proposal was rejected.

At this point, practical cooperation would have needed a political instrument to work. The only suitable seats were the Military Commissions. However, in March 1942, the three powers agreed that ‘[T]he commissions’ activity must […] act only at the margins of the political and military conduct of the war’. Even the exchange of information and intelligence not worked. Supermarina had to follow the official bulletin of the Imperial General Headquarters to obtain details of Japanese naval losses: this explains why the Japanese defeat at Midway never appears in the Italian reports.

During summer 1942, the stalemate at El-Alamein and the possibility that British 8th Army might mount a counteroffensive made it urgent for the Axis to attack the enemy supply lines. At the end of August, Abe personally assured Mussolini that submarines were intensifying operations in the Indian Ocean. Indeed, between August and November, the Submarine Squadron 8 was dispatched in the Western Indian Ocean, sinking 60,000 tonnes of ships. The Italians and the Germans proposed again to send their submarines to cooperate with the Japanese, asking for the necessary logistical support. Tokyo refused, arguing that Japanese units had to operate alone to avoid incidents with the Axis units.


Friday, September 15, 2017

A little dash of Chesterton


Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which your are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. ... It may be that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal and that you are a paralytic.
As I Was Saying


Smart talk on strategy


How Nelson Did It

One of the most interesting commentators on strategy is Richard Rumelt, author of Good Strategy/Bad Strategy (2011). The book opens with a brief account of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s naval victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, when the British fleet consisting of 27 ships defeated the combined forces of the French and Spanish, which numbered 33 ships. Nelson won the day by adopting an unconventional strategy. Flouting the naval convention of the time, he divided his smaller fleet into two columns and sailed them perpendicularly into the enemy fleet to cut the Franco-Spanish line.

Nelson knew that his lead ships would be vulnerable to Franco-Spanish guns until they could close on the opposing fleet. He gambled that the less well-trained enemy gunners would not be able to capitalize on their advantage. He was proved right. The French and Spanish canons were not able to compensate for the heavy swell and missed their opportunity to sink the British ships while they could not return fire. Once the battle was joined, the superiority of the British seamanship was decisive. The French and Spanish lost 22 ships. The British lost none. This, as Rumelt points out, is an example of a good strategy.

“Nelson’s challenge was that he was outnumbered. His strategy was to risk his lead ships in order to break the coherence of his enemy’s fleet. With coherence lost, he judged, the more experienced English captains would come out on top in the ensuing melee. Good strategy almost always looks this simple and obvious and does not take a thick deck of PowerPoint slides to explain. It does not pop out of some “strategic management” tool, matrix, chart, triangle, or fill-in-the-blanks scheme. Instead, a talented leader identifies the one or two critical issues in the situation—the pivot points that can multiply the effectiveness of effort—and then focuses and concentrates action and resources on them."
This is obviously true. So obvious that it seems almost self-evident. Yet, the empirical evidence is also clear -- most large organizations do not have clear strategies as Richard Rumelt defines the term.

Large bureaucracies do not have strategies, they produce shopping lists.
Zbigniew Brzezinski
Rumelt offers several reasons why this is so:

Bad strategy flourishes because it floats above analysis, logic, and choice, held aloft by the hope that one can avoid dealing with these tricky fundamentals and the difficulties of mastering them.
Related:

A primer on strategy

Waiting for our Clausewitz

Clausewitz (II)



Thought for the day


There was and is a strong tendency among Marxists to accept pseudoscience. The mechanism seems to be related to the desire for complete solutions -- which are, of course, more commonly found in the pseudosciences than in the sciences proper
Robert Conquest


Friday, September 01, 2017

The Hive mind revisited


I-Y-Is strike again

Every theory has a political agenda

Elite panic and elite power

A few years back I blogged about G. K. Chesterton’s shattering insight that progressives like H.G. Wells and G. B. Shaw hated humanity as it was and wished (dreamed?) of remaking mankind so that we were more like insects.

The birth of the hive mind
This Wellsian heresy persists even to this day. It has crippled our economy (thanks Tim Cook), it fuels media narratives and pop history, and it creates “elite panic.”

It even helped Hitler gobble up much of Europe. Really.

Yet this particular “paranoid style” is seldom discussed.

No surprise. This form of mass hysteria is not populist; it haunts the imagination of the Intellectual-Yet-Idiot.

We have all heard about Orson Welles’s radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’s “War of the Worlds” in October 1938. The conventional narrative highlights the mass panic than ensued due to the gullibility of the American public.

Lazy journalists still trot it out when they need to write an easy story about the dangers of mass hysteria.

It does not seem to matter that the whole narrative is bogus.

‘Digital wildfires’ and the ‘War of the Worlds’ media myth
Jesse Walker is quite good on this point:

The 'War of the Worlds' story is usually told as a parable about popular hysteria -- a sudden spike in the sort of fear that Hofstadter's essay decried. But at least as much, it is a parable about elite hysteria -- of the antipopulist anxiety that Hofstadter's essay exemplifies. No history of American paranoia can be complete unless it includes the latter.
The United States of Paranoia
Two years before the radio broadcast another H.G. Wells work was turned into a movie. “Things to Come” begins with a new European war and the terror bombing of London. The bombing causes a collapse of civilization and a “barbarous struggle for survival.”

The movie-makers, like Wells himself, shared the key assumption of early air-power theorists: bombing the home front would so disrupt daily life that a nation would be forced to surrender or face a total collapse.

This was one of the key fears that drove support appeasement in Britian in the 1930s. “The bomber would always get through” and the bombing would cause mass panic and a total breakdown of order.

One would think that the events of the summer and fall of 1940 would have decisively refuted this elite hysteria.

Six weeks that saved the world

The forgotten man who saved the world
But as Saul Bellow said “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”

Stephen Ambrose:

Conspiracy theories about past events usually carry with them a political agenda
And let’s not kid ourselves—elite hysteria may look ridiculous, but elite paranoia serves a useful purpose for modern mandarins and the Intellectuals-Yet-Idiots who populate that class. Paranoids are great at spotting problems and “looming crises”. These then inevitably provide a pretext for the mandarins to acquire more power.

Elite paranoia goes hand in hand with elite control.

Which is something Chesterton understood a century ago.

We are always ready to make a saint or a prophet of the educated man who goes into cottages to give a little kindly advice to the uneducated. But the mediaeval idea of a saint or a prophet was something quite different. The mediaeval saint or prophet was an uneducated man who walked into grand houses to give a little kindly advice to the educated
Heretics


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Remember


When the chips are down, America is still more Frank Capra than Mad Max.


Monday, August 28, 2017

“I’m gonna try to save some lives”


The public response to the disaster in Houston is inspiring but not surprising.
We’ve seen it before:

1940: A season of miracles: Dunkirk

"I never want to say the word 'I should have'"

Cajun Navy
Jesse Walker:

"In real world disasters, as we noted in chapter 3, genuine panic is rare and spontaneous social cooperation is the norm."
The United States of Paranoia
Rebecca Solnit has some interesting insights into why the MSM is so often surprised by the public’s performance when the chips are down. (HT: Schneir on Security)

The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disasterCharles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarkeproceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.

Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surfacethat was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic.


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

This can't be said often enough


Gawker Is Dead And Deserved To Die

Gawker was a vile website dedicated to the destruction of human beings, especially those its founder, Nick Denton, disliked.
---
Gawker was a site built to destroy lives. Its mission was to discover the worst moment in a person’s life, and then publicize it for profit.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Why is thinking a lost art in large organizations?


From the Sloan Management Review:

The Lost Art of Thinking in Large Organizations

Many executives in big companies attained their positions by excelling at getting things done. Unfortunately, a bias for doing rather than thinking can leave these executives ill-equipped for their new roles.

If you ask managers in a large organization to approach a strategic business problem, their focus often quickly narrows to proposing solutions. When asked why, many respond that they don’t have time to think.

How did we arrive in a state where managers do not recognize that thinking is part of their job? The answer reflects a relentless focus on execution in many large companies. A company becomes big by finding a successful business model and then scaling it massively. This necessitates building a finely tuned system with highly standardized processes. To get promoted in such an environment requires an almost singular focus on execution. In other words, it requires action more than thinking. However, once executives are promoted to a senior level, these new business leaders must be able to think strategically. Ironically, the very skills in execution that led to their promotions often make these executives ill-equipped for their new roles, since their strategy thinking muscles have withered from disuse.
Question One:

Is the “no time to think problem” connected to the Hurry Up And Wait” problem?

I suspect the answer is “Yes”.

HUAW: Think of it as a symptom of deeper problems
Question Two:

Would organizations recover the “lost art of thinking” if they paid more attention to von Manstein’s insight into officer selection?

When hard work doesn't pay


Related:

The Best Strategic Planning Advice Ever