Friday, November 13, 2020

Pearl Harbor, history, and the problems of journalism


Myth versus reality

Confirmation bias and fallacies like post hoc ergo propter hoc are a common feature in conspiracy theories. They let the proponents of such theories avoid the hard, messy work of investigating cause and effect; it makes it easy to find “proof” for the theory without the laborious research good historians undertake.

Journalists – who usually pose as the brave debunkers of conspiracy theories – are also prone to these same fallacies. You find them at the center of the fashionable “argument by epithet” so beloved by places like the New York Times and Vox.

The Founders were racist
The Founders created the Electoral College
Therefore, the Electoral College is a tool of White Supremecy.

Pulitzer prize winning journalist Steve Twomey relies on similar muddled reasoning in his book on Pearl Harbor.

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Twomey believes that he has unlocked the final secret of Pearl Harbor. America's leaders were surprised because America was racist.

It goes all the way up to the racial assumptions about the potential ability of the adversary. From big things to small things, America was complacent about where things stood on December 7.

If you read the American magazines and newspapers in 1941, it’s amazing how the Japanese were considered a funny, curious people, who were technologically inept. They were supposedly physiologically incapable of being good aviators because they lacked a sense of balance and their eyes were not right. It was even believed that the Japanese were bad pilots because, as babies, they would be carried on the backs of their big sisters and got bounced around, so their inner ear was knocked askew.
...
Americans, as a rule, did not credit the Japanese with having deep reservoirs of logic, as Americans defined it. Usually, they fell back on race-laden stereotypes. They reduced the entire nation to ‘the Jap.’ The Jap was a creature of the mysterious East, strange and implicitly inferior. He was inept, easily led, premodern, and uncreative.

If Kimmel and Short had been as woke as your average journalism student, then Yamamoto would have been thwarted on 7 December 1941.

QED

The great tragedy of science - the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.

Thomas Huxley
Had Twomey researched like a historian instead of a reporter, he would have realized that life is rarely as simple (or simplistic) as his journalistic account portrays it.

Much is often made of the racism that is said to have contaminated U.S. pre-war thinking about Japan. It is not to be found in gaming. Game documents did include what were supposed to be racial characteristics of the enemy, but in the case of Japan the usual special characteristic was fanatical courage and devotion to duty. It was not stupidity or rigidity.

Norman Friedman, Winning a Future War

Far from dismissing the skill of Japan's soldiers and sailors on racial grounds, in fact, repeated studies right up to 1941 emphasized the technical proficiency and warrior ethos of Japanese servicemen.


Richard Frank, Tower of Skulls
The US press may have underestimated the Japanese due to racism, but the US Navy had few illusions about their main adversary. Moreover, if bigotry explains why the USN did not accurately assess Japanese capabilities, how then does one explain Britain's similar failure vis-a-vis the US?

During the interwar period it was not so much that the British failed to recognize that carrier effectiveness depended on the number of airplanes that they could launch. Rather, as the only navy with carrier combat experience,British naval oficers presumed that the relatively small numbers of aircraft they could generate at any one time represented the best anyone could do.Admiraly assessments of the US carrier developments during the 1930s indicate that the British discounted, if not disbelieved, American claims about the number of aircraft operating at one time from US carriers.

Barry Watts and Williamson Murray, "Military Innovation in Peacetime"

The inter-war Royal Navy was convinced, incorrectly, that aircraft developed to operate from carriers would necessarily be inferior to their land-based counterparts. That was acceptable as long as carriers fought only other carriers. It was entirely unacceptable if carriers had to beat off repeated attacks mounted from land bases. Gaming forced U.S. officers to confront exactly that situation, and therefore to demand high performance of their fleet aircraft. That had enormous wartime consequences.

Norman Friedman, Winning a Future War
In some respects, the Navy was guilty of giving the IJN too much credit. Was it racist to expect Japan to behave as a rational actor and to avoid national suicide?

Related:

Should we be surprised that we were surprised at Pearl Harbor?

Was Yamamoto a military genius? Or just a reckless gambler who got lucky?

II
I'm a journalist whose job it is to explain to others things he doesn't understand himself. 

Scott Shane, NY Times reporter 

I am a journalist and so am vastly ignorant of many things, but because I am a journalist I write and talk about them all. 

G. K. Chesterton 
Two journalists who understand the absurdity of the central conceit of journalists and journalism: That it is easy to master difficult subjects quickly and then pronounce on them authoritatively. The headlines promise the final word and imply that there is no room for doubt. Behind the scenes, though, the reality of the work is less reassuring:
A typical reporter on deadline calls a couple of people and slaps something into the paper the next day. 
Scott Shane 
That's how a marketing conceit leads to the daily deception of the customer. 

Journalism selects, promotes, and rewards people who buy into this absurd idea. Thus, the “authoritative” stories and books are written by the people least capable of writing them

As they go about the work of of “slapping something into the paper” ambitious reporters understand that their work will only stand out if they fill it with headline-grabbing quotes, vivid personalities, and telling anecdotes. The bottom line is that professional advancement depends on gathering superficial fluff. 

In this lecture, Twomey is quite open about how ill-suited his journalistic skills were for the task of historical research. He also remarks several times on his focus on personalities and good stories. 

We engineers have an aphorism: The fact that something is desirable doesn't mean it is feasible. 
Steve Den Beste 
Unfortunately, this is not an idea that is top of mind with most journalists. It complicates things, makes it hard to keep to a narrative, muddies things up. 

III 

Michael Knox Beran, in Murder by Candlelight argues that the educated progressives of the Victorian era broke with the past by creating comforting myths about crime and evil.
The more one gets into the habit of thinking of evil as a byproduct of social or economic circumstances, or as an anomaly in the neural architecture of the brain, the harder it becomes for one to take it seriously as a permanent element of the soul, one's own included.
This mindset makes evil the sole possession of the Other, not a temptation that each of us face everyday. It is something that can be viewed at arms length. 

In The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders notes that melodrama was “the predominant narrative form." of the nineteenth century. The mass audience flocked to entertainments where story-lines were simple and straightforward: “melodrama characters have preordained parts: a villain is a villain, and will not become a hero." 

Modern journalism, which began at this time, found its mass audience by adopting the forms and tone of melodramas. It was easier to sell newspapers if the story could be presented as a conflict between heroes, villains, and buffoons. It was easier to write the story if reporters and editors had a simple narrative to follow as they hurriedly generated copy for the next edition. 

This, in part, explains the continued popularity of “Republicans pounce” and “conservatives seize” headlines when scandals touch liberal heroes and Democrats commit gaffs. The templates of melodrama allow for no flawed heroes let alone false heroes. No matter what the facts are the narrative demands that they be presented in a form that sees each character playing their predetermined role. 

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Sunday, November 08, 2020

Gen. Harold Moore's three rules for crisis leadership


First, never quit. Three strikes and you're not out. Put that on your refrigerator.

Number two - there's always one more thing you can do to influence any situation in your favor. There's always a way.

Number three - trust your instincts.



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Thought for the week


The professor frowned, "You know perfectly well, inspector, that I most strongly deprecate all conjecture," he replied severely. "Conjecture, unsupported by a thorough examination of facts has been responsible for more than half the errors made by mankind throughout the ages."

John Rhode, "The Elusive Bullet" (1936)

Monday, November 02, 2020

“Dollars can't buy yesterday” (II)


(Part I is here)

Mahan's dictum that good men and bad ships make a better navy than bad men and good ships was always near Nimitz's thoughts .
Ian Toll, Pacific Crucible
In the previous post I noted that the US Navy fought the absolutely critical; battles of 1942 without the benefit of the new ships built under the Two-Ocean Navy Act of 1940. This was, in itself, a remarkable achievement. As FDR said in his 1943 SOTU address:

This past year was perhaps the most crucial for modern civilization. The Axis Powers knew that they had must win the war in 1942 – or eventually lose everything.
It would be wrong, however, to discount the Navy's performance in 1943-1945 by ascribing it solely to the numerical preponderance produced by America's industrial base.

Numbers count in war but they are not everything. Note that the Royal Navy entered the war with a tremendous advantage over the Kriegsmarine. Yet it took nearly four years for Britain to secure it vital lifelines against a numerically inferior enemy. That is, roughly, the amount of time it took the US Navy to sweep the far more formidable Japanese navy from the whole of the Pacific.

Norman Friedman details just how remarkable an accomplishment that was:

To win the Pacific War, the U.S. Navy had to transform itself technically, tactically, and strategically. It had to create a fleet capable of the unprecedented feat of fighting and winning far from home, without existing bases, in the face of an enemy with numerous bases fighting in his own waters. …

If it seems obvious that any naval officer aware of the march of technology would have developed the massed carriers and the amphibious fleet, the reader might reflect that the two other major navies failed to do so. The Japanese did create a powerful carrier striking force, but they made no real effort to back it up with sufficient reserves to keep it fighting. They developed very little amphibious capability useful in the face of shore defenses: They could not, for example, have assaulted their own fortified islands, let alone Normandy or southern France. The British built carriers, but accepted very small carrier air groups because, until well into World War II, they saw their carriers mainly as support for their battle fleet. Like the Japanese, they did not develop an amphibious capability effective against serious defense.


Norman Friedman, Winning a Future War: War Gaming and Victory in the Pacific War
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When it came to experience, the USN trailed Japan and Great Britain. It had not been at war with a great power since the War of 1812.

Its last conventional naval war had been fought against Spain in 1898, before nearly all the weapons and ships of 1919 had even been conceived. Its World War I experience was limited almost entirely to anti-submarine warfare,
Correlli Barnett called war “the great auditor of institutions”. The Pacific War showed that the USN, as an institution, led the world's navies in technological innovation and operational excellence.

Clearly, the USN had done a lot of things right in the eras of Normalcy and Depression.

Friedman has an idea of what the most important thing was:

What set the U.S. Navy apart? War gaming at the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island, seems to have been a large part of the answer. The games played by students there were a vital form of training, but at least as importantly, the games served as a laboratory for the U.S. Navy. It seems to have been significant that, until 1934, the Naval War College was part of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) rather than part of the naval school system. Gaming experience fed back into full-scale exercises (Fleet Problems), and full-scale experience fed back into the detailed rules of the games, which were conceived as a way of simulating reality as closely as possible. Game data were also fed to the U.S. Navy’s war planners, all of whom had graduated from the War College and thus had considerable game experience. The successes and failures of simulation give some guidance into what is needed in current and future games.
Adm. William Sims made war-gaming central to the NWC's mission. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy Department used the NWC as a quasi-think tank and R&D lab. A generation of captains and admirals grappled with the pareticular challenges of war with Japan as well as the evolving nature of sea warfare.

At the same time Newport inculcated a “common command culture “ in the navy's senior leaders and helped breakdown functional silos and mental blinders.

This paid off in the four critical carrier battles of 1942:

During World War II, U.S. non-aviators such as Admiral Raymond Spruance and Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher (both War College graduates) successfully wielded carrier forces. Non-aviators in other navies do not seem to have done nearly so well.
In the “improvised war” the NWC grads and their common command culture bested Yamamoto and his battle-hardened samurai. They did this without the benefit of numerical or technical superiority.

Friedman suggests that the wargames at Newport were the ideal tool to prepare the navy for the Pacific War:

Perhaps the fairest evaluation of military judgment versus gaming would be that in areas in which considerable full-scale experience had been accumulated, military judgment was much more likely to be accurate. Gaming offered insight into wars that had not yet been fought, involving new weapons—particularly aircraft. As we look back, the shift in War Plan Orange—a shift which proved extremely beneficial—was one of those areas.
The Japanese navy also used wargames (as did the Prussian/Germany army which essentially invented military gaming). Why did the USN derive so much more benefit than Japan? Three key differences seem to stand out.

For one thing, the Japanese were focussed – even obsessed – with the idea of a Mahanian decisive battle against the US Battle Fleet in the western Pacific. Like the pre-1914 German General Staff they devoted their wargaming efforts to refining a single strategy. This tunnel vision led the IJN to ignore the problems that came with long campaigns and wide-ranging operations.

Another significant difference was the role of logistics in game play and discussion. In the IJN, logistics officers – if they were even included in the gaming sessions – were to see but not speak. Their role was limited to observing and noting the requirements of the planned operation.

Finally, the NWC wargames were played out by mid-level officers. They were free to explore new strategies and tactics and the faculty could referee the games with no concern about alienating senior admirals. The top officers in Washington were free to analyze the results of the games without implicitly committing to any particular course of action.

Japan's wargames precluded this sort of free-ranging exploration. Their games, like all their planning exercises, were fraught with tension caused by political rivalries, considerations of rank and seniority, and prickly concerns about personal honor. https://leadandgold.blogspot.com/2019/12/pearl-harbor-clausewitz-and-path-to.html

In 1942 – FDR's “critical year” – the Pacific War offered two strategic inflection points. The first occurred after the dazzling Japanese victories at Pearl Harbor, Malaya, and Burma. The second came in the wake of their crushing defeat at Midway. In both cases, the IJN reacted tentatively and with a complete lack of focus. In the spring, Yamamoto sent his carriers to attack Darwin, Australia and then against the Royal Navy in the Bay of Bengal. Meanwhile, he drew up plans for offensives against New Guinea, the Solomons, the Aleutians, and Midway. After Midway he seems never to have settled on clear plan for the defensive war Japan would have to fight. Guadalcanal was seized as an airbase but the island as not fortified and work on the airfield progressed slowly.

In both victory and defeat Yamamoto and his staff seem confused when confronted by sudden changes in the strategic situation.

One cannot ignore the simple fact that not a single [Japanese] operation planned after the start of the war met with success

H. P. Willmott, Empires in the Balance
The USN presents a completely different picture. Despite the shock of Pearl Harbor, which crippled the battleship fleet and rendered the existing warplans obsolete, the Navy moved swiftly and with strategic focus. Steps were immediately taken to secure the sea-lanes to Australia. Carrier operations began to harass the Japanese bases and blunt their offensives: Lae, the Doolittle Raid, Coral Sea, Midway.

When the tide turned, the USN seized the initiative. Marines went ashore at Guadalcanal and Tulagi. Unlike the Japanese, they quickly put the airfield into operation. At a stroke they essentially eliminated the threat to Australia's lifeline. They also gained a foothold for a campaign against the key Japanese base at Rabaul.

This was not the war the USN had expected to fight; it bore little resemblance to the campaigns gamed out at the War College in the 1930s. Yet it was the war they had to fight in 1942. They fought it, won it, but were not diverted from their overall strategy when the new ships were completed and the Central Pacific campaign could begin.

The, IJN, in contrast [syn] improvised and extemporized their way to a strategic disaster:

Japan reached its level of incompetence, where it fought with all its power and to the death. The battlefields of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands were simply too large and too far forward to suit its tiny logistical and transport capabilities....Japan was fighting precisely the war which least suited its material resources, a prolonged and costly battle of attrition beyond easy reach of its supply system.

Michael Handel and John Ferris, "Clausewitz, Intelligence Uncertainty and the Art of Command”


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Thursday, October 29, 2020

“Dollars Can't Buy Yesterday”

In war, time (speed) usually is critically important in determining success or failure:

“The difference between a good officer and a poor one is about ten seconds…”

Commodore Arleigh Burke, the second commander of the storied Little Beavers of Destroyer Squadron 23, first uttered those words shortly after taking command of the squadron in October 1943. He came to this conclusion after studying the Battle of Tassafaronga and validated it through his own observations of combat at sea. The same thinking that led to future Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Burke’s conclusion, echoes today in the words of current CNO Admiral John Richardson, who states in the Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, “The margins of victory are razor thin – but decisive!”
Col. John Boyd put speed at the center of our thinking on the tactical and operational levels of war. It is an important factor at the strategic level as well, but things get a great deal more complicated there.

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In 1940, Congress passed the Two-Ocean Navy Act which funded a massive increase in the size of the US Fleet. While testifying on behalf of the bill, CNO Adm. Harold Stark warned that “dollars can't buy yesterday.” He wanted the lawmakers to understand that it would take years for the new dollars to translate into new ships and crews; simply passing a law would not undo a decades of austerity budgets.

Stark was absolutely correct. War came to America before she had her two ocean navy. The US Navy would fight the critical naval battles of 1942 without the new ships Congress authorized in 1940.

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The French army in 1940 faced the opposite problem. They had the material they needed: The Allies surpassed the Germans in tanks, planes and artillery. What they lacked was an effective doctrine for modern war and the requisite training to fight it.

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.
UCLA coach John Wooden 
The Fall of France shows that top to bottom organizational learning can be a decisive factor in war – fully as important as material factors. Yet this is immensely more difficult difficult to accomplish than simply buying equipment.

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In 1917 Britain and France believed that they had learned the lessons of trench warfare. By the end of the Battles of the Somme and Verdun they had successfully combined overwhelming, accurate artillery fire with careful infantry attacks to seize ground from the Germans and then hold it in the face of the inevitable counter-attack. In 1917 they believed that they could put those lessons to work on a large scale and win the war.

Unfortunately, the German army was also a learning organization. By the the spring of 1917 they had developed new defensive tactics which largely negated those of the Allies. As a result, the Nivelle Offensives did nearly end the war – not with an Allied victory but with a near-collapse of the French armies.

Learning from from your enemy is a devilishly difficult task as the British experience shows.

A committee of British generals attempted to adapt the German defensive tactics for British use, but the resulting instructions denied junior commanders any choice about where to defend or when to counterattack. Although the British defenses were laid out in a manner similar to those of the Germans, they failed due to the absence of local initiative and counter attack, coupled with the British determination to defend hard-won ground even when the ground placed them on forward, rather than reverse slopes.

Jonathan M. House, Combined Arms Warfare in the Twentieth Century
(This calls to mind GM's experience with NUMMI. The venture proved that American workers and managers could apply Japanese automotive methods successfully on US soil. The venture failed, however, to be a catalyst for the revitalization of the whole of GM. The executives could not, or would not, take advantage of the insights from NUMMI.)

Jeffrey Liker, author of “The Toyota Way,” (McGraw-Hill, 2003), says that GM couldn’t figure out how to absorb company-wide the positive cultural lessons it was learning in Freemont.

“I remember one of the GM managers was ordered from a very senior level, a vice-president, to make a GM plant look like NUMMI,” says Liker in the radio story. “He said, ‘I want you to go there with cameras, and take a picture of every square inch, and whatever you take a picture of, I want it to look like that in our plant. There should be no excuse for why we’re different than NUMMI, why our quality is lower, why our productivity isn’t as high, because you’re going to copy everything you see.’ Immediately this guy knew that was crazy. We can’t copy and play motivation, we can’t copy good relationships between the union and management. That’s not something you can copy. You can’t take a photograph of it.”
  
In the Spring 1918 Offensives British soldiers paid a heavy price for their leaders failure (refusal?) to learn. To make matters worse, their German opponents had not stopped learning.

What is interesting in the preparations for the spring 1918 offensive was the ability of the German army, having only in fall 1917 established the new offensive doctrine, to implement training on a consistent and coherent basis throughout those attack divisions that would launch the coming attacks. This was done with a massive, intensive, and thorough program that schooled divisional officers and then worked up the attack divisions for the great western offensive.

Williamson Murray, German Military Effectiveness (1992)
The result was another disaster which once again brought the Allies to the brink of defeat.

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Related:

Why Organizational Change is Hard I

Why Organizational Change is Hard II
If the German Army excelled in organizational learning (at least at the level of tactics and operations), the same cannot be said of their brethren in the Luftwaffe. In the Battle of Britain they were completely outclassed by Britain in doctrine, intelligence, and the “wizard war.”

Victory in the Battle of Britain, -- and Dowding;s claim to be one of the few great captains of the twentieth century -- resulted from the fact that he built an effective air defense system that altered the entire context of within which air forces operated. What is crucial in this example, as Beyerchin suggests, is that while Germans may have possessed better equipment and even tactics, the British operated in a broader framework of contextual change. By doing so they created a new logic within which the Luftwaffe was incapable of winning.

Williamson Murray, Military Innovation in the Interwar Period
What is interesting here is that the Germans still excelled in the technical and tactical spheres of the air war. In France, as part of a combined arms campaign, that had been enough to seal a rapid and decisive victory. When the strategic context changed – the Luftwaffe was now tasked with winning air supremecy over distant island-- they needed something more.

Thinking through (or rather among) the implications of fundamental change requires an interaction of practical and philosophic bents of mind.

A. Beyerchin, “From Radio to Radar”
In Hermann Goering's thoroughly Nazified Luftwaffe, few senior officers possessed minds with a philosophical bent. Britain, fortunately, found just enough such men and found them when it really mattered (1934-1939).

Related:

Understanding innovation  

The forgotten man who saved the world
Sometimes fate is fickle and speed is not rewarded. I've discussed how Britain's army modernization left them critically vulnerable in Malaya and Burma in 1942. Something similar happened with carrier aviation in the Royal navy. In 1936, as part of her military build-up, Britain authorized the building of a new class of aircraft carriers. These ships were woefully outdated by the time they were launched during World War Two. This was not the fault of the designers or of the politicians who approved their creation. What neither group could know was that Japan and the United States would radically advance the state of the art in carrier operations and naval aviation in the years the ships were under construction.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Innovation and the "cult of the imperfect"


Robert Watson Watt was one of the "boffins" who did so much to help Britain win the Second World War. He was instrumental in the development of radar and radio direction finding.

He was, he admitted in his memoirs, part of the "cult of the imperfect."

Give them the third best to go with. the second best comes too late, the best never arrives.
Germany was defeated, in large part, by good enough/now/in large numbers.

Her leaders had chosen to follow a different path during the critical years.

One reason for this [Kursk] and subsequent German defeats was the small number of German tanks produced. Hitler and his assistants were fascinated with technological improvements and frequently stopped production to apply the latest design changes to existing tanks. Further, most German planners prized high quality and were suspicious of mass production techniques. Such problems, coupled with shortages of raw materials, meant that Germany could not compete with its foes in sheer numbers of tanks produced.

Jonathan House 

But technological superiority by itself has never guaranteed success. The Germans had technologically inferior tanks and artillery in 1940; nevertheless, they won one of the greatest operational victories in the history of the twentieth century. In the 19441945 campaigns, the Germans possessed by far and away the most sophisticated fighter aircraft, the most sophisticated heavy tank, the most sophisticated medium tank, the most sophisticated submarine, and the best machine gun. And they went down to catastrophic defeat.

Williamson Murray 
Two style of innovation opposed each other during the war. On the German side you see perfectionism inside a closed system with top-down direction. The western allies operated a much more open system, with room for bottom up experimentation and a willingness to accept good/now beats better later.

We know which one worked.

Oddly enough, the German officer corps under stood. The American General Albert Wedemeyer attended the Kriegsakademie in the late 1930s. As part of his report to the army he noted "“The Germans point out, that often a Commander must make an important decision after only a few minutes deliberation and emphasize, that a fair decision given in time for aggressive execution is much better than one wholly right but too late.”

This is an interesting video that defends/explains the very imperfect Sherman tank.


Related:

Understanding innovation

Patrick Blackett and the innovation trap

Strategic problems and the problem with strategy


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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

What happened to GE?


The fall of GE seems an under-reported story. One of the great corporations in US history -- a one-time perennial on the Most Admired Companies" lists -- is now only a shell of its former self. Even more interesting is that the vaunted "GE Way" of Jack Welch is relegated to the limbo that is the fate of all management fads.

Not that it is necessarily undeserved:

The collapse of previous leadership certainties is clearly demonstrated by the fate of the post-Jack-Welch generation at the famous leadership academy that was GE. As INSEAD’s Yves Doz pointed out, neither of the two unsuccessful candidates for Jack Welch’s job was a success elsewhere. By imposing the GE playbook on it, Jim McNerney ‘nearly killed’ 3M. The tenure of Robert Nardelli at Home Depot was similarly undistinguished. As for GE, the conglomerate last year did the unthinkable by appointing its first leader from outside the company. The common error, said Doz, was an ‘over-structured’ approach to leadership, over-reliant on GE’s well-grooved processes and systems. [source]
In Lights Out: Pride, Delusion, and the Fall of General Electric Thomas Gryta and Ted Mann chronicle the unraveling of GE under Jeffrey Immelt and the travails of his successor, John Flannery. It is a journalistic account: it has plenty of interesting stories but is lacking in analytical rigour. Bob Woodward rather than Peter Drucker.

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

When fine lines make all the difference


Came across an interesting quote by conductor George Szell:

The borderline is very thin between clarity and coolness, self-discipline and severity. He was discussing orchestras and conductors but his observation seems to apply to personality and social interactions.
Is that line defined by the balance of empathy and ego?

There is a performative element to those personalities which we describe as “cold” or “severe”. People are not usually labeled “judgmental” unless they make a habit of pronouncing judgments on those around them.

Love of what is fine should not make one finicky.
Jacques Barzun 
Those we describe as “severe” are not the only people who have high standards. But in this case, we know of their standards because they are quite good at pointing out who falls short of them and in what way they fail to measure up.

Maybe there is an agenda at work.

From the Apostles [Lytton Strachey] grasped the principles of group power: The ability not merely to exclude but to be seen to exclude. He perfected the art of inapproachability and rejection.
Paul Johnson 
Agatha Christie's spinster-sleuth Miss Jane Marple sees the world with as much clarity as any cynical hard-boiled private eye. We don't call her cold or judgmental because she is reticent with her opinions. Even when she unmasks a killer, she eschews histrionic denunciations. Never an apologist for murder, she also never loses sight of the fellow-sinner who committed the crime.

Hercule Poirot strikes the same balance. He has no problem confessing that “I have a bourgeois attitude to murder: I disapprove of it.”. Yet he also understands that “The world is full of good' people who do 'bad' things.” In her detective stories, Agatha Christie shares Solzhenitsyn's conviction that “the line separating good from evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either-but right through every human heart-and through all human hearts.”

(This would seem to put her at odds with the writers of Scandi-thrillers and Nordic noirs. But that is for another time.)

The more one gets into the habit of thinking of evil as a byproduct of social or economic circumstances, or as an anomaly in the neural architecture of the brain, the harder it becomes for one to take it seriously as a permanent element of the soul, one's own included.

The first principle of goodness, it would seem, is to accord evil a healthy respect.

Michael Knox Beran
Related:

Virginia Woolf: Nietzsche on the fainting couch


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Thursday, October 01, 2020

When do disasters become catastrophes?


A good point here:

From a room called fear to a room called hope: A leadership agenda for troubled times

Disasters such as earthquakes, storms, pandemics, and financial meltdowns will always be with us and will always harm people and create economic hardship. As sociologist Lowell Juilliard Carr wrote in 1932, “the collapse of the cultural protections” that sometimes follow is what constitutes a catastrophe. The ability to bounce back and move forward evaporates when people freeze up and freak out—and when they lose trust and faith in one another, in leaders, and in rules, laws, and informal social agreements.
This is an important subject, yet we rarely discuss it.

Part of the reason is that any such discussion can easily look like victim-blaming. We become willfully blind and deliberately tongue-tied for fear of appearing callous and uncaring.

(The Randian objectivists don't help matters here. They are more than willing to blame the victims. They do so gleefully because it fits nicely into the deracinated narratives of their morality plays.)

Another reason that we ignore this vital subject is that the people who are most likely to discuss it are professionals. They are experts at disaster preparation and response. We should not be surprised that they ignore and downplay the vital role that volunteers and amateurs can play.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!
Upton Sinclair 
In the gravest extreme – when the disaster is so massive that a community teeters on the brink of catastrophe – a phalanx of Apollos will not save the day. What is crucial are bands of “amateurs” led by public-spirited mini-Zeuses.

For more on Zeus/Apollo see here.

Professionals are all too frequently infected by the “hive mind” virus. They do no see communities as vital organisms that can help themselves. Instead, they see a mass of witless, emotional individuals who need enlightened rulers to control and help them.
Related:

The continuing appeal of the hive mind

The Hive mind revisited


Strategic plan or bureaucratic exercise


It has become de rigueur for corporate strategic plans to include a list of “mission-critical” initiatives that promise to transform the business, “disrupt” their industry, and drive “world-class performance” through innovation.

Almost none of these “critical initiatives” ever really come to fruition.

I think this helps explain why:

Stars Come Out in a Crisis; Don’t Let Them Fade

Naturally, great performers are who you want when launching any business-critical assignment. Yet, how many frustrated managers have identified a rock star to lead a critical strategic initiative only to struggle to break them free from the less essential role they already occupy?

One common workaround is to position the new role as a great “step up” opportunity that should only require 10% of the star’s time. Excited about the work and committed to getting results, the star and his or her team make great progress at first. But as time passes, progress slows, and energy and focus start to wane. Employees, piled with work, struggle to keep up and even burn out.

What happened?

Every company has to simultaneously run its business and change its business. But when it comes to human capital, those “change the business” growth projects more often than not are denied the resources they need. Ten percent of the time of a star employee who already has an important “run the business” job is not going to cut it. When push comes to shove, “running the business” always feels more urgent. No surprise then that these “change the business” efforts rarely do.



Monday, September 28, 2020

Has Joe Biden ever been "all there"?


From nine years ago:

Biden kept cracking lame jokes that no one got. He seemed like a nice guy, but reminded me of someone's drunken uncle at Christmas dinner.
Mark Owen 
No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden
And this is Joe from 1974:

PORTRAIT OF THE MEDIOCRITY AS A YOUNG MAN
Related:

Joe Biden: Senile or psychopath? One of a continuing series

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Caught flat-footed in a VUCA world


From an HBR interview with Peter Scoblic:

One of the conclusions that I’ve come to in my research is that imagination is a woefully undervalued strategic resource. And that what organizations can benefit from tremendously is the institutionalization of imagination.
Left unsaid:

1. If imagination is "woefully undervalued" then organizations are not hiring for it.

2. It is likely, then, that imagination is going to be in rather short supply -- no matter how much the organization needs it or wants it.

Related:

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 (III)

Doctrine and Fad Surfing


Tuesday, August 11, 2020

How the West Was Lost (I)


In which Dorothy L. Sayers and Agatha Christie see the future with more clarity than H. G. Wells


P. D. James:
But in Chipping Cleghorn or St. Mary Mead murder is only a temporary embarrassment. The vicar may find a body on his study floor but it is unlikely to interfere with the preparation of the Sunday sermon.

Talking About Detective Fiction 
She is writing about the “Golden Age” mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s. Christie, Sayers, and Allingham wrote well-crafted and entertaining popular novels. Their “cozy”, well-ordered world of village, church, and country house has been mocked and denigrated by progressive critics and envious rivals for decades. Yet these authors had an understanding of British character circa 1940 that was more acute than most of the nation's elite. 

Tories like Neville Chamberland and progressives like H. G. Wells were certain that the British population would crack under the pressure of modern war and descend into terrified anarchy. (Vide: The Hive mind revisited

What we see in the characters that populate Golden Age mysteries is the perseverance and unflappability that would carry Britain through the defeats of the early years, the Luftwaffe bombing, and the depredations of the U-boats. 

“French sign peace treaty: We're in the finals” sounds like something Albert Campion might say in a novel, yet a London newsstand put on their sign in in the wake of Dunkirk. 

George MacDonald Fraser both describes and defends this cast of mind (and strength of character) in his memoir of his time with Slim's Fourteenth Army in India and Burma: 
Whatever sorrow was felt, there was no point in talking or brooding about it, much less in making, for form's sake, a parade of it. Better and healthier to forget it, and look to tomorrow....
The celebrated British stiff upper lip, the resolve to conceal emotion which is not only embarrassing and useless, but harmful, is just plain common sense.

Quartered Safe Out Here 

(Anyone interested in Golden Age mysteries – especially their social context and their usefulness as historical artifacts should check out the “Shedunnit” podcast. It is very well done and always informative and insightful.)

B

“The frivolity of evil....” 

P. D. James, born in 1920, came of age in the 1930s and was a young wife and mother during World War Two. She lived into the 21st century and so was able to observe the changes that took place in her nation as “Cool Britannia” supplanted “Rule Britannia” and freedom replaced honour and duty as the highest value. 
They had a far smaller expectation of happiness, admittedly, and a far lesser tendency to regard happiness as a right. All our brightly minted social reforms, the sexual liberation since the war, the guilt-free divorce, the ending of the stigma of illegitimacy, have had their shadow side. Today we have a generation of children more disturbed, more unhappy, more criminal, indeed more suicidal than in any previous era. The sexual liberation of adults has been bought at a high price and it is not the adults who have paid it.

Time to Be in Ernest

The psychiatrist who writes as Theodore Dalrymple has made this point for decades in his books and articles. His practice encompassed both prison work and families caught up in multi-generational cycles of poverty and degradation. He sees very clearly the high price of liberation and who pays it: 
She knew from her own experience, and that of many people around her, that her choices, based on the pleasure or the desire of the moment, would lead to the misery and suffering not only of herself, but-especially-of her own children. This truly is not so much the banality as the frivolity of evil: the elevation of passing pleasure for oneself over the long-term misery of others to whom one owes a duty.

 Our Culture: What's Left of It 

And lest he be accused of misogyny, here he is on the men and their selfishness: 
I have had hundreds of conversations with men who have abandoned their children in this fashion, and they all know perfectly well what the consequences are for the mother and, more important, for the children. They all know that they are condemning their children to lives of brutality, poverty, abuse, and hopelessness. They tell me so themselves. And yet they do it over and over again, to such an extent that I should guess that nearly a quarter of British children are now brought up this way. 
Dalrymple also is astute enough to see that this dysfunction has many serious consequences – most of them unintended and and unexpected: 
It is the breakdown of the family structure-a breakdown so complete that mothers do not consider it part of their duty to feed their own children once they have reached the age at which they can forage for themselves in a refrigerator-that promotes modern malnutrition in Britain. 
He also underlines a key point about James's “brightly minted social reforms”: 
Curiously enough, the revolution in British manners did not come about through any volcanic eruption from below: on the contrary, it was the intellectual wing of the elite that kicked against the traces. It is still doing so, though there are very few traces left to kick against. 


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