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


The Best Strategic Planning Advice Ever

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Thucydides trap and the Korean conundrum

This is an outstanding episode of Federalist Radio. Ben Domenech interviews Graham Allison about his new book. From there the conversation ranges to China, Korea, and the limits of expertise.

Can Lessons From Thucydides Keep America From War With China?
A couple of follow-on points:

1. Allison notes that regime change in Korea may seem necessary, but also warns that our experience of Iraq and Libya also shows that the aftermath of regime-change is never pretty and never a cake-walk.

Left unmentioned was the direct link between the fall of Gaddafi and Kim Jong Un’s drive to secure a nuclear capability. Jerry Pournelle warned that the Obama/Clinton adventure in North Africa would have serious consequences:

North Korea: Jerry Pournelle can say 'I told you so'

One lesson to be learned is, DO NOT LOSE if you are in the dictator business. The US will borrow money to furnish the Brits, French, and Italians with the means to kill you. Understand that, and be sure that you have the means for defending yourself. The more strategic your country the more important it will be to have defenses including personal defenses. Another lesson is, do not renounce your nukes. Get some. Get at least one and let it be known that it will detonate if you don’t talk to it at daily intervals.

Kim Jong Un grasped the Realpolitik lesson of the Melian Dialogue. The immediate cause of Gaddafi’s downfall was not his brutality but his weakness.

The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
2. To the Chinese, a ‘solution’ to the Korean crisis looks much different than it does to Washington.

This may be an example of Dr. David Lai’s point that “different nations play different games” which in turn means they view the world from different geo-strategic perspectives.

A nation of Go players cannot help but notice that “dealing with Kim Jong Un” also looks a lot like “encircle the Chinese homeland.”

[See also Beyond Chess and Checkers]
Even if that is not the intention of US foreign policy, we must understands that China will still look with suspicion on such moves.

3. We also have to recognize that our post-Cold War foreign policy has given China ample reason to suspect that such encirclement is the real goal. It is, after all, what we did to Russia despite our promises that we would do no such thing.

The first 30 minutes of this lecture provides a solid overview of the missteps and broken promises that marked US-Russian relations in the Clinton-Bush years.

It really does not matter if the US was reckless, feckless, naïve or Machiavellian. What matters is that our past actions shape how other nations perceive our current initiatives.

4. We also must recognize that China may value Kim Jong Un as a cat’s paw. During the tensest days of the Cold War Khrushchev explained the real value of Berlin to Moscow: “Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”

It is quite possible that China sees Kim in the same light. His provocations are an ideal way to hobble and distract the US in the Western Pacific.

5. Allison has some smart things to say about the limits of expertise in dealing with knotty foreign polity issues. Let us say that he is not in the Tom Nichols “shut up and obey” camp.

Monday, August 07, 2017

Diseconomies of scale and the US failure in Iraq

Bigger ain't always better

The high cost of efficiency

When we look back at what went wrong in Iraq, it is hard to ignore the myriad mistakes made by Paul Bremer and his merry band of modern nation builders.

This talk by Col. Peter Mansoor from 2009 offers and incisive analysis.

One key point he makes is that Bremer centralized reconstruction spending and took it out of the hands of the military commanders on the ground.

While that may have seemed like a great way to maximize efficiency, it had the opposite effect. Instead of flowing directly into the local economy, the money ended up going to multi-national companies and foreign contractors. This helped pave the way for the insurgency and the rise of ISIS.


Diseconomies of scale

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

People this brave deserve to be remembered

First posted 1 August 2008

On 1 August 1944 the Polish Home Army launched a uprising in Warsaw against the German occupiers. They had few weapons but possessed an abundance of courage. The time was right: the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw and Allied armies were advancing against the Germans in France. Wehrmacht officers had nearly killed Hitler on 20 July. It seemed that end of the Nazi state was at hand,

Moscow radio had even broadcast a call to arms to the Poles on 29 July.

In the first days, the uprising had success. The Home Army gained control of central Warsaw. Then they were betrayed by their allies and their allies ally.

The Red Army took no steps to aid the Poles. They even refused to allow British and American planes to use Soviet airfields in airlift and bombing operations. Churchill and Roosevelt had no military options and only a few diplomatic ones. Churchill wanted to put pressure on Stalin but FDR refused. The Warsaw Uprising was a potential embarrassment to a man running for his fourth term. He had already acquiesced to Stalin’s plans for Poland but dared not admit it for fear of losing the votes of Polish-Americans and other Catholics. The Uprising threatened to make Poland an issue in his last campaign.

Many in the West believed the Uprising was hopeless and tragic from the very beginning. The Home Army disagreed. They sent this message to London on 24 August:

Hello.. here is the heart of Poland! Hear Warsaw speaking!
Throw the dirges out of your broadcasts;
Our spirit is strong it will support even you!
We don’t need your applause!
We demand ammunition!!!

They did not get their ammunition but still the Poles fought on. They held out for 63 days-- fighting house to house and hand to hand against tanks and professional soldiers while under continuous bombardment from artillery and the Luftwaffe. Over 200,000 Poles died. It was the equivalent of a 9/11 a day for over two months.

Just before the end, Warsaw radio broadcast a searing message:

This is the stark truth. We were treated worse than Hitler’s satellites, worse than Italy, Rumania, Finland. May God Who is just, pass judgment on the terrible injustice suffered by the Polish nation, and may He punish accordingly all those who are guilty.

Your heroes are the soldiers whose only weapons against tanks, planes, and guns were their revolvers and bottles filled with petrol. Your heroes are the women who tended the wounded and carried messages under fire, who cooked in bombed and ruined cellars to feed children and adults, and who soothed and comforted the dying. Your heroes are the children who went on quietly playing among the smoldering ruins. These are the people of Warsaw.

Immortal is the nation that can muster such universal heroism. For those who have died have conquered, and those who live on will fight on, will conquer and again bear witness that Poland lives when the Poles live

It is a sad fact that the only party to behave honorably toward the Home Army was the Wehrmacht. After 63 days the Poles were still fighting though they had no hope of success. They agreed to surrender to the regular army on the condition that they be treated as POWs. Those terms were granted and, amazingly, the Germans upheld their end of the bargain.

Friday, July 28, 2017

“Wargaming in the Classroom”

On 22 July, the US Army War College hosted a panel discussion on “Wargaming in the Classroom”. It was a terrific event which packed a lot of info and insight into 2 ½ hours.

In his introductory remarks, Samuel White, Deputy Director of the Center for Strategic Leadership at the AWC noted that the mission of the AWC is to “to develop leaders and ideas.” In his view, and that of the panelists, wargaming is a tool that can do both.

I. "Innovative Employment of of Wargames in PME”

The first speaker was Dr. James Lacey of the Marine War College.

His talk can be seen as an update of this article from 2016:

A key point he made at the outset of his talk was that his classes were not gaming classes. They are military history and strategic studies seminars. Thus, his heavy reliance on wargames are a radical departure from the norm.
The benefits he saw from using wargames:
1. “Games are remembered nearly forever.” (The audience of experienced gamers heartily agreed with this point.) Students keep thinking about the issues and decisions for days and weeks after they play.

2. Games generate a large volume of decisions to make and ponder. “Every turn creates new strategic problems to solve.”

3. War college students now think and write in Powerpoint. Traditional writing assignments no longer are the best method to build understanding through in-depth analysis.

Wargames are a way to fill that gap.

4. “Wargames provide mental models” which students can use in the future to interpret new information, problems, and challenges. For example, The Civil War battle of Chancellorsville shares many characteristics with maneuver warfare battles in Iraq or hypothetical battles against Russia in Estonia or Poland.
II “Wargames and International Relations”

Dr. David Lai, AWC Strategic Studies Institute.

He brought an intriguing perspective to the proceedings. His cross-cultural survey and “meta” approach gave me a lot to think about.

A. “All games have their origins in human conflict”

Not just wargames. Sports and “entertainment” games (poker, bridge) share the same starting point.

B. “Games become part of culture and culture effects thinking.”

For example, Americans play poker, and US diplomacy reflects aspects of that game. “Bluffing” (intimidation), playing the cards you are dealt in each crisis, etc..

C. “Nations play games, but different nations play different games.”

1. Thus, while the US may think of poker when dealing with China, the Chinese play Go, not poker.

2. Go is a game requiring long-range, subtle strategies.

3. The “playing board” looks completely different for each player because different games/ different strategic culture.

III “Wargaming in the classroom”

Dr. Peter Perla CNA. Author of The Art of the Wargame.

A. For military organizations the key leadership challenge is “how to develop mental ‘muscle memory’” before officers go to war.

1. It is only through such “muscle memory” that leaders can make better decisions faster under the strain of battle
B. How wargames work:

1. They entertain
2. They engage
3. They enlighten

C. Why wargames work:

1. Players engage, not just observe. Active, not passive learning.
2. They must act and then live with the consequences of their actions.
3. It is a game yet when playing it becomes ‘real’ on some mental level.
4. Wargames present a special type of narrative. Players “live the stories” while playing. Higher engagement than reading history or listening to a lecture.

D. One of the most important things to learn for wargames: “What we ‘know’ that just ‘ain’t’ so.”

Wargames can strip away illusions and false assumptions.

E. For the US Navy in the interwar period (1919-1941) wargaming was the main driver for innovation.

1. It also promoted tighter integration between the various functions in the service.

2. The navy also benefitted because students learned three critical skills from wargaming:

a. How to self-critique
b. How to offer honest and useful criticism to others.
c. How to accept honest criticism.

F. Done right, wargaming helps both students and organizations learn.

He closed emphatically: “Wargaming saves lives.” Therefore gaming needs to start early in an officers professional career.

IV “Teaching wargame design at the Army Command and General Staff College”

Dr. James Sterrett, USA CGSC

A. Wargame design is both an art and a science.

B. He warned against perfectionism in the design stage by quoting French poet Paul Vallery: “A poem is never finished, it is only abandoned.”

C. What is critical is not the initial design, but testing. At the classes on game design at CGSC, half the course time is now devoted to testing.

D. Dr. Sterrett agreed with Dr. Perla that officers should be introduced to wargaming as early as possible, preferably when they are still cadets.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Worth pondering

Every herd is a refuge for giftlessness, whether it’s a faith in Soloviev, or Kant, or Marx. Only the solitary seek the truth
Boris Pasternak
Doctor Zhivago

Monday, July 24, 2017

Russia without illusions

A sober and informative piece by David Warsh:

The “Snow Revolution” and the Attribution Problem

The Ukraine crisis without blinders
Since the whole Russian debate seems to be driven by Ben Rhodes and his echo chamber, it is worth revisiting this post:

The country is in the very best of hands....
It is also useful to listen to the beginning of this lecture where Dr. Gaddis reviews the steps and missteps of US policy toward post-Soviet Russia.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Are we in a Big Data hype bubble?

Who are you going to believe? Newsweek or your own lying eyes?

Based on past experience, an industry or economic trend becomes a market bubble when the media offers up credulous stories based on their sources in the stock hyping business. Said stories, to the reader willing to look around, seem to conflict with observed reality and direct experience.

Reminder: Bubbles always depend on ignoring Conquest's Law #1:

Everyone is conservative about what he knows best
I'm beginning to wonder if Big Data hype is now at the bubble stage. This realization came while reading this piece in Newsweek:

The quote that broght me up short:

Data make a company’s machine-learning software get smarter so that the company can better serve customers and vacuum up more market share. Think of Amazon’s recommendation engine.
Now, Keven Maney may be right about many things. Apple may be headed for a fall. Amazon may be a master at using data to drive profits. (Or maybe not.)

But what I know to be categorically false from personal experience is that Amazon, Netflix, etc. are using data to improve their recommendations and "better serve their customers."

As long-time Amazon customer I've found their recommendations to be less useful and less accurate over the past several years.

Netflix is even worse.

So put me in the skeptical camp when it comes to Big Data.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Creativity comes from seeing old ideas in a new light

Short but interesting take on invention and creativity:

Not Invented Here

Ideas build on each other

There is no such thing as a completely new idea. Every step we make is based on the combination of different ideas that create something new.
Combination drives innovation

Everywhere you look progress comes from mixes and mash-ups
The way to create something new is to mix two old ideas.
Not a new idea, certainly, since David Gelernter discussed precisely this idea in his Muse and the Machine in 1994

Some related posts on the subject:

Finding big ideas

Thinking about thinking, creativity, and innovation

Killing creativity