Saturday, 22 December 2012

The toxicity of command

The Military Review has a superb article about the impact that narcissism has on leadership, specifically the toxicity it can engender in teams. As in the private sector, so called "toxic" leadership is startlingly common in the Army
The Army recently released a study reporting that 80 percent of the officers and NCOs polled had observed toxic leaders in action and that 20 percent had worked for a toxic leader. This problem is not new. Within the past few years, the Army has relieved two brigade commanders and a general for alleged toxic—and arguably narcissistic and abusive—behavior. A division commander who served in Baghdad during Operation Iraqi Freedom was “asked” to retire following an investigation of his leadership style and toxic command climate.
I would be surprised if a similar study in any representative public or private organisation wouldn't throw up similar results, in fact I would imagine it'd be higher in the public sector, where there are fewer structured processes for leadership development and promotion can be earned due to "time served" rather than development of skills. That is based on limited knowledge of military promotions however, so I'm happy to be corrected on it.

The article posits a number of key characteristics of narcissistic leaders:
  • Being a poor listener
  • Being overly sensitive to criticism.
    Taking advantage of others to achieve one’s own goals
  • Lacking empathy or disregarding the feelings of others
  • Having excessive feelings of self-importance (arrogance)
  • Exaggerating achievements or talents
    Needing constant attention and admiration
    Reacting to criticism with rage, shame, or humiliation
  • Being preoccupied with success or power
Narcissistic individuals also tend to be egotistical, manipulative, self-seeking and exploitative. Narcissists do not accept suggestions from others. Doing so might make them appear weak, which conflicts with their need for self-enhancement. Some narcissists have such an inflated self-confidence that they do not believe that others have anything useful to say to them. They also take more credit than they deserve, often at the expense of taking credit for the contributions of co-workers and subordinates.

Conversely, they avoid taking responsibility for shortcomings and failures. Narcissistic individuals often are influential in group settings because they have such conviction in the worth of their ideas that others tend to believe them and follow.

Many of these are of course classic indicators of sociopaths, which is hardly surprising. Sociopaths can and often are extremely charming and pleasant in the right circumstances, which can enable them to achieve promotion and a rise in power, warning signs are often missed because there is a lack of consistency and they are able to cover the negative behaviours effectively.

Narcissism and toxic leadership spread in the private sector for the same reason that it has in the military, to some extent at least. The hard charging, demanding attitude can be perceived as passion and a desire for perfection. This is in part because there are genuinely passionate leaders who behave in very similar ways. The difference between a passionate and a narcissistic leader is that one brings his team with them and the other works for their own success at the expense of their subordinates. Consequently the narcissistic leader will achieve success for an indeterminate period of time and train those below them that such behaviours are acceptable, perpetuating a cycle of toxic leadership.

The difference between these individuals is often relatively small. In my experience it can usually be judged by the degree to which the individual micromanages the processes they oversee. A narcissistic leader will want to be involved in everything, since failure will reflect poorly on them and their prospects, it is also an opportunity to exercise power over subordinate individuals. A passionate leader will involve themselves little beyond a briefing, problem solving (at the request of a subordinate) and the wrapping up phase of a project when seniority is required to deliver to the client. Interestingly both individuals will react in an extremely similar fashion in the event of a failure, although the passionate leader is more likely to seek opportunities to grow off the back of failure, whereas the narcissist will seek to punish.

The solution proposed is to shift the emphasis of how leaders are selected and promoted towards emotional intelligence, a sage idea and one which again is as relevant to a civilian organisation as a military one:
Narcissistic leaders lack emotional intelligence because narcissists primarily focus on themselves.
Emotional intelligence means being focused on “the other” (a peer, subordinate, colleague, etc.). Leadership is fundamentally about leading and interacting with humans, not machines and processes. It is a series of arbitrary choices and decisions. As such, to exercise leadership on the human terrain, emotional intelligence is paramount. Certainly when leaders become more senior (at the operational and strategic levels), they need to manage and lead larger organizations and deal with higher levels of complexity and uncertainty. However, these different complexities and contextual variables do not negate or minimize the human dimension of leadership. In fact, they only highlight its critical nature.
Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves succinctly and practically describe what emotional intelligence looks like in the work place:
  • A rare talent to read the emotions of others.
  • The ability to adjust to different situations and build relationships with almost anyone.
  • The uncanny ability to spot and address the elephant in the room.
  • Does a good job of acknowledging other people’s feelings when communicating difficult news.
  • Personal knowledge of people to better understand their perspectives and work well with them.
  • The ability to absorb the nontechnical, human side of meetings and become a student of people and their feelings.
A fascinating piece, and a necessary read for anyone interested in how organisations are led and how to make that leadership successful.


Thursday, 20 December 2012

On divisiveness and weapons

I'm not qualified to express a direct opinion on Sandy Hall, other than to say that it's clearly a tragedy and anything which can be done to limit the frequency of these events and their impact has to be welcomed. Of course any action taken will be subject to equally risky unintended consequences and great care will need to be taken to ensure that these consequences are not worse than the events they seek to prevent.

As I see it, there are two schools of thought emerging strongly off the back of the shooting
  1. Guns are bad, and the less guns that are out there the less these events will occur, thus banning assault weapons will prevent violence - Certainly this is persuasive. Most of Europe has banned the majority of firearms, certainly assault weapons do not exist in public circulation, the availability of handguns varies but again, tends toward either outright bans or low incidence
  2. Violence is the result of something cultural and guns in and of themselves do not have a significant role - As has been noted, plenty of societies allow ownership of firearms and yet massacres of this sort (individuals losing control and killing for non rational reasons) seem to largely be limited to the USA. Switzerland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and France all have significant numbers of guns in society, and yet do not suffer from sudden surges of violence. 
The argument is already falling out along largely partisan lines, and each side is busy squaring up to the other. However, to me this speaks to the key issue with American (and to a growing extent British) politics. As an outsider, it's hard for me not to see both arguments as equally valid, and indeed the concepts are co-operative in my mind.

Working to eliminate and criminalise the ownership of assault weapons could only have a positive impact on gun crime. If owning and moving this type of weapon is a criminal offence then opportunities exist to arrest criminals long before they get used in further crimes. The marginal costs rise, both practical costs ($ and £), but also the moral cost, which would push the average citizen out of the market in many cases.

That said, there is something unique to American culture which needs to be addressed too. There have been some good discussions about how to rethink mental health treatment to help ensure that individuals who are going down a dark path are picked up earlier and their violence is never allowed to boil over. There is a challenge here however, particularly in the USA, since in order to have a mental health system capable of addressing these challenges you would need to build a system where costs for mental health care are much lower for the individual. In order to do that some form of socialised health care would likely be needed.

The point is however, that these are not partisan issues, and making one issue "Democrat" and the other "Republican" is to needlessly confine them to a particular voting group. If both solutions have merit the goal should be to find ways to implement both in a meaningful way over time, and to assess the impact that it has. I worry that as it stands the issue is lurching towards deadlock.

Guest Post: Being a Father Changed the Way I look at Gun Violence in America

This post was written by Christopher W. Boerl, a former classmate of mine, and all round smart man. My only contribution was a little spell checking and formatting. I'm very pleased to host this deeply personal account of how the recent Sandy Hook shooting impacted on him and look forward to more commentary from Chris as the national mood in the USA continues to shift and evolve. I will write my own response to this soon, as I have a few thoughts as an "outsider" which I'd like to share:

As an American, I am accustomed to hearing news stories of shootings on the news. Sadly, most of the time, I scarcely notice these stories, that is how common they are. But last Friday was different. The day began in uncharacteristically busy fashion with a couple conference calls and some urgent e-mails that needed replies. Around noon time, I had yet to conduct my daily troll of the blogosphere when a colleague of mine told me about a shooting in Connecticut. He was short on details, and my initial reaction that this was just another run-of-the-mill school shooting. When I reflect on it now, I’m disgusted that I would even think that any school shooting could be “run-of-the-mill,” but since 1997 there have been 145 school shootings in America, roughly one a month! And America, one school shooting a month is normal. By contrast, during my four years living in Britain, I never once heard of a UK school shooting.

By lunchtime, several of my colleagues were now talking about the tragedy in Newtown and as better understand the magnitude of the shooting; I did something I’ve never done before when a big news story was breaking. I put my headphones and refused to go online. I succeeded in going the rest of the day without visiting the Huffington Post, the New York Times, or for that matter any of the other websites I gather my news from. But then the day ended and I got in my car. My radio was pre-set to NPR and like every other media outlet, they were providing extensive coverage of shooting. Before leaving the parking lot, I called my wife, Bonnie, to tell her that I loved her and to check how my two-week old son was doing. Bonnie told me to turn off the radio or at the very least, to tune to a different station. I told her I would, but when we hung up, I didn’t. As I embarked on my near hour-long commute home, tears began welling in the corners of my eyes. They stayed there the whole drive home.

Had Newtown occurred a few weeks earlier, I’m not sure I would have had such a strong emotional response. But when you become a parent, when you hold that fragile little life in your hands, something changes in you. It certainly did for me.

In a nation of 310 million people, I cannot tell with any certainty just how many of them are parents. I assume the figures hovers around two-thirds, but that’s just speculation. Yet the point I want to stress here is that last Friday, I’m willing to be that just about every one of those parents felt the same fear I did. Newtown could have been any town, it could have been my town, and Sandy Hook could have just as easily been the school I will one day send my own son to. I shudder to think that it still could be.

In the coming weeks and months, America will begin to seriously debate the merits of gun control once more. To be certain, this conversation is long overdue. When for instance, the Virginia Tech massacre took place in April of 2007, leaving some 32 dead and another 17 wounded, instead of having any meaningful dialogue about gun control, we as a nation instead debated the merits of arming students, faculty and staff. When Jared Loughner gunned down six, including nine year old Christina Taylor Green and wounded another 13, with U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords among them, we instead focused on the polarizing effects of patrician rancour. When a movie theatre was shot up earlier this summer in Aurora, Colorado, we remained silent.

Sadly, it took the deaths of 20 first-grade students and another 6 heroic educators, for America to finally wise up to the gun pandemic we daily face. Whether or not anything meaningful legislation will ultimately come of this tragedy remains to be seen, but already President Obama has come out in support of measures aimed at curbing large-capacity magazines and assault rifles. For their part, Republicans have remained largely silent on the issue, no doubt they are waiting to better gauge public opinion, or at least wait until the wounds are less fresh before they assault such reasonable measures as anti-American. On Friday, the NRA will address the press for the first time since the shooting. They claim they are as committed as ever to preventing school shootings, but considering these are the same folks who want to keep cop-killer bullets and automatic assault weapons on the street, I have to question how strong this commitment has ever been.

As America embarks on this coming debate, I will continue to update you with the latest political developments and insights. As always, your thoughts, opinions and comments are most truly appreciated.


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Book Review: The Victory Lab

Books on political campaigns are plentiful, it seems the done thing now that if you were in any way linked to the senior levels of a political campaign you write a book about it. Sometimes that's a good thing, sometimes it's not, but ultimately even the best books represent an attempt by a system to analyse itself. The utility in such books tends to be more about picking out the odd piece of useful insight to build a synthetic composite.

The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg exists at the other end of the spectrum, a book written not about a single campaign but about the process and science of campaigns. In my view it is one of the single most important books which has been written about political campaigning in recent years. It draws together research which has until now been disparate and creates a strong and persuasive narrative to link these isolated experiments together. The bottom line is that every time science gets used to assess how political campaigns are put together, it is swiftly revealed that assumptions are wrong and that decisions are driven less by good science and more by personal preference.

Although it seems like vast amounts of research goes into a political campaign, all too often this is an illusion caused by the sheer amount of polling done around the campaign. Polling is not research. Polling is an attempt to take a snapshot in time and understand the perception of a particular candidate or issue. Research seeks to answer the question of "why?". Why do people feel a certain way, why will they vote a certain way, why will they react to certain types of campaign materials and not others.

Too little is done to understand the motivation of people, and how critical issues are to their support of a political party. It leads to poor campaigns and poor policy making. Witness the shambles of the UK Government currently, lurching from one policy or another, seemingly driven by the polls without an understanding that what people say they want isn't necessarily what will make them switch their vote or energise them in favour of a particular political party.

Private interests and a stubborn desire to asset that "I already know best" prevents good research around campaigning, and this book makes that extremely clear. At the same time, some learnings are already available, yet currently it is poorly implemented proving that once again, it doesn't matter how often a lesson is learned, someone is always willing to ignore it.

This book should be right at the heart of any political reading list. It's a true attempt to synthesise learnings from diverse sources, to build a snowmobile for political campaigns. I am in awe of Mr Issenberg for producing such a comprehensive and vital (in all sense of the word) book.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Book review: Science, Strategy and War

For quite some time Science, Strategy and War by Frans Osinga has been an enforced part of my anti library. This was largely because on the occasions I had tried to read it I found I lacked the appropriate reference points to fully understand the text, and I'd step back with a firm mind to try it again later. Turns out that third time is the charm, and fully enabled in the post Boyd and Beyond world I was finally able to fully enjoy this text.

The goal of Science, Strategy and War is to chart the part of Boyd's life which is alluded to in his biographies, his intellectual journey. Boyd was a prolific reader, covering a vast range of seemingly disparate and often esoteric topics. Osinga is superb at exploring the reason for this, Boyd was a synthesist, able to de-construct concepts into their fundamental parts and reassemble them into new forms. Was he always perfect in his understanding? No, there is evidence of bias, selective reasoning and misunderstanding in Boyd's work, particularly his earlier works when he was seeking to prove a point rather than explore a theory of learning.

Osinga's skill here is in drawing the reader along a chain of intellectual developments that Boyd went through, without losing their essence. Too often a book of this type reduces the concepts it explores to the point of absurdity and the reader gains nothing real. In this case concepts are rendered to their essential essence, but no mercy is given to the reader. You'll want to read this book with an internet connection close to hand to do further reading at times.

The book demonstrates skilfully that Boyd's theories cannot be summed up in the OODA loop, which again, is a tool that can be rendered down to something pointless. It also seeks to demonstrate that the OODA loop isn't intended to be used purely to encourage speed, rather it is intended to provide swift and accurate decision making within the confines of an evolving (informed by the loop) strategy. All within a single structure. This is something I've personally struggled with, perhaps because my personal experience and context for the loop is in high pressure, speed obsessed environments.

I can't recommend this book highly enough to anyone who works in an environment in which strategy is more than just a word appended to any action. It is a critical part of understanding Boyd as well, since it places him in his intellectual environment in a way not available through his biographies. For me it sits nearly in the big three books on Boyd, the others being Boyd by Robert Coram and Certain to Win by Chet Richards.

Get this book.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Blogging on hold

I've got various pieces in the pipeline but in the pre Christmas rush it's all been a bit manic trying to get anything actually finished off. Hopefully later this week I'll turn around a couple of book reviews at least.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Campaigns can be to blame

Excellent piece here by Nate Silver, pointing out that when internal polls are wrong, it's often the fault of the campaign itself:
Pollsters can expect to take their share of blame when their campaigns lose, and this year has been no exception. Not long after Barack Obama and Democrats had a strong night on Nov. 6, Republicans began to complain publicly that the polls conducted by their campaigns and by affiliated groups implied considerably more optimistic outcomes for them than actually occurred.
Perhaps these Republicans shouldn’t have been so surprised. When public polls conducted by independent organizations clash with the internal polls released by campaigns, the public polls usually prove more reliable.
Take, for example, the gubernatorial recall election in Wisconsin earlier this year. Independent polls had the Republican incumbent, Scott Walker, favored to retain his office by about six percentage points. A series of polls conducted for Democratic groups showed a roughly tied race instead.
Mr. Walker in fact won by seven points: the independent polls called the outcome almost exactly, while the internal polls were far from the mark.
Cases like these are fairly typical. My database of campaign polls released to the public in United States House races found that they were about six points more favorable to their candidate than independent surveys on average — and that they were typically less accurate in the end.
 It goes further to say:
But sometimes, internal polls make their way to the public through leaks that are not authorized by the campaigns. Or reporters and analysts may see the “real” numbers, or reasonably explicit characterizations of them, on background, on the condition that they not report them. (I saw some of the Obama campaign’s internal polling in 2008, along with that of some other Republican and Democratic campaigns in a few instances over the years.)

Perhaps these internal polls are more accurate?

My experience has been that these polls can also exaggerate the standing of their candidate, if perhaps not by quite as large a margin as those that are authorized for an on-the-record release. An interesting example of this comes from Noam Scheiber of The New Republic, who says he received data on Mr. Romney’s internal polling in six states from an aide to Mr. Romney’s campaign. In addition, Mr. Romney’s chief pollster, Neil Newhouse, disclosed the campaign’s polling to Mr. Scheiber in a seventh state, Ohio.

On average, the polls had Mr. Obama ahead by just one point between the seven states. They had Mr. Obama trailing in Colorado and New Hampshire and tied with Mr. Romney in Iowa.
The most interesting part though is about the mismatches which organisations generate willfully:
Our self-perceptions are very often more optimistic than the reality; 80 percent of people think they are above-average drivers, for example.

These problems can be worse when we join together to form businesses or organizations. Honest self-assessment is a challenge for any business, and it is one reason that management consultants are sometimes engaged at considerable expense to provide a supposedly more objective and unbiased take on the state of the organization’s operations. (Much of Mr. Romney’s success in business, of course, came precisely because he was able to identify companies whose organizational cultures prevented them from functioning efficiently.)

A pollster working within a campaign may face a variety of perverse incentives that compete with his ability to produce the most accurate possible results to his candidate. He may worry about harming the morale of the candidate or the campaign if he delivers bad news. Or he may be worried that the campaign will no longer be interested in his services if the candidate feels the race is hopeless.
Groupthink and confirmation bias are also risks in any organization, particularly under the stress of the end stages of a political campaign.
Allowing mismatches to exist without analysis is fundamentally unacceptable, particularly when the stakes are so high.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Reading and the anti library

Zen Pundit has done a couple of posts on the concept of the anti library, I think a concept which a lot of heavy readers recognise, but struggle to articulate. Here's the simplest explanation:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. he is the owner of a large personal library ( containing thirty thousand books), and separates vistors into two categories: those who react with ‘Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?’ and others – a very small minority- who get the point that a private library is not an ego boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real estate market allow you to put there. You wil accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growig number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call the collection of unread books an antilibrary
Ironically this quote comes from the book The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which sits firmly in my anti library. Here are a few more, of a much larger selection:

Flying the A-10 in the Gulf War - William Smallwood

I bought this book due to the relatively high level of involvement John Boyd had in it's creation. The development of the plane was a critical point in his intellectual development. I bought this to try and explore the experience of the aircraft if and when my mind circles back to it.

Walden - Henry David Thoreau

I go through phases of being fascinated by science, particularly it's implication in cutting edge technology. This book was bought at the peak of one of those phases, due to a recognition that there's a need to reject it. I've read small snippets of this from time to time, but the book as a whole has never captured me.

How to make Money in Stocks - William O'Neil

I got this on a whim after reading a number of shorter texts on the theory of stocks. I don't care about making money through it, but there is something in the way that stock markets work which speaks to the theory of decision making. Ultimately this book never really proved to be of any use, and I shifted back to shorter punchier texts.

 In recent months, inspired in part by my experience at Boyd and Beyond I've been returning to "hard" non fiction. As far as an objective to this goes, it's to start to take myself out of my comfort zone again, to shift from "training" to "learning", in the sense that training is preparation for things which have occurred before and learning is an attempt to prepare for things which have not happened.

The value of the anti library is, to a large extent, to provide an opportunity to create an environment in which learning can happen. It's a personal belief that having an anti library available is something which synthesists (as opposed to analysts) instinctively value. It allows for the mind to make subconscious connections between disparate topics, right or wrong, it's better to have the book and never need it than to not have the book and the knowledge it contains.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tacticians and their value

This blog focusses on strategy a lot of the time. Strategy is a fascinating field, it has spawned an incredible number of books, theories, papers, conferences and indeed blog posts. Strategy is the art of creating a generalised framework to achieve a goal. Yet discussions about strategy often miss a fundamental fact, it requires implementation.

The tactician is the one on the ground who services the strategist. They must understand fully the strategic goal, and identify routes which will lead to it's successful conclusion (and set up the next strategic goal). Strategy may be the more exciting field, yet good tactical decision making is in some ways more fundamental.

Tactical implementation in the civilian world is a field which has had entirely too little emphasis placed on it. The military does not suffer from this weakness, because in order to achieve high rank (and thus become a strategy maker) one must first traverse lower ranks and become strong tacticians. This failure amongst civilians leads to a significant problem, people at lower "ranks" are not trained to understand how they operate within a strategic environment, and thus as they rise do not transition naturally from tactics to strategy.

That is not to say that this process is not being performed by many companies to some extent and to some degree of success, however it's lack of articulation means it is not being conducted in a useful fashion. Without an open acknowledgement of the importance of tactics in the work environment there can be little in the way of improvement, or indeed any form of critical thinking. Junior staff in any organisation should be motivated to openly discuss the tactics they will use to achieve a strategic objective.

One of the impediments to this is the exceptionally common practice of micromanagement. Much discussed and reviled it is an almost universal part of most companies, since managers are not trained to distinguish between tactics and strategy, thus when they are placed in a position where they should be making strategy, they focus on what they know, which is tactics (although they would not think of it as such in the main).

I believe that because many managers do not trust their own strategic decision making, they are unable to trust their junior's ability to implement that strategy, and thus they see a need to involve themselves in a level of decision making which should be wholly inappropriate.

So how could this be cured? One way may be a corporate version of the tactical decision game. Supervised, but not influenced by managers, junior staff should be provided with challenges and asked to game out how they would deal with them. It would be critical to stress that there are no right or wrong tactics to achieve the objective, so long as those tactics lead to a successful outcome. Senior staff should involve themselves only to the extent of framing the task, and discussing the solutions when they are fully formed.

In this way managers may begin to trust their juniors to make decisions, since they will have seen their abilities within a simulated environment. They will also have a better instinctive feel for the strengths and weaknesses of their juniors, and be able to help foster positive traits and limit or eliminate weak ones. Junior staff will be able to develop their skills and confidence in decision making, and understand their relationship to the strategic objective, which will make them stronger strategists in the fullness of time.

Strategy might be exciting, but tactics get the job done.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Book Review: Moneyball

Moneyball, by Michael Lewis is a book that's been waiting for me in my antilibrary for quite some time. I knew I'd get around to it, but I was quite content to leave it on the shelf until a time when it felt right to pick it up. I'll admit, I didn't care about baseball, I still don't, I'm not a big fan of sport in any context truth be told, for me this book was about something more meaningful, how do you win?

Michael Lewis is a superlative storyteller, I've thoroughly enjoyed every one of his books. He writes with an easy grace which draws you through the topic he is exploring, something which is often deeply dry, without you realising how much ground he is covering. That's certainly the case here, and I recommend the book just for the story it tells as much as anything. The characters are rich and engaging, the narrative is entertaining, it's rich in detail and nuance.

But what does Moneyball contain for the strategist or the campaigner? Initially I thought there were lots of little lessons in his book, there are of course, but it's couched in something much simpler. If you find a new way to understand the environment, you get to control it until everyone else figures out what you're doing differently. The Oakland A's were able to understand a new way to play the game of baseball, and maintain that edge for a substantial period of time, while everyone else continued to use scouts and out of date methods based on feelings and intuition to decide how to pick their players.

I don't believe there isnt a place for intuition in the world, far from it. But it has to come from a place of meaningful experience and it has to be checked against the facts in reality. Particularly in a time sensitive environment, there isnt always the opportunity to take a leisurely approach. Baseball however can draw on years and years of data about any particular player, which means it was almost inexcusable that teams relied on scouts seeing a player a few times and making their judgement based on gut reaction to their behaviour on that particular day.

Moneyball can also teach us another truth, although there is glory to be won in the epic win, the fantastic victory over all who stand in our way, winning is a binary state. If you don't win, you've lost. The characters in the Oakland A's embraced that philosophy, and recognised that by winning they would draw the crowds, so that was irrelevant. All that mattered was turning the money they had into wins, and to make it a consistent process.

There's something fascinating about the idea of abandoning years of tradition and replacing it with a new edifice, based on the fact that in the end, science is better than the gut at making decisions. It's nice to imagine that it's otherwise, but it's not. This book is a case study in the importance of finding the right way to make a decision and then following through in the face of opposition.

Superb, an absolute must read.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The political Red Team

This post was co-authored with Capt. Brett Friedman USMC. Brett blogs for the Marine Corps Gazette Blog and the inimitable Grand Blog Tarkin.

Two things threaten a campaign, an improper understanding of the environment, and an improper understanding of the opposition. In the context of a political campaign the environment is the electorate, and the opposition is the party or parties you are trying to dislodge from their position amongst the electorate. Like any good insurgent you want to ensure that the message of the opposition is unable to penetrate the population, and where it does, it is treated negatively.

Sun Tzu tells us “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” It’s a message of almost blinding simplicity, and yet it is surprising how much information a political campaign will amass about the environment and their opponent, without linking those two things to fully understand how their opponents will operate within the environment. This creates a strategic and tactical mismatch, and thus actions are based on flawed assumptions, which leads to defeat.
In the most recent US Presidential election we saw a highly creative Obama campaign was able to outmanuver the Romney campaign.
The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.
"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.
The president gave his approval. And within weeks the Obama campaign was blasting away in a late-spring offensive, forcing Mr. Romney to respond to charges about his business record and personal finances rather than making the president defend his record.
Mr. Obama won his re-election battle, amid persistent economic anxieties, in significant measure because of that bet on defining Mr. Romney early. There were other factors behind the Obama win, of course, including the surprisingly strong support of former President Bill Clinton, a secretly taped video, the timing of a nearly disastrous debate performance that came early enough in the calendar to allow Mr. Obama to recover, and a hurricane that ended Mr. Romney's last, best chance to catch up.
 In order to do this, the Obama team identified a chance to influence two things:
  1. The Environment: An opportunity to influence the environment, to reshape it in a form which was more hostile to Romney
  2. The Opponent: A weakness in the tempo of the Romney campaign in which they could make only limited countermoves - In essence, Obama got to make two moves for everyone one Romney made
Was this sportsman like? Not particularly. As the article notes, traditional wisdom is that you hold back on the negative so that you can exploit it later when it has greater impact. But to my mind the Obama campaign wasn’t about having a big impact right at the end, they wanted to make sure that every day of Romney’s presidential campaign (as opposed to his primary campaign) was a little harder. In military terms the Obama campaign wanted to introduce a new element of friction over the long term.
It’s deeply startling to me that the Romney campaign didn’t seem to understand that the Obama campaign would be so aggressive. One of the genius parts of the Obama machine has been how his inherent likeability has been coupled with a campaign style which focuses on a take no prisoner’s approach. So the question is, what mechanisms should have been in place to ensure that a mismatch between expectations and reality wouldn't occur?

The red team or red cell is an ill-defined but important piece of military planning processes. The US Joint Publication 2-0 Joint Intelligence defines a red team as, "an organizational element comprised of trained and educated members that provide an independent capability to fully explore alternatives in plans in plans and operations in the context of the operational environment and from the perspectives of the adversaries and others."

This unwieldy definition poorly defines what a red cell can do for a commander and the fact that it is only defined in an intelligence publication implies that it is an intelligence function. JP 5-0 Joint Operation Planning and the Marine Corps' MCWP 5-1 Marine Corps Planning Process both mention red cells but do not define them.

Yet the concept is elegantly simple. The red cell is any person or persons designated to "play" the enemy. While the rest of the staff plans the operation, the red cell studies the enemy in order to ascertain what the enemy may do. The red cell becomes critical during the "wargaming" phase of the planning process. During the wargaming phase, the staff talks or acts through the plan to test it before execution. The wargame is frequently conducted using a turn-based system where the red cell gets to control the enemy units.

The more holes or weak spots the red cell finds in the staff's plan, the better job he or she is doing. This has the duel purpose of keeping the rest of the staff and the commander honest while also making the plan better. A good red cell, empowered to be as critical of the rest of the staff as possible, prevents the commander and the staff from "falling in love" with their plan and refusing to see weaknesses. Once the wargame is complete, the staff modifies the plan to deal with any enemy actions that were found to be effective.

Outside the military red teams are relatively rare, although the world of white and grey hat hackers has taken them into their collective heart. In this context red teams seek to breach security and force electronic access to shielded systems. Similar tools are used by private security companies to test physical security. However, they are not used in a corporate or political context.

So how would this tool be used in a political context?

An ideal red cell for a political campaign would be someone that both the candidate (analogous to the commander) and the campaign manager (analogous to the operations officer) trusts but who is also willing to tell them the unvarnished truth. It can be difficult to find an effective red cell. Just as in a military staff, that person wants the campaign to succeed. However, he or she must be willing to put their personal feelings aside and "fight" the rest of the staff as hard as possible, realising that the campaign as a whole will be more effective for it. The rest of the staff, and especially the candidate, must be willing to shed their egos enough to allow the red cell the ability to function effectively. The red cell's greatest enemy is the ego that cannot or will not accept constructive criticism. In essence, they must be a source of simulated friction, so that when the actual environment is encountered real friction is minimised.

The 2012 US Presidential election offers a stark lesson in the importance of a red cell. After President Obama's reelection, both Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have said that the outcome truly surprised them as their internal polling presaged a Republican win. Since this was not the case, it seems clear that no one on the campaign staff was keeping the campaign honest.  Evidence continues to mount that there was a shocking amount of wish fulfilment occurring at the very heart of the Romney campaign:
Mitt Romney says he is a numbers guy, but in the end he got the numbers wrong. His campaign was adamant that public polls in the swing states were mistaken. They claimed the pollsters were over-estimating the number of Democrats who would turn out on Election Day. Romney’s campaign was certain that minorities would not show up for Obama in 2012 the way they did in 2008. “It just defied logic,” said a top aide of the idea that Obama could match, let alone exceed, his performance with minorities from the last election. When anyone raised the idea that public polls were showing a close race, the campaign’s pollster said the poll modelling was flawed and everyone moved on.
Internally, the campaign’s own polling—tweaked to represent their view of the electorate, with fewer Democrats—showed a steady uptick for Romney since the first debate. Even on the morning of the election, Romney’s senior advisers weren’t close to hedging. They said he was going to win “decisively.” It seemed like spin, but the Boston Globe reports that a fireworks display was already ordered for the victory. Romney and Ryan thought they were going to win, say aides. “We were optimistic. More than just cautiously optimistic,” says one campaign staffer. When Romney lost, “it was like a death in the family.”
How did the Romney team get it so wrong? According to those involved, it was a mix of believing anecdotes about party enthusiasm and an underestimation of their opponents’ talents. [Author’s emphasis]
So how would a red team have helped with this specific issue? A red team would have had it’s own numbers, based on public data, or any data it could get, have run it’s own analysis and been able to feed back into the campaign a warning message. At the very least they would have been the one’s asking “Are you sure?” The objective isn’t to be automatically negative, but to challenge any assumption being made about the opposition or their hold on the population.

The role need be no different than in the military. Red teams in this context should provide an assumption checking engine, with a focus on the opponent but with a strong eye to the environment. They should be isolated from the campaign to the extent that they should be loyal to it, but not influenced by it. It must also be constructed so as to avoid the obvious pitfalls
Despite their many potential advantages, red teaming and alternative analysis are not silver bullets. As one would expect, the quality of the output hinges inter alia on the quality and experience of the team, the team’s approach and toolset, and the overall context of the effort. An overconfident or culturally biased analyst or team will not benefit as much from these approaches as might an analyst or team that employs “actively open-minded thinking,” to use Jonathan Baron’s term.
We are in a world of data, rich with information and content which can inform us of the reality around us to a degree which has been almost impossible to create until now. Assumptions are a luxury which cannot be allowed to stand without an effort to base them in fact. No organisation should be allowed to rest on it's intellectual laurels, and must be constantly be reminded that it exists in a world where it's opponents would like nothing more than it's downfall, and the surest way to avoid that downfall is to ensure that an opponent's moves are known before they make them.


Monday, 12 November 2012

Recommended Reading - Election edition

As always the US election provided it's share of thrills, spills and general entertainment. A consensus is generally emerging that the Republican Party has moved to a position where the majority of it 's social platform has drifted too far from the mainstream to be supportable. The political scientist vs pundit debate was also a key part of the election, with the pundit class aggressively going after polling analysts like Nate Silver. Unsurprisingly, science won the day, with analysts proving (unsurprisingly) that good modelling provides better results than the opinions of pundits.

So without further ado, my favourite articles of the last week:

Science Based Life - The Power of Math and the “Wizardry” of Nate Silver
In one of the most contested elections in American history, a curiously rational voice stood above the punditry. Nate Silver of the New York Times’ FiveThirtyEight blog (which was drawing 20% of the New York Times’ total traffic during election night) tracked national polls, state polls, and numerous other mathematical markers throughout the election. With the aid of mathematical modelling based on demographics, averages, and voting records, Silver put the chances for election firmly in Obama’s corner (at one time reaching 92%).

Silver’s predictions were chided by conservatives all the way to the White House. They doubted his methods, his models, his math. They questioned his data. They decried his “bias.” But Nate Silver was right. Dead right. In 50 state-by-state predictions, Silver accurately predicted 50 of them.
 Wired - Wrath of the Math
Everywhere you went, virtually or physically, the Obama and Romney campaigns followed you. Did you start noticing Romney ads popping up in your browser, even if you just went to his website briefly and had no intention of voting for him? That was because of browser tools the candidates used or built to harvest data. Campaigns and political strategy firms paid good money for your web usage data, filtered it through their predictions for associating your browser history with your political affiliation — NPR junkie? You lefty, you — filtered it again through publicly-available elections data and slipped in a candidate’s plea for $5. Time reports that Obama’s home brewed datamining dives — given sublimely geeky nicknames like Narwhal and Dreamcatcher — helped the campaign determine such minutiae as which celebrities made the most compelling pitchmasters to demographics as specific as deep-pocketed West Coast women aged 40 to 49. Ironically, Obama’s techniques drew on those George W. Bush used to win re-election in 2004, which themselves drew on the synthesis of piles of consumer data. Team Romney designed a vote-tracking data hunt called Project Orca to track “the hour-by-hour whims of the electorate,” according to the Washington Examiner, but it apparently crashed in the final hours of the race: “Somebody said Orca is lying on the beach with a harpoon in it,” an aide said.
Polling has always been a key part of elections, but they've usually been treated as a fixed point in time, unrepresentative of the final result. However, their use to create statistical models has until now been a back room activity, with the pundits maintaining control of what gets said in the media. Of course, this is a nonsense, as this XKCD comic neatly summarises:

Wall Street Journal - Big Bet Six Months Ago Paved Way for President 
The idea, explained to the president in a PowerPoint presentation in the Roosevelt Room, was to shape voters' impressions with a heavy expenditure before Mr. Romney had the money to do it for himself. The plan defied conventional wisdom, which said a campaign should start slowly with a positive message and save money for the stretch run. And it could leave the president exposed later.

"If it doesn't work, we're not going to have enough money to go have a second theory in the fall," Mr. Messina said, according to people in the meeting.

The president gave his approval. And within weeks the Obama campaign was blasting away in a late-spring offensive, forcing Mr. Romney to respond to charges about his business record and personal finances rather than making the president defend his record.
Although the article is slightly hyperbolic and fanboyish, the tactics it reveals are fascinating. Operating in a way which is outside the normal, at a level of aggression which couldn't be expected, all disrupt the opponent. The Romney campaign (outside of bad polling) was never able to pull ahead of the Obama campaign where it mattered, the key swing states.

Business Insider - Fox News is Killing the Republican Party
For students of modern US political history, this represented the closing of a circle. It was Rove’s successful effort to get Fox to reverse their call of Florida for Al Gore in 2000 that in many people’s eyes won George Bush the Presidency. Had the networks stuck with their original predictions, the recount saga would have been conducted against the backdrop of a narrow lead for Gore rather than for Bush, potentially with a very different outcome.

But watching Rove vainly raging against the dying of the light cemented for me a view that’s been forming throughout this campaign. Fox News, widely perceived to be one of the Republican party’s greatest assets, has actually become a liability to it.

To describe Fox as a polarising broadcaster would be to give understatement a manly bear-hug. For Democrats and the liberal Left it is effectively an extension of the GOP press office, prosecuting a vicious and biased campaign against their candidates and values. For Republicans and the Right it provides a vital balance against the liberal prejudices of the Main Stream Media. But whatever the perceptions, Fox – to my mind – proved to be an albatross around the neck of Mitt Romney throughout this campaign.

I first noticed it over the whole Benghazi saga. Day after day Fox would breathlessly unleash yet another leaked cable, or internal State Department memo, exposing failures in the protection of Ambassador Stevens, his staff and his embassy. And I ignored them; firstly because there were so many ”revelations”, secondly because they were clearly being pushed as part of a wider political agenda and thirdly, because they were from Fox. And Fox, in my eyes, is synonymous with poor and partial journalism.

Pro Publica - How Much Did Independent Groups Spend Per Vote?

Barack Obama:  $1.78 per vote - $1.39 spent attacking Romney
Mitt Romney:  $6.23 per vote - $5.49 spent attacking Obama

What does this reveal? One, money does not win you elections. Two, this was a crushingly negative election.

These numbers don't include the actual candidate spend, where Obama did outspend Romney, however even factoring this in, spend for Romney was far higher than for Obama overall.

Money does not win elections. If you've got enough to get on the table, you can win.

From Mexico To Moscow, The World Turns On To U.S. Marijuana Legalization
At the time, many pundits warned that legalization was a nonstarter. But on Tuesday, voters in Colorado and Washington state did exactly what Fox called for: they approved landmark amendments to legalize, regulate and tax marijuana.

As supporters in Colorado jumped up and down, shouting “64, 64” after the amendment’s ballot number, the seismic implications of the reforms began to be slowly digested by activists across the globe, especially in drug-war-torn Mexico. “It was very emotional,” says Jorge Hern├índez, president of the Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, which is pushing for legalization in Mexico. “Now we are not like madmen in the desert. This transforms the debate.” That’s because the U.S. referendums signal the first time voters have approved the full legalization of marijuana anywhere on the planet, giving advocates from Mexico to Moscow bona fide cases to cite and follow. Even the famous cannabis coffee shops of Amsterdam exist only through an ambiguous policy of toleration often referred to as decriminalization, something Portugal has pursued as well. A 2009 Mexican law also decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis and other drugs, but production and selling has been left in the hands of bloodthirsty traffickers.


Monday, 5 November 2012

Blogging on hold due to illness/family commitments

I should have posted this earlier but due to a combination of illness and family commitments blogging is a little tough at the moment, but I'll hope to get back to it soon.

Friday, 26 October 2012

To be or to do

This entry is not intended ot be a thesis, or indeed wildly meaningful to anyone but me. I've been thinking a lot recently about John Boyd and his (in)famous call for us to choose between being someone, and doing something.

From Robert Coram's biography of Boyd, sourced via DNIPOGO.

“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” [Boyd] said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.” Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.” He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?"
As with so much of Boyd, if you strip out references to the airforce and replace it with more generic language it's relevance widens to encompass all of us

The language demands on us, to make hard choices and to externalise the impact we have on the world around us. It isn't good enough to look at what will suit us best, and make our progress through life easy, it's more critical to look at the community we find ourselves in, to identify the problems and without selfishness fix them. Not seek to fix them, but to fix them. It's an utterly uncompromising path, suitable for someone who made few compromises in his life.

It shouldn't be good enough to simply allow a situation to stand which is unacceptable. It diminishes us as individuals and communities to stand by and accept the way things are, rather than the way they should be.

To be or to do.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Failing mental models

I wrote a post earlier this week about the failure of mental models leads to a political party becoming disconnected from reality, and thus failing to make accurate judgements. This was a narrow example of a wider point, that mental models often become detached from reality over time and people don't recognise that what was true yesterday could very easily not be true tomorrow.

I found a comic recently which illustrates this point rather magnificently (all credit goes to XKCD clearly):

Now, clearly it would be very hard for anyone to be unable to adjust their mental model for the situation as it will be post election in America, but this illustrates the key point, models shift over time, and by shifting they make the assumptions that went into them irrelevant.

They also prove that historical precedent is only of limited value when it comes to identifying future patterns of behaviour. The historical factors which went into creating the situation can swiftly fade, as the situation which created that truth may have already shifted.

If your model for identifying reality is based on precedent then it is likely flawed. Mental models need to be maintained in a form which will link them to current reality, or as close to that as it is humanly possible to get. Although the past may form a guide, your own interaction with the current state of play means history is not going to repeat itself.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Recognising the cyclic

I've just started reading Stanley Greenberg's excellent book Dispatches from the War Room. A book which so far (about a fifth of the way in) I highly recommend. It charts the political fortunes of 5 world leaders that Greenberg worked with as a pollster. One of the themes which has caught me is that of cyclic history.

Greenberg talks extensively about the fact that political parties which score big are those which seek to reform themselves, not internally, but rather to realign themselves to the wishes of the people after a period in which they had become distant. It's a feature of modern politics that over time political parties drift from their connection to the electorate.

Despite the fact that this is a fairly obvious feature of the modern political process it seems no political party is immune to the temptation to treat ideology as more important than the electorate. Yet if it's so obvious, why is it not something which is corrected. Why would any organisation allow itself to drift so dramatically from the group which they depend on? In essence any political party which does this is denying itself the ability for independent action, in the short term the public will turn against them, making it harder to enact policy, and in the long term they will lose an election.

My contention is this, after a peak of connection to the electorate a party gains political supremacy, and in the initial stage will be able to carry itself forward by inertia, not needing to reference public opinion. At this stage policies will largely reflect public desire, since they will have entered power in alignment with the public.

Moving forward however, the model starts to drift, as the party makes small amendments that draw it away from the public, without causing undue fuss. Policies will still largely be enacted in a fashion which works for the majority of the electorate, however, the degradation has set in, and now there is a problem. The model has become perverted from it's initial comprehension, and attempts to correct it are based on flawed assumptions. Over time this will only grow more acute, with the party clinging to a model which is simply out of date, or is a misunderstanding of the current environment.

When the party falls out of favour with the electorate entirely there is an opportunity in the aftermath to renew and recapture something. It's possible the Labour party in the UK is undergoing this process at the moment, yet it's hard to be certain, due to the currently insular character of the organisation. It's my hope that it is, since a renewed Labour party might require the same from the Conservative party.

Usually in order to achieve this major change in trajectory requires a new leader as without this the model which led to disaster cannot easily be replaced. Even when a new leader takes control they have to overcome institutional inertia in order to replace flawed doctrine with something new. Taking an evidence based approach to policy development is even more challenging, since the party will most likely have clung to it's ideology as it's public support crumbled.

What is necessary is something new, a political party which is able to constantly renew itself, which clings to the public discourse and seeks to represent it, rather than seeking to shape the public discourse to where it wants the discourse to be. That's not to say that a political party should slavishly obey every whim of the public, but the public cannot be treated as a resource.

How does this programme of renewal take place? It's hard to say, but most likely it will depend on having an organisation which exists outside of the party and outside of Government, which seeks to chart and comprehend shifting public opinion, demographics and other factors and translate that information to the political party. It might sound like this is something which already happens, but polling is all too often used to cynically, to support an existing agenda. I think it should be the other way round, the polling and research should help people have a voice within policy and the political realm. 

It might sound idealistic, but it should be possible to create a political system, and a political party which is able to constantly reference the mood of the nation and represent people, not just the state of the nation when they were elected.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Failing at mental modelling

Once in a while something happens in the normal course of events which in unprecedented. Iain M Banks used the term 'outside context problem' (OCP) to describe it in his novel Excession. One of the greatest challenges for any campaign or organisation is to find ways to smoothly transition with minimum disruption to the post OCP world.

To take an example from a political campaign, Mitt Romney and his infamous 47 percent comment. To have been on his campaign that day was to watch your candidate dismiss almost half of all voters, not just as a candidate, but to implicitly deny them representation if you become president.

The campaign reacted slowly, and relatively ineffectively, waiting a significant amount of time to hold a press conference, then doubling down on the comments. It hurt Romney badly and it wasn't until the first presidential debate he regained anything that looked like momentum.

So where did the issue occur? I'd argue that one of the Romney campaign's characteristics is its relative inflexibility. Going back over time it's remarkable how little Romney message has evolved, even in the face of media criticism that some of his key attack lines aren't based in fact.

Being inflexible in good times isn't a disaster, although it does speak to a lack of ability to learn. A good strategy allows for flexibility to the environment. And there lies the rub.

Organisations which fail to adjust to the environment whither and die. We've seen it happen time and time again, Blockbuster, Dell, Microsoft and Yahoo to name just a few. I'd argue that Apple are on the cusp of this right now, with innovations less frequent and less impressive, surrendering territory to companies like Google.

The issue is, to me at least, institutions which are unable to adapt to a shifting environment. Closed mental models of the world that are faulty from the outset put organisations in a flawed position on day one, and by day two they represent a reality which only exists in their head. The Romney campaign has this problem, and it makes Obama's failure in the first debate all the more surprising. Nothing which Obama was challenged with was new, and his embaressing performance a reflection of yet another flawed mental model and inability to link to reality.

This is a topic I'll be returning to and this post serves as a kicking off point for it, would be interested in people's thoughts.


Monday, 15 October 2012

Decision making

One of the most interesting things we did at Boyd and Beyond was a very quick tactical decision game (TDGs) run by a Marine Gunnery Sergeant whose name is on my notes somewhere, and will get credit when I can find them. Based on the real world, it was a surprisingly challenging experience, but not for the reasons you might think. As a civilian it's hard to know how to respond when someone goes "Where do you put your MRAPs?", however, it's a lot harder when you've only got seconds to think about it.

Interestingly my instinctive answer to the question was close to the "optimal" (in this sense meaning it was close to the reality which the game was based on). It wasnt right on the money by any stretch, but it was in the ballpark. It left me thinking about how we make decisions and dwelling on Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.

I can't claim Blink is a favourite book by any stretch. I find Gladwell's stuff difficult because so much of it could be an awesome essay, but instead it becomes a torturously long book. The conclusions about decision making however are very good, essentially, we make decisions extremely fast then trip ourselves up rationalising them or reconsidering them, usually ending up right back where we started with the decision we made right at the start.

Decision making is something I've never encountered in workplace training. The closest thing you find is time management training, which is not disimiliar in places but certainly not the same thing. The more I think about it the more surprising and fascinating that fact is. A huge chunk of what we do as consultants is make decisions, dozens of them a day, and yet no one is minding the shop so to speak and ensuring we're trained and prepared to make decisions.

TDGs are a tool I'd love to see used a lot more to try and start bridging this gap. In my head the ideal situation would be to bring people together to do scenario planning around something they're not at all familiar with (as many of us weren't in our training). It forces the mind to stretch to unconventional topics, encourages swifter decision making and demands collaboration at speed (something anyone who has sat through an hour long meeting would view favourably).

The goal would be to give people familiarity with the idea of making decisions, and being comfortable with it, even if the outcome isnt perfect. Something we discussed at Boyd and Beyond was the idea that the civilian workplace focusses entirely too much on ensuring there are zero mistakes. Military culture "allows you to learn from mistakes if no one dies from them" (paraphrased). I think this speaks to the fact many civilian organisations contain a culture which rewards those who weaken others, even if this is not overtly stated. Being better than average is more easily achieved by lowering the average than raising it after all.

This leads to a situation in which people aren't and don't want to be the owner of their decisions. Meetings are often held, in my experience, it make it hard to identify a decision maker. That way if something goes wrong it's no one's fault. In order to implement good decision making this needs to be fixed as much as training does.

It's time to adopt some of the values of the inter war German army. No perfect solutions, just swiftly made effective decisions we can all learn from to become better as a group.