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.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Boyd and Beyond - Initial thoughts

Well, Boyd and Beyond is over. I’ll be writing a lot on the topics brought up over the coming weeks and months, including a full paper on the ways Boyd can be used to sharpen or even wholly shape political campaigns. With the impressions still fresh in my mind I wanted to put a few thoughts to paper before the intensity fades. This may not be my most coherent blog ever, as it's fair to say I'm as mentally exhausted as I've ever been.

I owe a special thanks to the organisers, particularly Stan Coerr and Scott Shipman for allowing me to speak and helping me put my trip together.

In terms of the event itself, I need to put it in the context that I found it. I know about 3 people who I can mention John Boyd to and have them know who I mean, so coming to the conference was special in and of itself. It was also gratifying to meet some other Brits there, JB and Michael Moore, who both spoke on their specific areas of expertise. Having so many people there who have immersed themselves in the concepts was hugely exciting.

The calibre of all the speakers was extremely high and the range of topics as diverse as could be expected. It was particularly good to have so many Marine speakers in attendance, since for a civilian it’s sometimes hard to conceive of how Boyd’s ideas get used in the military context. I don’t want to call out particular speakers as being better than others. Some were more resonant to me but all had a perspective which was interesting and valuable.

Getting to visit the Boyd archives was also a very special experience, and Mary Ellen Boyd was kind enough to take the time to talk to some of us about her father on a more personal level. I now have a copy of a hand drawn version of the OODA loop which we found in a draft of one of Boyd’s presentations. I also received audio copies of various of Boyd’s briefings which I can’t wait to listen to when I’m back in the UK.

Overall I felt the strength of the event wasn’t in the questions that it answered, but in the questions that it raised. It’s easy to become navel gazing when you’re coming up with ideas in isolation, and I don’t think anyone who spoke got away without someone asking a sharp question or two which challenged what they were saying. I know from my own experience that I need to go back to the drawing board.

Although the focus of the conference is on Boyd there was healthy discussion of ideas which are only loosely connected to Boyd, or are implimentations of his ideas which could not be predicted. It’s a chaotic field, which I imagine is how Boyd would have wanted it to be, with people spinning off his ideas to unexpected places. 

Something else I took away was a sense of momentum. The group doesn’t represent everyone who is thinking about Boyd, but rather some of the most passionate and the most connected to his works. I think the goal for most people who attended the meeting is to sharpen their spears and go back to their careers and lives to continue to try and find ways to implement them. In the background on Twitter it was fascinating to watch people submitting ideas and responding to things which were being reported online. ZenPundit did a great job of live tweeting the event. 

Ultimately that’s the primary value. As one attendee said to me, Boydian ideas can lead to an valuable end state, a self examining and constantly improving system, and I hope that in years to come the conference and surrounding discussions will be that for everyone interested in Boyd and ensure there is an opportunity to take our assumptions and hold them up to the scrutiny of others, and to continue to examine Boyd’s ideas to ensure that insights remain fresh.

On a personal level - Thanks to everyone for organising the event, attending the event and making me so welcome. I look forward to seeing you all next year.