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.