2 years, 2 months ago

Creative Tension in the White House

In his 1967 book on Organizational Intelligence, Harold Wilensky praises President Franklin Roosevelt for his unorthodox but apparently effective management style.

“Roosevelt devised an administrative structure that would baffle any conventional student of public administration.” (p53)

. @tonyjoyce Roosevelt set up “constructive rivalry … structuring work so that clashes would be certain”. Wilensky on #orgintelligence pic.twitter.com/MczcrYlypI

— Richard Veryard (@richardveryard) April 8, 2017

A horrible management technique designed to keep your subordinates so busy fighting with each other they can’t challenge you for leadership https://t.co/WSOiHagBOx

— Jon H Ayre (@EnterprisingA) April 8, 2017

In contrast with FDR’s approach, Wilensky notes some episodes where White House intelligence systems were not fit for purpose, including Korea (Truman) and the Bay of Pigs (Kennedy).

What about President Trump’s approach? @tonyjoyce suggests that Trump is failing FDR’s first construct – checking and balancing official intelligence vs unorthodox sources. However, Reuters (via the Guardian) quotes Republican strategist Charlie Black, who believes Trump’s White House reflects his traditional approach to running his business. “He’s always had a spokes-to-the-wheel management style,” said Black. “He wants people with differing views among the spokes.“


Sources

Reuters, Kushner and Bannon agree to ‘bury the hatchet’ after White House peace talks (Guardian, 9 April 2017)

Related posts

Delusion and Diversity (October 2010)
The Art of the New Deal – Trump and Intelligence (February 2017)
Another Update on Deconfliction (April 2017)

2 years, 2 months ago

Linear Thought

Various concerns have been raised about Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, previously described as “disruptive” by a former Pentagon official, and now the subject of heated investigation and speculation around his short-lived role in the Trump administration, his alleged links with Russia and other countries, and his alleged obsessions about various topics.

According to the Guardian, US and UK intelligence officers were also anxious about Flynn’s capacity for “linear thought”.

I guess most people will interpret this concern as “insufficient capacity”. When I searched for “linear thinking” on the internet, I found a number of pages that contrasted linear thinking with various forms of supposedly bad thinking, such as “fragmented thinking”. I also found pages that tried to divide people into two camps – the scientific “leftbrain” types who think in straight lines, and the artistic “rightbrain” types who think in circles.

However, systems thinkers might be concerned about someone at that level having too much capacity for linear thought. (As one might be concerned about someone’s capacity for gossip or deception.) In a previous post on this blog, I defended Flynn’s former boss, Gen. Stanley McChrystal (labelled an “ill-fated iconoclast” by James Kitfield) against the claim that he was not a systems thinker. (This claim was based on a remark McChrystal had made about a subsequently notorious systems dynamics diagram. I argued that McChyrstal’s remark could have been made either by someone who doesn’t get systems thinking, or at the other extreme by someone who really gets systems thinking.)

The question here is about greater or lesser capacity for various kinds of thinking, because I’m trying to avoid the fallacy (identified by @cybersal) of categorizing people as this or that type of thinker. She rightly insists on seeing systems thinking not as an all-or-nothing affair but “as a lens to be applied in a particular type of situation”.

By the way, Flynn himself has appeared on this blog before. In January 2010, using the lens of organizational intelligence, I reviewed his report on Fixing Intel. While I was sceptical about some of his recommendations, I can affirm that the report showed considerable capacity for systems (non-linear) thinking. Make of that what you will.

Links

Phillip Carter, What is Michael Flynn’s game? (Slate, 31 March 2017)

Luke Harding et al, Michael Flynn: new evidence spy chiefs had concerns about Russian ties (Guardian, 31 March 2017)

James Kitfield, Flynn’s Last Interview: Iconoclast Departs DIA With A Warning (Breaking Defense, 7 August 2014)

Stanley McChrystal, The military case for sharing knowledge (TED2014, March 2014)

Stan McChrystal, Career Curveballs: No Longer A Soldier (22 April 2014)

Greg Miller and Adam Goldman, Head of Pentagon intelligence agency forced out, officials say (Washington Post, 30 April 2014)

Related Blogposts

A Job Description for Systems Thinking (November 2009)
Making Intelligence Relevant (January 2010)
Understanding Complexity (July 2010)

2 years, 4 months ago

The Art of the New Deal – Trump and Intelligence

In his 1967 book on Organizational Intelligence, Harold Wilensky praised President Roosevelt for maintaining a state of creative tension in the US administration. Wilensky reckoned that this enabled FDR to get a more accurate and rounded account of what was going on, and gave him some protection against the self-delusion of each department.

(In FDR’s time, of course, it was considered entirely normal for an administration to be staffed by a bunch of white men with similar education. And yet even they managed to achieve some diversity of perspective.)

Early reports of Donald Trump’s administration suggest an unconscious echo of the FDR style. Or perhaps a much earlier pattern.

At the center of it all has been a cast of characters jockeying for Trump’s ear, creating a struggle for power that has manifested in a mix of chaos, leaks and uncertainty. The Trump White House already bears more resemblance to the court of a Renaissance king than to most prior administrations as favorites come and go, counselors quarrel over favor and policy decisions are often made by whim or without consultation. (Guardian, 4 Feb 2017)

But it is difficult to see this as “creative tension” resulting in an “accurate and rounded” view.

“Trump thinks he’s invincible,” says Hemmings, who doubts whether his advisors will ever question or criticise him. “Usually leaders choose the people around them to keep them in check, and Trump needs people to temper his hotheadedness and aggression. Instead, he’s picked advisors who worship him.” (Independent, 2 Feb 2017)

Wilensky’s book also discusses the dangers of a doctrine of secrecy.

Secrets belong to a small assortment of individuals, and inevitably become hostage to private agendas. As Harold Wilensky wrote “The more secrecy, the smaller the intelligent audience, the less systematic the distribution and indexing of research, the greater the anonymity of authorship, and the more intolerant the attitude toward deviant views.” (Gladwell 2010)

And secrecy seems to a key element of the Trump-Bannon modus operandi.

“These executive orders were very rushed and drafted by a very tight-knit group of individuals who did not run it by the people who have to execute the policy. And because that’s the case, they probably didn’t think of or care about how this would be executed in the real world,” said another congressional source familiar with the situation. “No one was given a heads-up and no one had a chance to weigh in on it.” (Politico 30 Jan 2017)

But perhaps in reaction to the Bannonite doctrine of secrecy, there has been a flood of leaks from inside the administration. Chris Cillizza suggests two possible explanations – either these leaks are intended to influence Trump himself (because he doesn’t take anything seriously unless he hears it from his favourite media channels) or conversely they are intended as a kind of whistle-blowing.

Marx thought that history repeated itself. (Alarmingly, Trump’s Counselor Steve Bannon adheres to the same view.) So are we into tragedy or farce here?


Rachael Bade, Jake Sherman and Josh Dawsey, Hill staffers secretly worked on Trump’s immigration order (Politico, 30 Jan 2017)

Chris Cillizza, The leaks coming out of the Trump White House cast the president as a clueless child (Washington Post, 26 January 2017), The leaks coming out of the Trump White House right now are totally bananas (Washington Post, 2 Feb 2017)

Malcolm Gladwell, Pandora’s Briefcase (New Yorker, 10 May 2010)

Rachel Hosie, The deeper reason we should be worried Donald Trump hung up on Australia PM Malcolm Turnbull (Independent, 2 Feb 2017)

Linette Lopez, Steve Bannon’s obsession with a dark theory of history should be worrisome (Business Insider, 2 Feb 2017) HT @BryanAppleyard

Carmen Medina, What is your Stupification Point? (6 May 2010)

Joseph Rago, History Repeats as Farce, Then as 2016 (Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2016) paywall

Sabrina Siddiqui and Ben Jacobs, Trump’s courtiers bring chaotic and capricious style to White House (Guardian, 4 February 2017)

Related posts

Puzzles and Mysteries (January 2010)
Enemies of Intelligence (May 2010)
Delusion and Diversity (October 2012)

2 years, 7 months ago

Learning at the Speed of Learning

According to a recent survey by McKinsey,  “the great majority of our respondents expect corporate learning to change significantly within the next three years”.

It seems that whatever the topic of the survey, middle managers and management consultants always expect significant change within the next three years, because this is what justifies their existence.

In this case, the topic is corporate learning, which McKinsey recommends should be done “at the speed of business”, whatever that means. (I am not a fan of the “at the speed of” cliche.)

But what kind of change is McKinsey talking about here? The article concentrates on digital delivery of learning material – disseminating existing “best practice” knowledge to a broader base. It doesn’t really say anything about organizational learning, let alone a more radical transformation of the nature of learning in organizations. I have long argued that the real disruption is not in replacing classrooms with cheaper and faster equivalents, useful though that might be, but in digital organizational intelligence — using increasing quantities of data to develop and test new hypotheses about customer behaviour, market opportunities, environmental constraints, and so on — developing not “best practice” but “next practice”.

Richard Benson-Armer, Arne Gast, and Nick van Dam, Learning at the speed of business (McKinsey Quarterly, May 2016). HT @annherrmann

Chris Argyris and Donald Schön, Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective. Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, 1978.

2 years, 10 months ago

Single Point of Failure (Airlines)

Large business-critical systems can be brought down by power failure. Who knew?

In July 2016, Southwest Airlines suffered a major disruption to service, which lasted several days. It blamed the failure on “lingering disruptions following performance issues across multiple technology systems”, apparently triggered by a power outage.

Click below for the latest update on our system and operation: https://t.co/bqV1qwahmz

— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) July 21, 2016

In August 2016 it was Delta’s turn.

New statement from Delta – power outage caused IT failure pic.twitter.com/trkQbpym05

— Rory Cellan-Jones (@ruskin147) August 8, 2016

@ruskin147 A power outage *triggered* this issue, but poor planning and no HA *caused* it. Why can Netflix get this right but airlines cant?

— Richard Price (@RichardPrice) August 8, 2016

I am no computer expert but it seems like a whole system crashing (3 separate airlines) points to bad design (single point of failure)? 3/

— Dan DePodwin (@WxDepo) August 8, 2016

Then there were major problems at British Airways (Sept 2016) and United (Oct 2016).

@razankhabour We apologize to our customers for the delay and we appreciate their patience as our IT teams work to resolve this issue.

— British Airways (@British_Airways) September 6, 2016

We’re aware of an issue with our system and are working to resolve it. We’ll update as we learn more. We apologize for the inconvenience.

— United (@united) October 14, 2016

So every @united flight is grounded because they can’t run a decent IT shop. What year is this??

— Randy Bias (@randybias) October 14, 2016


The concept of “single point of failure” is widely known and understood. And the airline industry is rightly obsessed by safety. They wouldn’t fly a plane without backup power for all systems. So what idiot runs a whole company without backup power?

We might speculate what degree of complacency or technical debt can account for this pattern of adverse incidents. I haven’t worked with any of these organizations myself. However, my guess is that some people within the organization were aware of the vulnerability, but this awareness didn’t somehow didn’t penetrate the management hierarchy. (In terms of orgintelligence, a short-sighted board of directors becomes the single point of failure!) I’m also guessing it’s not quite as simple and straightforward as the press reports and public statements imply, but that’s no excuse. Management is paid (among other things) to manage complexity. (Hopefully with the help of system architects.)

If you are the boss of one of the many airlines not mentioned in this post, you might want to schedule a conversation with a system architect. Just a suggestion.


American Airlines Gradually Restores Service After Yesterday’s Power Outage (PR Newswire, 15 August 2003)

British Airways computer outage causes flight delays (Guardian, 6 Sept 2016)

Delta: ‘Large-scale cancellations’ after crippling power outage (CNN Wire, 8 August 2016)

Gatwick Airport Christmas Eve chaos a ‘wake-up call’ (BBC News, 11 April 2014)

Simon Calder, Dozens of flights worldwide delayed by computer systems meltdown (Independent, 14 October 2016)

Jon Cox, Ask the Captain: Do vital functions on planes have backup power? (USA Today, 6 May 2013)

Jad Mouawad, American Airlines Resumes Flights After a Computer Problem (New York Times, 16 April 2013)

 Marni Pyke, Southwest Airlines apologizes for delays as it rebounds from outage (Daily Herald, 20 July 2016)

Alexandra Zaslow, Outdated Technology Likely Culprit in Southwest Airlines Outage (NBC News, Oct 12 2015)

Updated 14 October 2016.