In defence of futures thinking

Norm at Normblog has a post defending theology as a legitimate area of academic inquiry, after an attack on theology by Oliver Kamm.  (Since OK’s post is behind a paywall, I have not read it, so my comments here may be awry with respect to that post.)  Norm argues, very correctly, that it is legitimate for theology, considered as a branch of philosophy to, inter alia, reflect on the properties of entities whose existence has not yet been proven.  In strong support of Norm, let me add:  Not just in philosophy!
In business strategy, good decision-making requires consideration of the consequences of potential actions, which in turn requires the consideration of the potential actions of other actors and stakeholders in response to the first set of actions.  These actors may include entities whose existence is not yet known or even suspected, for example, future competitors to a product whose launch creates a new product category.   Why, there’s even a whole branch of strategy analysis, devoted to scenario planning, a discipline that began in the military analysis of alternative post-nuclear worlds, and whose very essence involves the creation of imagined futures (for forecasting and prognosis) and/or imagined pasts (for diagnosis and analysis).   Every good air-crash investigation, medical diagnosis, and police homicide investigation, for instance, involves the creation of imagined alternative pasts, and often the creation of imaginary entities in those imagined pasts, whose fictional attributes we may explore at length.   Arguably, in one widespread view of the philosophy of mathematics, pure mathematicians do nothing but explore the attributes of entities without material existence.
And not just in business, medicine, the military, and the professions.   In computer software engineering, no new software system development is complete without due and rigorous consideration of the likely actions of users or other actors with and on the system, for example.   Users and actors here include those who are the intended target users of the system, as well as malevolent or whimsical or poorly-behaved or bug-ridden others, both human and virtual, not all of whom may even exist when the system is first developed or put into production.      If creative articulation and manipulation of imaginary futures (possible or impossible) is to be outlawed, not only would we have no literary fiction or much poetry, we’d also have few working software systems either.

Agonistic planning

One key feature of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations identified by David Halberstam in his superb account of the development of US policy on Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, was groupthink:  the failure of White House national security, foreign policy and defense staff to propose or even countenance alternatives to the prevailing views on Vietnam, especially when these alternatives were in radical conflict with the prevailing wisdom.   Among the junior staffers working in those administrations was Richard Holbrooke, now the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Obama administration.  A New Yorker profile of Holbrooke last year included this statement by him, about the need for policy planning processes to incorporate agonism:

“You have to test your hypothesis against other theories,” Holbrooke said. “Certainty in the face of complex situations is very dangerous.” During Vietnam, he had seen officials such as McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s and Johnson’s national-security adviser, “cut people to ribbons because the views they were getting weren’t acceptable.” Washington promotes tactical brilliance framed by strategic conformity—the facility to outmaneuver one’s counterpart in a discussion, without questioning fundamental assumptions. A more farsighted wisdom is often unwelcome. In 1975, with Bundy in mind, Holbrooke published an essay in Harpers in which he wrote, “The smartest man in the room is not always right.” That was one of the lessons of Vietnam. Holbrooke described his method to me as “a form of democratic centralism, where you want open airing of views and opinions and suggestions upward, but once the policy’s decided you want rigorous, disciplined implementation of it. And very often in the government the exact opposite happens. People sit in a room, they don’t air their real differences, a false and sloppy consensus papers over those underlying differences, and they go back to their offices and continue to work at cross-purposes, even actively undermining each other.”  (page 47)
Of course, Holbrooke’s positing of policy development as distinct from policy implementation is itself a dangerous simplification of the reality for most complex policy, both private and public, where the relationship between the two is usually far messier.    The details of policy, for example, are often only decided, or even able to be decided, at implementation-time, not at policy design-time.    Do you sell your new hi-tech product via retail outlets, for instance?  The answer may depend on whether there are outlets available to collaborate with you (not tied to competitors) and technically capable of selling it, and these facts may not be known until you approach the outlets.  Moreover, if the stakeholders implementing (or constraining implementation) of a policy need to believe they have been adequately consulted in policy development for the policy to be executed effectively (as is the case with major military strategies in democracies, for example here), then a further complication to this reductive distinction exists.
UPDATE (2011-07-03):
British MP Rory Stewart recounts another instance of Holbrooke’s agonist approach to policy in this post-mortem tribute: Holbrooke, although disagreeing with Stewart on policy toward Afghanistan, insisted that Stewart present his case directly to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a meeting that Holbrooke arranged.

David Halberstam [1972]:  The Best and the Brightest.  New York, NY, USA: Random House.
George Packer [2009]:  The last mission: Richard Holbrooke’s plan to avoid the mistakes of Vietnam in AfghanistanThe New Yorker, 2009-09-28, pp. 38-55.

Complex Decisions

Most real-world business decisions are considerably more complex than the examples presented by academics in decision theory and game theory.  What makes some decisions more complex than others? Here I list some features, not all of which are present in all decision situations.

  • The problems are not posed in a form amenable to classical decision theory.

    Decision theory requires the decision-maker to know what are his or her action-options, what are the consequences of these, what are the uncertain events which may influence these consequences, and what are the probabilities of these uncertain events (and to know all these matters in advance of the decision). Yet, for many real-world decisions, this knowledge is either absent, or may only be known in some vague, intuitive, way. The drug thalidomide, for example, was tested thoroughly before it was sold commercially – on male and female human subjects, adults and children. The only group not to be tested were pregnant women, which were, unfortunately, the main group for which the drug had serious side effects. These side effects were consequences which had not been imagined before the decision to launch was made. Decision theory does not tell us how to identify the possible consequences of some decision, so what use is it in real decision-making?

  • There are fundamental domain uncertainties.

    None of us knows the future. Even with considerable investment in market research, future demand for new products may not be known because potential customers themselves do not know with any certainty what their future demand will be. Moreover, in many cases, we don’t know the past either. I have had many experiences where participants in a business venture have disagreed profoundly about the causes of failure, or even success, and so have taken very different lessons from the experience.

  • Decisions may be unique (non-repeated).

    It is hard to draw on past experience when something is being done for the first time. This does not stop people trying, and so decision-making by metaphor or by anecdote is an important feature of real-world decision-making, even though mostly ignored by decision theorists.

  • There may be multiple stakeholders and participants to the decision.

    In developing a business plan for a global satellite network, for example, a decision-maker would need to take account of the views of a handful of competitors, tens of major investors, scores of minor investors, approximately two hundred national and international telecommunications regulators, a similar number of national company law authorities, scores of upstream suppliers (eg equipment manufacturers), hundreds of employees, hundreds of downstream service wholesalers, thousands of downstream retailers, thousands or millions of shareholders (if listed publicly), and millions of potential customers. To ignore or oppose the views of any of these stakeholders could doom the business to failure. As it happens, Game Theory isn’t much use with this number and complexity of participants. Moreover, despite the view commonly held in academia, most large Western corporations operate with a form of democracy. (If opinions of intelligent, capable staff are regularly over-ridden, these staff will simply leave, so competition ensures democracy. In addition, good managers know that decisions unsupported by their staff will often be executed poorly, so success of a decision may depend on the extent to which staff believe it has been reached fairly.) Accordingly, all major decisions are decided by groups or teams, not at the sole discretion of an individual. Decision theorists, it seems to me, have paid insufficient attention to group decisions: We hear lots about Bayesian decision theory, but where, for example, is the Bayesian theory of combining subjective probability assessments?

  • Domain knowledge may be incomplete and distributed across these stakeholders.
  • Beliefs, goals and preferences of the stakeholders may be diverse and conflicting.
  • Beliefs, goals and preferences of stakeholders, the probabilities of events and the consequences of decisions, may be determined endogenously, as part of the decision process itself.

    For instance, economists use the term network good to refer to a good where one person’s utility depends on the utility of others. A fax machine is an example, since being the sole owner of fax is of little value to a consumer. Thus, a rational consumer would determine his or her preferences for such a good only AFTER learning the preferences of others. In other words, rational preferences are determined only in the course of the decision process, not beforehand.  Having considerable experience in marketing, I contend that ALL goods and services have a network-good component. Even so-called commodities, such as natural resources or telecommunications bandwidth, have demand which is subject to fashion and peer pressure. You can’t get fired for buying IBM, was the old saying. And an important function of advertising is to allow potential consumers to infer the likely preferences of other consumers, so that they can then determine their own preferences. If the advertisement appeals to people like me, or people to whom I aspire to be like, then I can infer that those others are likely to prefer the product being advertized, and thus I can determine my own preferences for it. Similarly, if the advertisement appeals to people I don’t aspire to be like, then I can infer that I won’t be subject to peer pressure or fashion trends, and can determine my preferences accordingly.
    This is commonsense to marketers, even if heretical to many economists.

  • The decision-maker may not fully understand what actions are possible until he or she begins to execute.
  • Some actions may change the decision-making landscape, particularly in domains where there are many interacting participants.

    A bold announcement by a company to launch a new product, for example, may induce competitors to follow and so increase (or decrease) the chances of success. For many goods, an ecosystem of critical size may be required for success, and bold initiatives may act to create (or destroy) such ecosystems.

  • Measures of success may be absent, conflicting or vague.
  • The consequences of actions, including their success or failure, may depend on the quality of execution, which in turn may depend on attitudes and actions of people not making the decision.

    Most business strategies are executed by people other than those who developed or decided the strategy. If the people undertaking the execution are not fully committed to the strategy, they generally have many ways to undermine or subvert it. In military domains, the so-called Powell Doctrine, named after former US Secretary of State Colin Powell, says that foreign military actions undertaken by a democracy may only be successful if these actions have majority public support. (I have written on this topic before.)

  • As a corollary of the previous feature, success of an action may require extensive and continuing dialog with relevant stakeholders, before, during and after its execution.

    This is not news to anyone in business.

  • Success may require pre-commitments before a decision is finally taken.

    In the 1990s, many telecommunications companies bid for national telecoms licences in foreign countries. Often, an important criterion used by the Governments awarding these licences was how quickly each potential operator could launch commercial service. To ensure that they could launch service quickly, some bidders resorted to making purchase commitments with suppliers and even installing equipment ahead of knowing the outcome of a bid, and even ahead, in at least one case I know, of deciding whether or not to bid.

  • The consequences of decisions may be slow to realize.

    Satellite mobile communications networks have typically taken ten years from serious inception to launch of service.  The oil industry usually works on 50+ year cycles for major investment projects.  BP is currently suffering the consequence in the Gulf of Mexico of what appears to be a decades-long culture which de-emphasized safety and adequate contingency planning.

  • Decision-makers may influence the consequences of decisions and/or the measures of success.
  • Intelligent participants may model each other in reaching a decision, what I term reflexivity.

    As a consequence, participants are not only reacting to events in their environment, they are anticipating events and the reactions and anticipations of other participants, and acting proactively to these anticipated events and reactions. Traditional decision theory ignores this. Following Nash, traditional game theory has modeled the outcomes of one such reasoning process, but not the processes themselves. Evolutionary game theory may prove useful for modeling these reasoning processes, although assuming a sequence of identical, repeated interactions does not strike me as an immediate way to model a process of reflexivity.  This problem still awaits its Nash.

In my experience, classical decision theory and game theory do not handle these features very well; in some cases, indeed, not at all.  I contend that a new theory of complex decisions is necessary to cope with decision domains having these features.

GTD Intelligence at Kimberly-Clark

I started talking recently about getting-things-done (GTD) intelligence.  Grant McCracken, over at This Blog Sits At, has an interview with Paula Rosch, formerly of fmcg company Kimberly-Clark, which illustrates this nicely.

I spent the rest of my K-C career in advanced product development or new business identification, usually as a team leader, and sometimes as what Gifford Pinchot called an “Intrapreneur” – a corporate entrepreneur, driving new products from discovery to basis-for-interest to commercialization.  It’s the nature of many companies to prematurely dismiss ideas that represent what the world might want/need 5, 10 years out and beyond in favor of near-term opportunities – the intrapreneur stays under the radar, using passion, brains, intuition, stealth, any and every other human and material resource available to keep things moving.  It helps to have had some managers that often looked the other way.
Continue reading ‘GTD Intelligence at Kimberly-Clark’

Bonuses yet again

Alex Goodall, over at A Swift Blow to the Head, has written another angry post about the bonuses paid to financial sector staff. I’ve been in several minds about responding, since my views seem to be decidedly minority ones in our present environment, and because there seems to be so much anger abroad on this topic.  But so much that is written and said, including by intelligent, reasonable people such as Alex, mis-understands the topic, that I feel a response is again needed.  It behooves none of us to make policy on the basis of anger and ignorance.
Continue reading ‘Bonuses yet again’


Visiting my local dojo this week, I saw an advert for a Workaholics Anonymous meeting that also takes place there.  They meet fortnightly, on Saturdays from 10 am to 12 noon. What  a pity, since Saturday mornings are my most productive work-times of the week!

Commuting in the age of email

If you believe, as the prevailing social metaphor would have it, that this is the Age of Information, then you could easily imagine that the main purpose of human interactions is to request and provide information.  That seems to be the implicit assumption underlying Lane Wallace’s discussion of commuting and working-from-home here.   Wallace is surprised that anyone still travels to work, when information can be transferred so much more readily by phone, email and the web.
But the primary purpose of most workplace interactions is not information transfer, or this is so only incidentally.  Rather, workplace interactions are about the co-ordination of actions — identifying and assessing alternatives for future action, planning and co-ordinating future actions, and reporting on past actions undertaken or current actions being executed.    To engage in such interactions about action of course involves requests for and transfers of information.    To the extent that this is the case, such interactions can be and indeed are undertaken with participants separated in space and time.   But co-ordination of actions requires very different speech acts to those (relatively simple) locutions seeking and providing information:  speech acts such as proposals, promises, requests, entreaties, and commands.  These speech acts have two distinct and characteristic features — they usually require uptake (the intended hearer or actor must agree to the action before the action is undertaken), and the person with the power of retraction or revocation is not necessarily the initial speaker.   An accepted promise can only be revoked by the person to whom the promise is made, for instance, not by the person who made the promise. So, by their very nature these locutions are dialogical acts, not monolectical.   You can’t meaningfully give commands to yourself, for example, and what value is a promise made in a forest?  Neither of these two features apply to speech acts involving requests for information or responses to requests for information.
In addition, inherent in speech acts over actions is the notion of intentionality.    If I promise to you to do action X, then I am expressing an intention to do X.  If your goals requires that action X be commenced or done, then you need to assess how sincere and how feasible my promise is.  Part of your assessment may be based on your past experience with me, and/or the word of others you trust about me (my reputation).   Thus it is perfectly possible for you to assess my capability and my sincerity without ever meeting me.  International transactions across all sorts of industries have taken place for centuries between parties who never met; the need to assess sincerity and capability is surely a key reason for the dominance of families (eg, the Rothschilds in the 18th and 19th centuries) and close-knit ethnic groups (eg, the Chinese diaspora) in international trade networks.  But, if you don’t know me already, it is generally much easier and more reliable for you to assess my sincerity and capability by looking me in the eye as I make my promise to you.
Bloggers and writers and professors, who rarely need to co-ordinate actions with anyone to achieve their work goals, seem not to understand these issues very well.  But these are issues are known to anyone who actually does anything in the world, whether in politics, in public administration or in business.   One defining feature of modern North American corporate culture, in my experience, is that most people find it preferable to make promises of actions even when they do not yet have, and when they know that they do not yet have, the capabilities or resources required to undertake the actions promised.  They do this rather than not make the promise or rather than making the promise conditional on obtaining the necessary resources, in order to appear “positive” to their bosses.   This is the famous “Can Do” attitude at work, and I have discussed it tangentially before in connection with the failure of the Bay of Pigs;  its contribution to the failures of modern American business needs a separate post.

At the hot gates: a salute to Nate Fick

After viewing The Wire, certainly the best television series I have ever seen (and perhaps the best ever made), I naturally sought out Generation Kill, from the same writing team – David Simons and Ed Burns.  Also gripping and intelligent viewing, although (unlike The Wire), we only see one side’s view of the conflict.   The series follows a US Marine platoon, Second Platoon of Bravo Company of the 1st  Reconnaissance  Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, as they invade Iraq in March-April 2003.   Like Band of Brothers, we come to know the platoon and its members very well, feeling joy at their wins, and sorrow at their losses.  The TV series is based on an eponymous 2004 book by a journalist, Evan Wright, who was embedded with the platoon in this campaign.
The TV series led me, however,  to read another book about this platoon, written by its commanding officer Lt. Nathaniel Fick (played in the series by actor Stark Sands).    The book is superb!    Fick writes extremely well, intelligently and evocatively, of his training and his battle experiences.  His prose style is direct and uncluttered, without being a parody of itself (as is, say, Hemingway’s).  His writing is remarkably smooth, gliding along, and this aspect reminded me of Doris Lessing, on one of her good days.   Fick clearly has a firm moral centre (perhaps an outcome of his Jesuit high school education), evident from his initial decision to apply to the military while still an undergraduate classics major at Dartmouth.     Having felt a similarly-strong desire as an undergraduate to experience life at the hot gates, I empathized immensely with his description of himself at that time.   Fick’s moral grounding is shown throughout the book, not only in the decisions he takes in battle, and his reflections on these decisions, but also in the way he refrains from naming those of his commanding officers whom he does not respect.    He also shows enormous loyalty to the men he commanded.
And Fick’s experiences demonstrate again that no organization, not even military forces,  can succeed for very long when commands are only obeyed mindlessly.   Successfully execution of commands requires intelligent dialogue between commanders and recipients, in a process of argumentation, to ensure that uttered commands are actionable, appropriate, feasible, effective, consistent, ethical and advisable.  Consequently, the most interesting features of the book for me were the descriptions of decision-making, descriptions often implicit.   Officers and non-officers, it seems, are drilled, through hours of rote learning, in the checklists and guiding principles necessary for low-level, tactical decision-making, so that these decisions can be automatic.  Only after these mindless drills are second nature are trainee officers led to reflect on the wider (strategic and ethical) aspects of decisions,  of decision-making and of actions.   I wonder to what extent such an approach would work in business, where most decision-making, even the most ordinary and tactical, is acquired through direct experience and not usually taught as drills.  Mainly this is because we lack codification of low-level decision-making, although strong fmcg companies such as Mars or Unilever come closest to codification of tactical decision-making.
Fick’s frequent frustrations with the commands issued to him seem to arise because these commands often ignore basic tactical constraints (such as the area of impact of weapons or the direction of firing of weapons), and because they often seem to be driven by a concern for appearances over substantive outcomes.   In contrast to this frustration, one of Fick’s commanding heroes is Major Richard Whitmer, whose unorthodox managerial style and keen intelligence is well described.  A military force able to accommodate such a style is to be admired, so I hope it is not a reflection on the USMC that Whitmer appears to have spent the years since the Iraq invasion running a marine recruitment office.  Next time that I’m CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I’ll actively try to recruit Whitmer and Fick, since they are both clearly superb managers.
I was also struck by how little the troops on the ground in Iraq knew of the larger, strategic picture.  Fick’s team relied on broadcasts from the BBC World Service on a personal, non-military-issue transister radio to learn what was happening as they invaded Iraq.   We who were not involved in the war also relied on the BBC, particularly Mark Urban’s fascinating daily strategic analyses on BBC TV’s Newsnight.  Were we remote viewers better informed than those in the ground in Iraq?  Quite possibly.
Nathaniel Fick now works for a defence think tank, the Center for a New American Security.  A 2006 speech he gave at the Pritzer Military Library in Chicago can be seen here.   A seminar talk to Johns Hopkins University’s series on Rethinking the Future Nature of Competition and Conflict can be found here (scroll down to 2006-01-25).  And here is Fick’s take on recent war poetry.
K. Atkinson et al. [2008]: Command dialogues. In: I. Rahwan and P. Moraitis (Editors): Proceedings of the Fifth International Workshop on Argumentation in Multi-Agent Systems (ArgMAS 2008), AAMAS 2008, Lisbon, Portugal.
Nathaniel Fick [2005]:  One Bullet Away:  The Making of a Marine Officer.  London, UK:  Phoenix.
Evan Wright [2004]:  Generation Kill. Putnam.

A plan for infrastructure projects

While on the subject of infrastructure, and the UK Government’s lack of any apparent action to start new infrastructure projects despite the economic crisis, here is a draft plan of action:

  • Start with a national competition for suggestions for new infrastructure projects.  People and businesses in regional communities have loads of ideas for projects – should anyone in Westminster bother to listen.   Perhaps allow 1 month for this, so Month 1 is spent soliciting proposals.  Creating a press release to announce the competition and a web-site to receive suggestions could be done within a day.
  • In the meantime (also during Month 1), create a temporary government agency like Australia’s national infrastructure agency, to receive these proposals and do a preliminary filtering in terms of (say): employment impact, wider business impact, social impact, cost, and long term potential for follow-on benefits.   A leading management consulting firm or two could be used to detail the criteria, assess all the proposals against the criteria (tedious but necessary work), and produce this long listing, winnowing down from (say) hundreds of proposals to (say) 50.  Month 2 could be devoted to this effort.
  • Then, have an appointed national committee, comprising politicians from all three major national parties, people from business and industry, the trades unions, people and politicians from the regions (say about 20 people) assess the 50 long-listed proposals and winnow them down to (say) 10.   This should be done in closed session in one, dedicated, all-day-and-all-night effort, over (say) 7 days.   We want the committee to bond, because we want their conclusions to be unanimous.
  • Then, prepare detailed technical and financial plans for each project on the shortlist.   This could be achieved within (say) 21 days.    As with the earlier stages, this work could be undertaken with the assistance of consulting and/or engineering firms, major corporations or banks  – there are currently lots of bankers at a loose end, I hear.  Hell, I’d even volunteer for this myself, because of the fun it would be and the importance of the work.
  • Then, fund the final 10 projects immediately and start digging ground (or spinning fibre, or whatever).  These projects should be give short, sharp names (eg, Fibre-up; Fast-Track) and short descriptors, so that every person over 16 can identify with them, and support them.  Insist that each team’s management produce detailed progress reports online each month, with (say) quarterly public hearings.   We want this work done, done well and done properly.

Total time, from start of campaign to shoveling: 3 months.
Of course, I realize getting major projects to shovel-ready normally takes longer than 3 months.  THIS FACT SHOULD NOT STOP ALL THESE PROJECTS STARTING SOMETHING WITHIN 3 MONTHS.  A key task will be creating semi-permanent, quasi-independent parastatal bodies (quangos) to run each project, to acquire land, employ people, etc.   That can all be done after the projects start, since the first main purpose of these projects is to boost aggregate demand and employment in the short run.    Our models here should be the  USA’s Tennessee Valley Authority and Australia’s Snowy Mountains Scheme, updated for the Internet age.
Not all infrastructure projects need to involve alteration to the earth’s physical landscape. My own proposal would be to create a major national organization – part-research lab, part-investment bank – to identify, to prototype, to seed, and to invest-in business ideas for future-generation Internet applications, starting from about Web 6.0 (whatever that will be) and upwards – a Xerox Parc for 21st-century e-services, with an investment budget of (say) USD 5 billion or so to start.  I would start this with public funding, with the aim of privatizing it once it becomes successful.
And (added 2009-02-12), if 3 months is too long (and it is), here are three potential major national infrastructure projects suggested by journalist Andrew Rawnsley:

  1. A national high-speed rail network (I would call this Fast-Track, or similar)
  2. A national, super-fast broadband fibre optic network (Fibre-Up), and
  3. A large-scale renewable energy production program, connected to the National Electricity Grid (Green-Power-to-go!).

There would be nothing stopping the Government spending (say) GBP 1 million on each of these to prepare outline feasibility and financial plans, with the aim of launching one of them within a month.
Building a national fibre broadband network without thinking also about what would run on it would not be sensible, which is why I propose the Web6.0 idea above.  But a little creativity could generate lots of proposals for non-physical infrastructure, which would create UK employment here and now, train people, stimulate demand, and leave something behind for future generations, for example:

  • Digitizing the contents of ALL Britain’s art galleries and museums, something which could employ artists, photographers, and lots of those unemployed media studies and IT graduates.
  • Digitizing the contents of the British Library, the main University Libraries and the national archives.
  • Digitizing ALL past census records.
  • Recording the life story of every citizen over 65.
  • Recording a performance at every live music venue in the country, including pubs and churches.
  • Producing online visitor guides to every locality in the country, annotated by people resident in the locality.
  • Producing a digital record (films, interviews, oral histories, photos, etc) of every factory facing downsizing or closure, with a record of the skills and networks being lost.

It should not need saying that all this digitized information, if paid for from the public purse, should be made freely accessible online.  These projects could be our generation’s equivalent of the Works Progress Administration.   I am sure there are many more ideas, both sensible and wacky, than these.
Well, Mr Brown?  What are you waiting for?  How about some vision?  If not these projects, then what?  If not now, then when?

Presidential planning

Gordon Goldstein has some advice for President-elect Obama in managing his advisors.  Goldstein prefaces his remarks by a potted history of John F. Kennedy’s experience with the CIA-planned Bay of Pigs action, an attempted covert invasion of Cuba.    Although Goldstein’s general advice to Obama may be wise, he profoundly mis-characterizes the Bay of Pigs episode, and thus the management lessons it provides.   As we have remarked before, one aspect of that episode was that although the action was planned and managed by CIA, staff in the White House – including JFK himself! – unilaterally revised the plans right up until the moment of the invasion.   Indeed, the specific site in Cuba of the invasion was changed – at JFK’s order, and despite CIA’s reluctance – just 4 days before the scheduled date.  This left insufficient time to revise the plans adequately, and all but guaranteed failure.  The CIA man in charge, Dick Bissell, in his memoirs, regretted that he had not opposed the White House revisions more forcefully.
Anyone who has worked for a US multi-national will be familiar with this problem – bosses flying in, making profound, last-minute changes to detailed plans without proper analysis and apparently on whim, and then leaving middle management to fix everything.  Middle management are also assigned the role of taking the blame.  This has happened so often in my experience, I have come to see it as a specific trope of contemporary American culture — the supermanager, able to change detailed plans at a moment’s notice!     Even Scott Adams has recorded the phenomenon. It is to JFK’s credit that he took the public blame for the Bay of Pigs fiasco (although he also ensured that senior CIA people were made to resign for his error).  But so indeed he should have, since so much of the real blame rests squarely with the President himself and his White House national security staff.

The Bay of Pigs action had another, more existential, problem.  CIA wished to scare the junta running Cuba into resigning from office, by making them think the island was being invaded by a vastly superior force.  It was essential to the success of the venture that the Cuban government therefore think that the force was backed by the USA, the only regional power with such a capability and intent.  It was also essential to the USA’s international reputation that the USA could plausibly deny that they were in any way involved in the action, in order for the venture not to escalate (via the Cold War with the USSR) into a larger military conflict.   Thus, Kennedy ruled out the use of USAF planes to provide cover to the invading troops, and he continually insisted that the plans minimize “the noise level” of the invasion.   These two objectives were essentially contradictory, since reducing the noise level decreased the likelihood of the invasion scaring Castro from office.
The Bay of Pigs fiasco provides many lessons for management, both to US Presidents and to corporate executives.   One of these, seemingly forgotten in Vietnam and again in Iraq, is that plans do matter.   Success is rarely something reached by accident, or by a series of on-the-fly, ad hoc, decisions, each undertaken without careful analysis, reflection and independent assessment.