A salute to Dick Bissell

For those who know his name, Richard Bissell (1910-1994) probably has a mostly negative reputation, as the chief planner of the failed attempted invasion of Cuba at the “Bay of Pigs” in April 1961.  Put aside the fact that last-minute changes to the invasion plans (including a change of location) were forced on Bissell and CIA by the Kennedy Administration; after all, as Bissell himself argued in his memoirs, he and CIA could have and should have done more to resist these changes.  (There is another post to be written on the lessons of this episode for the making of complex decisions, a topic on which surprisingly little seems to have been published.)  Bissell ended his career as VP for Marketing and Economic Planning at United Aircraft Corporation, a post he held for a decade, although he found it unfulfilling after the excitement of his Government service.

Earlier in his career, Bissell was several times an administrative and organizational hero, a man who got things done.  During World War II, Bissell, working for the US Government’s Shipping Adjustment Board, established a comprehensive card index of every ship in the US merchant marine to the point where he could predict, within an error of 5 percent, which ships would be at which ports unloading their cargoes when, and thus available for reloading.  He did this well before multi-agent systems or even Microsoft Excel. After WW II, he was the person who successfully implemented the Marshall Plan for the Economic Recovery of Europe.  And then, after joining CIA in 1954, he successfully created and led the project to design, build, equip and deploy a high-altitude spy-plane to observe America’s enemies, the U-2 spy plane.   Bissell also led the design, development and deployment of CIA’s Corona reconnaisance satellites, and appears to have played a key role in the development of America’s national space policy before that.
Whatever one thinks of the overall mission of CIA before 1989 (and I think there is a fairly compelling argument that CIA and KGB successfully and jointly kept the cold war from becoming a hot one), one can only but admire Bissell’s managerial competence, his ability to inspire others, his courage, and his verve.  Not only was the U-2 a completely new plane (designed and built by a team led by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed, using engines from Pratt & Whitney), flying at altitudes above any ever flown before, and using a new type of fuel (developed by Shell), but the plane also had to be equipped with sophisticated camera equipment, also newly invented and manufactured (by a team led by Edwin Land of Polaroid), producing developed film in industrial quantities.  All of these components, and the pilot, needed to operate under extreme conditions (eg, high-altitudes, long-duration flights, very sensitive flying parameters, vulnerability to enemy attack).  And the overall process, from weather prediction, through deployment of the plane and pilot to their launch site, all the way to the human analyses of the resulting acres of film, had to be designed, organized, integrated and managed.
All this was done in great secrecy and very rapidly, with multiple public-sector and private-sector stakeholders involved.   Bissell achieved all this while retaining the utmost loyalty and respect from those who worked for him and with him.  I can only respond with enormous admiration for the project management and expectations management abilities, and the political, negotiation, socialization, and consensus-forging skills, that Dick Bissell must have had.  Despite what many in academia believe, these abilities are rare and intellectually-demanding, and far too few people in any organization have them.
Richard M. Bissell [1996]:  Reflections of a Cold Warrior:  From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs. New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Norman Polnar [2001]:  Spyplane:  The U-2 History Declassified.  Osceola, WI, USA: MBI Publishing.
Evan Thomas [1995]:  The Very Best Men.  Four Who Dared:  The Early Years of the CIA.  New York City, NY, USA:  Touchstone.

Extreme teams

Eric Nehrlich, over at Unrepentant Generalist, has reminded me of the book “The Wisdom of Teams“, by Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith, which I first read when it appeared in the early 1990s.   At the time, several of us here were managing applications for major foreign telecommunications licences for our clients – the fifth P (“Permission”) in telecoms marketing.
Before Governments around the world realized what enormous sums of money they could make from auctioning telecoms licences, they typically ran what was called a “beauty contest” to decide the winner.     In these contests, bidders needed to prepare an application document to persuade the Government that they (the bidder) were the best company to be awarded the licence.  What counted as compelling arguments differed from one country to another, and from one licence application to another.   The most common assessment criteria used by Governments were:  corporate reputation and size, technical preparedness and innovation, quality of business plans, market size and market growth, and the prospects for local employment and economic development.
As I’m sure you see immediately, these criteria are multi-disciplinary.  Licence applications were (and still are, even when conducted as auctions) always a multi-disciplinary effort, with folks from marketing, finance, engineering, operations, legal and regulatory, folks from different consortium partners, and people from different nationalities, all assigned to the one project team.  In the largest application we managed, the team comprised an average of about 100 people at any one time (people came and went all the time), and it ran for some 8 months.   In that case, the Government tender documents required us to prepare about 7,000 original pages of text in response (including detailed business plans and blue-prints of each mobile base station), multiplied by some 20 copies.    You don’t win these licences handing in coffee-stained photocopies or roneoed sheets.  Each of the 20 volumes was printed on glossy paper, hard-bound, and the lot assembled in a carved tea chest.
Work on these team projects was extremely challenging, not least because of the stakes involved.  If you miss the application submission deadline even by 5 minutes, you were out of the running.    That would mean throwing away the $10-20 million you spent preparing the application and upsetting your consortium partners more than somewhat.   If you submit on time, and you win the licence, you might see your company’s share-market value rise by several hundred million dollars overnight, simply on the news that you had a won a major overseas mobile licence.  $300 million sharevalue gain less $20 million preparation costs leaves a lot of gain.   In one case, our client’s share-market value even rose dramatically on news that they had LOST the licence!  We never discovered if this was because the shareholders were pleased that the company (not previously in telecoms) had lost and was sticking to its knitting, or were pleased that the company had tried to move into a hi-tech arena.
With high stakes, an unmovable deadline, and with different disciplines and companies involved, tempers were often loose.   One of the major differences between our experiences and those described in the Katzenbach and Smith book is that we never got to choose the team members.  In almost all cases, Governments required consortia to comprise a mix of local and international companies, so each consortium partner would choose its own representatives in the team.  Sometimes, the people assigned knew about the telecoms business and had experience in doing licence applications; more frequently, they knew little and had no relevant experience.  In addition, within each consortium partner company, internally powerful people in the different disciplines would select which folks to send.   One could sometimes gauge the opinion of the senior managers of our chances by the calibre of the people they chose to allocate to the team.
So — our teams comprised people having different languages, national cultures and corporate cultures, from different disciplines and having different skillsets and levels of ability, and sent to us sometimes for very different purposes. (Not everyone, even within the same company, wanted to win each licence application.)  Did I mention we normally had no line authority over anyone since they worked for different divisions of different companies?  Our task was to organize the planning work of these folks in a systematic and coherent way to produce a document that looked like it was written by a single mind, with a single, coherent narrative thread and compelling pitch to the Government evaluators.
Let us see how these characteristics stack up against the guidelines of Katzenbach and Smith, which Eric summarized:

  • Small size  – Not usually the case.  Indeed, many of the major licence applications could not physically or skill-wise have been undertaken by just a small team.  These projects demanded very diverse skills, under impossibly-short deadlines.  The teams, therefore, had to be large.
  • Complementary skills – Lots of different skills were needed, as I mention above.  Not all of these are complementary, though.  I am not sure how much lawyers and engineers complement each other; more often, their different styles of thinking and communicating (words vs. diagrams, respectively) and their different objectives would have them in disagreement.
  • Common purpose – In public, everyone had the same goal — to win the licence.  In private, as in any human organization, team members and their employers may have had other goals.  I have seen cases where people want to lose, to prove a point to other partners, or because they do not feel their company would be able to deal with too many simultaneous wins.   I have seen other cases where people do not want to win (not the same as wanting to lose) — they may be participating in order to demonstrate, for example, that they know how to do these applications.
  • Performance goals – Fine in theory, but very hard in practice when the team leaders do not have line responsibility (even temporarily) over the team members.
  • Common approach – Almost never was this the case.  Each consortium partner, and sometimes each functional discipline within each consortium partner had their own approach.  There was rarely time or resources to develop something mutually acceptable.  In any case, outputs usually mattered more than approach.
  • Mutual accountability – Again, almost never the case, partly due to the diversity of real objectives of team members, divisions and partners.
  • Despite not matching these guidelines, some of the licence application teams were very successful, both in undertaking effective high-quality collaborative work and in winning licences.  I therefore came away from reading “The Wisdom of Teams” 15 years ago with the feeling that the authors had missed something essential about team projects because they had not described my experiences in licence applications.  (I even wrote to the authors at the time a long letter about my experiences, but they did not deign to reply.) I still feel that the book misses much.

    The post-modern corporation

    Anyone who has done any strategic planning or written a business case knows that planning requires one to forecast the future.  If you want to assess the financial viability of some new product or company, you need to make an estimate of the likely revenues of the company, and this requires making a prognosis of the level and nature of demand for whatever it is the company plans to provide.   “Taking a view on the future” is what the M&A people call this.
    The problem is that the future is uncertain and different people may have different views of it.   There are usually many possible views one could take, and stakeholders are not always able to agree on which is the most likely.  Financial planners typically deal with this uncertainty by developing a small number of scenarios: often called a best case,  an average case, and a worst case.    These scenarios are very rarely ever the actual “best” or the actual “worst” that the planners could conceive.  More typically, they are the best or worst “plausible” cases.  Similarly, the middle case may not be average in any sense of the word, but simply a case the planners happen to favour that is somewhere between the best and worst.   Often the average case is the best the planners think they can get away with, and they contrast this with an outlandish upside and a still-profitable downside.   As with other human utterances (eg, speeches and published papers), effective business planners take into account the views of their likely audience(s) when preparing a business plan.
    For telecommunications companies operating in a regulated environment, there is a further wrinkle:  the fifth “P” of telecoms marketing, Permission.  To gain regulatory approval or an operating licence for a new service, telcos in many countries need to make a business case to the regulatory agency.  Here, the regulators may have their own  views of the future.  Quite often, governments and regulators, especially those in less developed countries, feel they are behind in technology and believe that their country has a vast, untapped market ready for the taking.   Sometimes, governments have public policy or even party-political reasons for promoting a certain technology, and they want the benefits to be realized as quickly as possible.   For these and other reasons, governments and regulators often have much more optimistic views of likely demand than do the companies on the ground.
    Thus, we have the situation where a company may prepare different business plans for different stakeholders, each plan encoding a different view of the future:  an optimistic plan for the regulator, a parsimonious plan for a distribution partner and yet another for internal use.   Indeed, there may be different views of the future and thus different plans for different internal audiences also, for reasons I will explain in my next post.   Living with uncertainty, the post-modern corporation treats its view of the future as completely malleable — something which can be constructed and re-constructed as often as occasion or audience demands.
    In my next post, I’ll talk about the challenges of planning with multiple views of the future, and give some examples.
    Reference:  This post was inspired by Grant McCracken’s recent post on Assumption-Hunting.