Writing as thinking

Anyone who has done any serious writing knows that the act of writing is a form of thinking.  Formulating vague ideas and half-articulated concepts into coherent, reasoned, justified, well-defended written arguments is not merely the reporting of thinking but is indeed the very doing of thinking.   Michael Gerson, former policy advisor and chief speech-writer to President George W. Bush, has a nice statement of this view, in an article in the Washington Post defending President Barack Obama’s use of teleprompters, here.  An excerpt:

“For politicians, the teleprompter has always been something of an embarrassing vice — the political equivalent of purchasing cigarettes, Haagen-Dazs and a Playboy at the convenience store.
This derision is based on the belief that the teleprompter exaggerates the gap between image and reality — that it involves a kind of deception. It is true that there is often a distinction between a president on and off his script. With a teleprompter, Obama can be ambitiously eloquent; without it, he tends to be soberly professorial. Ronald Reagan with a script was masterful; during news conferences he caused much wincing and cringing. It is the rare politician, such as Tony Blair, who speaks off the cuff in beautifully crafted paragraphs.
But it is a mistake to argue that the uncrafted is somehow more authentic. Those writers and commentators who prefer the unscripted, who use “rhetoric” as an epithet, who see the teleprompter as a linguistic push-up bra, do not understand the nature of presidential leadership or the importance of writing to the process of thought.
Governing is a craft, not merely a talent. It involves the careful sorting of ideas and priorities. And the discipline of writing — expressing ideas clearly and putting them in proper order — is essential to governing. For this reason, the greatest leaders have taken great pains with rhetoric. Lincoln continually edited and revised his speeches. Churchill practiced to the point of memorization. Such leaders would not have been improved by being “unplugged.” When it comes to rhetoric, winging it is often shoddy and self-indulgent — practiced by politicians who hear Mozart in their own voices while others perceive random cymbals and kazoos. Leaders who prefer to speak from the top of their heads are not more authentic, they are often more shallow — not more “real,” but more undisciplined.
. . .
The speechwriting process that puts glowing words on the teleprompter screen serves a number of purposes. Struggling over the precise formulations of a text clarifies a president’s own thinking. It allows others on his staff to have input — to make their case as a speech is edited. The final wording of a teleprompter speech often brings internal policy debates to a conclusion. And good teamwork between a president and his speechwriters can produce memorable rhetoric — the kind of words that both summarize a historical moment and transform it.”

Anyone (and this includes most everybody in management consulting) who has tried to achieve a team consensus over some issue knows the truth of this last paragraph.   The writing of a jointly-agreed text or presentation enables different views to be identified, to surface, and to be accommodated (or ignored explicitly).   Just as writing is a form of thinking, developing team presentations is a form of group cognition and group co-ordination.

Organizational Cognition

Over at Unrepentant Generalist, Eric Nehrlich is asking interesting questions about organizational cognition.   His post brings to mind the studies of decision-making by traders in financial markets undertaken in recent years by Donald MacKenzie at Edinburgh University, who argues that the locus of decision-making is usually not an individual trader, nor a group of traders working for a single company, nor even a group of traders working for a single company together with their computer models, but a group of traders working for a single company with their computer models and with their competitors. Information about market events, trends and opportunities is passed from traders at one company to traders from another through informal contacts and personal networks, and this information then informs decision-making by all of them.
It is possible, of course, for traders to pass false or self-serving information to competitors, but in an environment of repeated interactions and of job movements, the negative consequences of such actions will eventually be felt by the perpetrators themselves.  As evolutionary game theory would predict, everyone thus has long-term incentives to behave honourably in the short-term.  Of course, different market participants may evaluate this long-term/short-term tradeoff differently, and so we may still see the creation and diffusion of false rumours, something which financial markets regulators have tried to prevent.
Donald MacKenzie [2009]: Material Markets: How Economic Agents are Constructed.  Oxford, UK:  Oxford University Press.

Social networking v1.0

Believers in the potential of Web 2.0, such as we at Vukutu, think it will change many things — our personal interactions, our way of being in the world, our social lives, our economic lives, even our sciences and technologies.   The basis of this belief is partly by comparison with what happened the first time social networking became fashionable in western society.   This occurred with the rise of the Coffee House in western Europe from the middle of the 17th century.
Coffee, first cultivated and drunk in the areas near the Red Sea, spread through the Ottoman empire during the 16th century.   In Western Europe, it became popular from the early 17th century, initially in Venice, becoming known to educated Europeans roughly simultaneously with marijuana and opium.  (An interesting question for marketers is why coffee became a popular consumer product in Europe and the others did not.)  Because of the presence there of scholars of the orient and scientists with an experimentalist ethos, coffee first arrived in the British Isles in Oxford, where it was consumed privately from at least 1637;  the first public coffee house in the British Isles opened in Oxford in 1650, called the Angel and operated by a Mr Jacob.  The first London coffeehouse was opened in 1652 by Pasqua Rosee; the same mid-century period saw the rise of public coffee houses in the cities of France and the Netherlands.  For non-marketers reading this, it is worth realizing that opening a coffee house meant first having access to a regular source of coffee beans, no mean feat when the only beans then grew in the Yemen and north-east Africa.

Facing competition, coffee houses soon segmented their market, and specialised in particular activities, types of conversation, or political positions (sound familiar,  bloggers?), and provided services such libraries, reading rooms, public lectures, scientific demonstrations and auctions. Educated people and businessmen would often visit several coffee houses each day on their rounds, to collect and trade information, to meet friends and colleagues, to commune with the like-minded, and to transact business.  The coffee houses were centres for learning and debate, just as blogs are today, as well as places of economic exchange.
What were the consequences of this new mode of human interaction?  Well, coffee houses enabled the launch of at least three new industries — insurance, fine-art auctions, and newspapers — and were the physical basis for modern stock exchanges.  For instance, English insurer Lloyds of London began in Edward Lloyd’s coffee house in 1688.  And these industries themselves enabled or facilitated others.  The development of an insurance industry, for example, both supported and grew alongside the trans-continental exploration undertaken by Dutch, English and Iberian merchant shipping fleets:  deciding whether to invest in  perilous oceanic voyages required some rigour in assessing likely costs and benefits if one wished to make a long-term living from it, and being able to partition, bundle, re-bundle and on-sell risks to others.
And coffee-houses even supported the development of a new science.  In the decade around 1665, the modern idea of mathematical probability arose, seemingly independently across western Europe, in what is now Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Switzerland.   There is still some mystery as to why the mathematical representation of uncertainty became of interest to so many different people at around the same time, especially since their particular domains of application were diverse (shipping accidents, actuarial events, medical diagnosis, legal decisions, gambling games).  I wonder if sporadic outbreaks of the plague across Europe provoked a turn to randomness.  But there is no mystery as to where the topic of probability was discussed and how the ideas spread between different groups so quickly: coffee houses, and the inter-city and inter-national information networks they supported, were the medium.
What then will be the new industries and new sciences enabled by Web 2.0?
POSTSCRIPT: Several quotes from Cowan, for interest:

“No coffeehouse worth its name could refuse to supply its customers with a selection of newspapers.  . .  . The growing diversity of the press in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries meant that there was great pressure for a coffeehouse to take in a number of journals.  Indeed, many felt the need to accept nearly anything Grub Street could put to press.  . . . Not all coffeehouses could afford to take in every paper published, of course, but many also supplied their customers with news published abroad.  Papers from Paris, Amsterdam, Leiden, Rotterdam, and Harlem were commonly delivered to many coffeehouses in early eighteenth-century London.  The Scotch Coffeehouse in Bartholomew Lane boasted regular updates from Flanders on the course of the war in the 1690s.   Along with newspapers, coffeehouses regularly purchased pamphlets and cheap prints for the use of their customers.” (pp. 173-174).

“Different coffeehouses also arose to cater to the socialization and business needs of various professional and economic groups in the metropolis. [London]  By the early decades of the eighteenth century, a number of separated coffeehouses around the Exchange had taken to catering to the business needs of merchants specializing in distinct trades, such as the New England, the Virginia, the Carolina, the Jamaica, and the East India coffeehouses.  Child’s Coffeehouse, located conveniently near the College of Physicians, was much favoured by physicians and clergymen.  Because such affiliations were well known, entry into one of these specialized coffeehouses offered an introduction into the professional society found therein.” (pp. 169-170).

“The numerous coffeehouses of the metropolis were greater than the sum of their parts; they formed an interactive system in which information was socialized and made sense of by the various constituencies of the city.   Although a rudimentary form of this sort of communication circuit existed in early modern England (and especially London) well before coffeehouses were introduced in places such as St. Paul’s walk or the booksellers’ shops of St. Paul’s churchyard, the new coffeehouses quickly established themselves at the heart of the metropolitan circuitry by merging news reading, text circulation, and oral communication all into one institution.  The coffeehouse was first and foremost the product of an increasingly complex urban and commercial society that required a means by which the flow of information might be properly channeled.” (p. 171)

References and Acknowledgments:
My thanks to Fernando E. Vega of the USDA for pointing me to the book by Cowan.
Brian Cowan [2005]:  The Social Life of Coffee:  The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse.  New Haven, CT, USA:  Yale University Press.
Ian Hacking [1975]:  The Emergence of Probability: a Philosophical Study of Early Ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference. London, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Fernando E. Vega [2008]: The rise of coffee.  American Scientist, 96 (2): 138-145, March-April 2008.

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.