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  • Archive for the 'Management' Category

    Automation and Safety

    Posted by David Foster on 19th May 2015 (All posts by )

    Since the recent Amtrak crash, I’ve seen people in several places…including here…suggesting that engineers should be eliminated and trains operated entirely by automatic control. Here is a cautionary tale about such automation, which I originally posted about a year ago under the title Blood on the Tracks. I’ve added a few thoughts at the end.

    Kevin Meyer has a thought-provoking post (referencing, among other things, the Asiana Flight 214 crash) on achieving the right balance between manual and automatic control of systems.  His post reminded me of something that has been lurking in my queue of things-to-blog-about for a long time.

    On January 6, 1996, Washington Metrorail train T-111 departed the Rockville (MD) station northbound.  Operating under automatic control as was standard practice, the train accelerated to a speed of 75 mph, and then began slowing for a station stop at Shady Grove. The speed was still too great for the icy rail conditions, however, and T-111 slid into a stopped train at the station, killing the driver.

    What happened?  I think the answer to this question is relevant not only to the specific topics of mass transit and railroad safety, but also to the more general issues of manual and automatic operation in system design, and perhaps even to the architecture of organizations and political systems.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Human Behavior, Management, Tech, Transportation | 15 Comments »

    Book Review: God is an Englishman

    Posted by David Foster on 27th March 2015 (All posts by )

    The Swann family saga, by R F Delderfield:

    God Is an Englishman

    Theirs Was the Kingdom

    Give Us This Day

    In 1850, Adam Swann returned from India to his native England, having decided that a career in military service (especially in what he now viewed as basically a mercenary force, the East India Company’s army) was not for him.  He had in his possession a valuable cache of jewelry which he had acquired on a battlefield and (probably illegally) kept for himself.  While in India he had kept abreast of events in England by reading several-month-old newspapers, and was intrigued with the possibilities unleashed by industrial expansion. His original intention was to sell the jewelry and invest the proceeds in railway stock or in actually building a railroad branch line somewhere–but was dissuaded by a chance meeting with a railroad official, who advised him that railway building was in a bubble and that most of the lines now being constructed would prove uneconomic.  The official had, however, an alternative suggestion: put the money on the horses.  But not in the usual way.

    There’s more future in horse-transport than the Cleverdicks would have you believe.  The railroads can solve all the big problems but none of the small ones…If I were you, Mr Swann–and I wish to God I were and starting all over again–I would spend the next week studying the blank areas of that map there.  Then travel about and take a look at the goods yards of the most successful companies, and see merchandise piled in the rain on all their loading bays for want of a good dispersal system.

    Swann takes the man’s advice and sets off on a cross-country ride to evaluate the prospects for a new horse-drawn freight transportation business.  On the way, he meets Henrietta, who is fleeing a prospective marriage arranged by her father, a coarse and greedy mill owner.  It is Henrietta who proposes for the projected transport company the name Swann-on-Wheels and the wheeled-swan logo that will soon adorn the sides of hundreds of wagons rolling throughout Britain.

    The series is the story of Swann-on-Wheels, of Adam and Henrietta’s marriage and family, and of British society in the time period 1850-1914.  Unlike most historical novels covering this period, the aristocracy plays a very minor part, to the point of being almost completely irrelevant to the story, other than as a source of status markers:

    In the England into which he had been born, blood and breeding were still paramount and continued to call the national tune. Ancient wealth was still the legislator and determiner of the national destiny.  But all this had changed when he was still a lad.  By then the man of brass and the man of iron had come into their own, elbowing their way forward and demanding, at the top of their voices to be heard and heeded…Adam, who sometimes conjured with these abstracts, saw the process as a second Reformation, a phase of history repeating itself, with inventors, engineers, and their sponsors matching the hard-faced adventurers of Tudor times…For his part, he welcomed the transformation.  To him it was a cleansing tide, notwithstanding the mountains of muck and rubble it left behind…(but) it seemed to him that the wives and daughters of the men of brass took no pride in their menfolk’s astounding victory.  All they wanted, it appeared, was to replace their former masters without deviation by so much as a single inch from their ways of life, or discarding a single one of their prejudices.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Business, History, Management, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Fishing Only in the Heavily-Fished Pools

    Posted by David Foster on 8th February 2015 (All posts by )

    …probably won’t lead to great results.

    Virginia Postrel  notes that “elite investment banks, law firms and management consulting firms often hire almost exclusively from a handful of schools,” citing  research by sociologist Lauren Rivera:  “So-called ‘public Ivies’ such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious.”

    Virginia argues that “If everyone you interview comes from the same few schools, the same social networks, the same previous employers or the same geographic regions, you aren’t really fighting for talent.”

    What she is saying here is similar to my point in the recent post  “Top-tier university graduates only.”

    Of course, for the industries Virginia mentions–law, investment banking, management consulting–people are being hired not only for their ability to do the job, but also for the advertising value of their credentials in attracting potential business.

    Posted in Academia, Business, Management, Society | 2 Comments »

    Could This Company Have Been Saved?

    Posted by David Foster on 7th February 2015 (All posts by )

    If you had been elected as CEO of Radio Shack, let’s say 5 years ago, what would you have done?  Was there a viable strategy for a long-term future for this company, or would it have been best to wind it up in an orderly manner?

    Posted in Business, Management, Tech | 35 Comments »

    Book Review: Rockets and People

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd February 2015 (All posts by )

    Rockets and People, by Boris E Chertok

    Boris Chertok’s career in the Russian aerospace industry spanned many decades, encompassing both space exploration and military missile programs. His four-volume memoir is an unusual document–partly, it reads like a high school annual or inside company history edited by someone who wants to be sure no one feels left out and that all the events and tragedies and inside jokes are appropriately recorded. Partly, it is a technological history of rocket development, and partly, it is a study in the practicalities of managing large programs in environments of technical uncertainty and extreme time pressure. Readers should include those interested in: management theory and practice, Russian/Soviet history, life under totalitarianism, the Cold War period, and missile/space technology. Because of the great length of these memoirs, those who read the whole thing will probably be those who are interested in all (or at least most) of the above subject areas. I found the series quite readable; overly-detailed in many places, but always interesting. In his review American astronaut Thomas Stafford said “The Russians are great storytellers, and many of the tales about their space program are riveting. But Boris Chertok is one of the greatest storytellers of them all.”  In this series, Chertok really does suck you into his world.

    Chertok was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1912: his mother had been forced to flee Russia because of her revolutionary (Menshevik) sympathies. The family returned to Russia on the outbreak of the First World War, and some of Chertok’s earliest memories were of the streets filled with red-flag-waving demonstrators in 1917. He grew up on the Moscow River, in what was then a quasi-rural area, and had a pretty good childhood–“we, of course, played “Reds and Whites,” rather than “Cowboys and Indians””–swimming and rowing in the river and developing an early interest in radio and aviation–both an airfield and a wireless station were located nearby. He also enjoyed reading–“The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn met with the greatest success, while Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin gave rise to aggressive moods–‘Hey–after the revolution in Europe, we’ll deal with the American slaveholders!” His cousin introduced him to science fiction, and he was especially fond of Aelita (book and silent film), featuring the eponymous Martian beauty.

    Chertok remembers his school years fondly–there were field trips to study art history and architectural styles, plus a military program with firing of both rifles and machine guns–but notes “We studied neither Russian nor world history….Instead we had two years of social science, during which we studied the history of Communist ideas…Our clever social sciences teacher conducted lessons so that, along with the history of the French Revolution and the Paris Commune, we became familiar with the history of the European peoples from Ancient Rome to World War I, and while studying the Decembrist movement and 1905 Revolution in detail we were forced to investigate the history of Russia.” Chertok purused his growing interest in electronics, developing a new radio-receiver circuit which earned him a journal publication and an inventor’s certificate. There was also time for skating and dating–“In those strict, puritanical times it was considered inappropriate for a young man of fourteen or fifteen to walk arm in arm with a young woman. But while skating, you could put your arm around a girl’s waist, whirl around with her on the ice to the point of utter exhaustion, and then accompany her home without the least fear of reproach.”

    Chertok wanted to attend university, but “entrance exams were not the only barrier to admission.” There was a quota system, based on social class, and  “according to the ‘social lineage’ chart, I was the son of a white collar worker and had virtually no hope of being accepted the first time around.” He applied anyhow, hoping that his journal publication and inventor’s certificate in electronics would get him in.” It didn’t–he was told, “Work about three years and come back. We’ll accept you as a worker, but not as the son of a white-collar worker.”

    So Chertok took a job as electrician in a brick factory…not much fun, but he was soon able to transfer to an aircraft factory across the river. He made such a good impression that he was asked to take a Komsomol leadership position, which gave him an opportunity to learn a great deal about manufacturing. The plant environment was a combination of genuinely enlightened management–worker involvement in process improvement, financial decentralization–colliding with rigid policies and political interference. There were problems with absenteeism caused by new workers straight off the farm; these led to a government edict: anyone late to work by 20 minutes or more was to be fired, and very likely prosecuted. There was a young worker named Igor who had real inventive talent; he proposed an improved linkage for engine and propeller control systems, which worked out well. But when Igor overslept (the morning after he got married), no exception could be made. He was fired, and “we lost a man who really had a divine spark.”  Zero tolerance!

    Chertok himself wound up in trouble when he was denounced to the Party for having concealed the truth about his parents–that his father was a bookkeeper in a private enterprise and his mother was a Menshevik. He was expelled from the Komsomol and demoted to a lower-level position.  Later in his career, he would also wind up in difficulties because of his Jewish heritage.

    The memoir includes dozens of memorable characters, including:

    *Lidiya Petrovna Kozlovskaya, a bandit queen turned factory supervisor who became Chertok’s superior after his first demotion.

    *Yakov Alksnis, commander of the Red Air Force–a strong leader who foresaw the danger of a surprise attack wiping out the planes on the ground. He was not to survive the Stalin era.

    *Olga Mitkevich, sent by the regime to become “Central Committee Party organizer” at the factory where Chertok was working…did not make a good first impression (“had the aura of a strict school matron–the terror of girls’ preparatory schools”)..but actually proved to be very helpful to getting work done and later became director of what was then the largest aircraft factory in Europe, which job she performed well. She apparently had too much integrity for the times, and her letters to Stalin on behalf of people unjustly accused resulted in her own arrest and execution.

    *Frau Groettrup, wife of a German rocket scientist, one of the many the Russians took in custody after occupying their sector of Germany. Her demands on the victors were rather unbelievable, what’s more unbelievable is that the Russians actually yielded to most of them.

    *Dmitry Ustinov, a rising star in the Soviet hierarchy–according to Chertok an excellent and visionary executive who had much to do with Soviet successes in missiles and space. (Much later, he would become Defense Minister, in which role he was a strong proponent of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.)

    *Valeriya Golubtsova, wife of the powerful Politburo member Georgiy Malenkov, who was Stalin’s immediate successor. Chertok knew her from school–she was an engineer who became an important government executive–and the connection turned out to be very useful. Chertok respected her professional skills, liked her very much, and devotes several pages to her.

    *Yuri Gagarin, first man to fly in space, and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman.

    *Overshadowing all the other characters is Sergei Korolev, now considered to be the father of the Soviet space program although anonymous during his lifetime.  Korolev spent 6 years in labor camps, having been arrested when his early rocket experiments didn’t pan out; he was released in 1944.  A good leader, in Chertok’s view, though with a bad temper and given to making threats that he never actually carried out.  His imprisonment must have left deep scars–writing about a field trip to a submarine to observe the firing of a ballistic missile, Chertok says that the celebration dinner with the sub’s officers was the only time he ever saw Korolev really happy.

    Chertok’s memoir encompasses the pre-WWII development of the Soviet aircraft industry…early experiments with a rocket-powered interceptor…the evacuation of factories from the Moscow area in the face of the German invasion…a post-war mission to Germany to acquire as much German rocket technology as possible…the development of a Soviet ballistic missile capability…Sputnik…reconnaissance and communications satellites…the Cuban missile crisis…and the race to the moon.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Biography, Book Notes, Leftism, Management, Military Affairs, Russia, Society, Space, Tech, Transportation | 5 Comments »

    Conformity Kills

    Posted by David Foster on 31st January 2015 (All posts by )

    (Last Wednesday was chosen by NASA as a Day of Remembrance for the astronauts lost in the 1967 Apollo fire, the 1986 Challenger explosion, and the 2003 crash of the shuttle Columbia.  The occasion reminded me of my 2003 post which appears below, with the links fixed.)

    What does a space shuttle disaster have to do with the current troubling situation in the teaching of the humanities? Strange as it may seem, I believe that there is a connection.

    Most observers believe that the Columbia disaster was caused, to a substantial degree, by the unwillingness of key individuals to speak up forcefully enough about their safety concerns. This is often phrased as a “culture issue” or a “climate issue”–but, however you phrase it, it seems that a significant number of people didn’t raise their concerns–or at least didn’t raise them forcefully enough–because of worries about the implications for their own careers. (This also seems to have been a key factor in the earlier Challenger disaster.)

    And in today’s university humanities departments, there are many senior professors who understand that much of what is now being taught is nonsense, and who are heartsick about the “posturing and lies.” But, as Erin O’Connor says: “…an older generation of “dinosaurs” looks on, seeing it all, and saying nothing. They do this to minimize the open displays of contempt for their traditional ways that they have learned to expect as their due.”

    Now, here is an interesting point. There are very few people in American who have more job security than a civil servant or a university tenured professor. But this security seems to have little payoff when it’s time to speak up about something important and truly controversial. Perhaps jobs that offer high security tend to attract people who are not risk-takers. Or perhaps concerns about being liked by one’s peers trump job-security issues per se. In any event, it does not seem that systems with a high degree of employee protection really yield the expected benefits in terms of outspoken employee behavior.

    I’m sure there are some NASA employees who had and have the courage to speak out, just as I am sure that such courage exists among some senior professors of the humanities. But it seems that such people are too few in number, at both institutions, to make a real difference.

    No set of organizational policies, however well-designed, can substitute for human character. It takes many virtues, including the virtue of courage, to make an organization perform effectively. That’s true whether the organization is a university, a corporation, or a government agency.

     

    Posted in Academia, Human Behavior, Management, Space, Tech | 4 Comments »

    “Top-Tier University Graduates Only”

    Posted by David Foster on 28th January 2015 (All posts by )

    Here’s a LinkedIn post from a young woman who doesn’t like the way certain companies are specifying “degree from a top-tier university required” in certain of their job postings. I think she makes some good points.

    From the standpoint of the individual company or other organization, absolutely requiring a degree from a “top-tier university” (whatever the individual’s other experience and capabilities) reduces the size of the talent pool and quite likely increases costs without commensurate benefit. From the standpoint of the overall society, this practice wastes human resources and creates damaging inhibitors to social mobility. (And in most cases, “top-tier university” is defined based only on the perception of that university’s “brand”…very few HR organizations or hiring managers conduct serious research on the actual quality of different universities from an educational perspective…and the perceived quality may be years or even decades out of date.)

    I think we as a society have delegated far too much influence to the admissions officers of various Ivy League universities, and also to whoever constructs the metrics for the US News & World Report college ratings. When discussing “inequality” and declining social mobility..and less-than-stellar economic growth…the role of credentialism in all these things needs to be seriously considered.

    Related: the five-pound butterfly revisited

    Posted in Academia, Business, Education, Human Behavior, Management | 30 Comments »

    Book Reviews – 2014 Summary

    Posted by David Foster on 12th January 2015 (All posts by )

    Last year I reviewed quite a few books, including several that IMO are extremely important and well-written.  Here’s the list:

    The Caine Mutiny.  The movie, which just about everyone has seen, is very good.  The book is even better.  I cited the 1952 Commentary review, which has interesting thoughts on intellectuals and the responsibilities of power.

    To the Last Salute.  Captain von Trapp, best known as the father in “The Sound of Music,” wrote this memoir of his service as an Austrian submarine commander in the First World War–Austria of course being one of the Central Powers and hence an enemy to Britain, France, and the United States.  An interesting and pretty well-written book, and a useful reminder that there are enemies, and then there are enemies.

    That Hideous Strength.  An important and intriguing novel by C S Lewis. As I said in the review, there is something in this book to offend almost everybody.  So, by the standards now becoming current in most American universities, the book–and even my review of it–should by read by no one at all.

    The Cruel Coast.  A German submarine, damaged after an encounter with a British destroyer, puts in at a remote Irish island for repairs.  Most of the islanders, with inherited anti-British attitudes, tend toward sympathy with the German:  one woman, though, has a clearer understanding of the real issues in the war.

    Nice Work.  At Chicago Boyz, we’ve often discussed the shortage of novels that deal realistically with work.  This is such a novel: an expert in 19th-century British industrial novels–who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory.  Very well done.

    Menace in Europe.  Now more than ever, Claire Berlinski’s analysis of the problems in today’s Europe needs to be widely read.

    A Time of Gifts.  In late 1933, Patrick Fermor–then 18 years old–undertook to travel from the Holland to Istanbul, on foot. The story of his journey is told in three books, of which this is the first.  This is not just travel writing, it is the record of what was still to a considerable extent the Old Europe–with horsedrawn wagons, woodcutters, barons and castles, Gypsies and Jews in considerable numbers–shortly before it was to largely disappear.

    The Year of the French.  The writer, commentator, and former soldier Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century.”

    Posted in Academia, Biography, Book Notes, Britain, Business, Christianity, Deep Thoughts, Europe, Germany, Ireland, Islam, Management, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Terrorism | 7 Comments »

    “Promotion Jobs”

    Posted by David Foster on 11th December 2014 (All posts by )

    (I came across this while going through some old Photon Courier posts…originally from 2005)

    I recently read The U-Boat Peril, by Captain Reginald Whinney, RN, a British destroyer commander during WWII. In the late 1920s, Capt Whinney attended the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He was not very impressed with the place, and his retrospective analysis is interesting:

    What was really wrong with Dartmouth then? Well, my answer is cynical. The jobs of captain in command of the college and of his second-in-command, the commander, were ‘promotion jobs'; and, in those days, the incumbent in a promotion job had only to do the same as his predecessor had done and he could hardly fail to be promoted. Further, these same captains and commanders had, while at Dartmouth…usually themselves been Cadet Captains. What was good enough for them…The requirement was to keep the sausage machine going.

    I have no idea how accurate Capt Whinney’s assessment of Dartmouth is…surely, they must have been doing something right, given the Royal Navy’s performance in the war. But his analysis of the “promotion job” is an interesting one, with its applicability by no means limited to military organizations.

    It’s almost tautological…if you put people in jobs where all they have to do to get promoted is to remain in the job for a few years, then they are unlikely to do anything but remain in the job for a few years. You’re certainly unlikely to see much in the way of innovation or of risk-taking behavior.

    So, if you are an executive, you might ask yourself whether your organization includes anything that looks like a “promotion job”–and, if so, restructure it; that is, unless you actually like drones and time-servers as subordinate managers.

    And what about the realm of education? It strikes me that, as things are now, the role of being a college student has been largely structured as a “promotion job.” The student is incented to go through his 4 years or more, avoid taking any classes that might be difficult enough to unduly threaten his GPA, and avoid antagonizing any faculty members in a way that might harm the GPA or the letters of recommendation. Because the objective is, too often, not to accomplish things during the time spent on the job (in this case, to learn things), but rather to spend the requisite amount of time so that the much-desired certification can be obtained. That’s a “promotion job” in Whinney’s sense.

    This is less true, of course, in the hard sciences and in engineering, where it’s obvious that after graduation you’re actually going to need to know what Young’s Modulus is (or whatever)…but across wide swaths of American higher education, the concept of the “promotion job” seems highly applicable.

    Posted in Britain, Education, History, Management | 8 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 25th November 2014 (All posts by )

    A special Russia-focused issue of National Geographic, in 1914

    Does automation make people dumb?

    Strategies for dealing with randomness in business

    Labor market fluidity in the US seems to be declining

    There are very different reactions to the waving of an Isis flag and the waving of an Israeli flag at Berkeley

    Strategies for dealing with toxic people

    Czars as political officers

    Two princes:  Machievelli’s Il Principe and Antoine de St-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince

    “Speaking Truth to Power.”  A great post by Sarah Hoyt on the way this expression is being used:

    One of the most fascinating conceits of our ruling powerful elites — be they in entertainment, politics, governance, jurisprudence or news reporting — is the often repeated assertion of being some kind of underdog “speaking truth to power.” This comes with the concomitant illusion that anyone opposing them is paid by powerful interests.

     

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Business, History, Human Behavior, Management, Politics, Russia, Tech | 13 Comments »

    Narratives, Scenarios, and Strategies

    Posted by Grurray on 22nd November 2014 (All posts by )

    “Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful”

    -George E.P. Box

    Models, predictions, and forecasts are always wrong, or, more accurately, they’re never completely right. That’s obvious since the map can never truly be the territory. Some are better than others, but no matter how hard we try and how much information that we gather, we’ll never construct a representation of reality better than the real thing. That being the case, forecasts therefore reveal more about ourselves and our present state of mind than anything about the future.

    The Research Feature in the fall issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review, “Beyond Forecasting: Creating New Strategic Narratives” (link here – requires a one time registration – or purchase Kindle article here for a few dollars), concerns a certain type of forecasting called scenario planning. The authors studied a tech company that was being hit hard during the 2001 economic crash and needed to find new strategies to navigate the rough seas ahead.

    Their research revealed that

    “future projections are intimately tied to interpretations of the past and the present. Strategy making amid volatility thus involves constructing and reconstructing strategic narratives that reimagine the past and present in ways that allow the organization to explore multiple possible futures.”

    These explorations of possible futures, more commonly referred to as scenarios, are stories intended to describe possible futures, identify some significant events, main actors, and motivations, and convey how the world functions.

    The authors note that constructing forecasts based on these methods usually doesn’t work very well because the future is uncertain and often unfolds in a way that is very different from current trajectories. The current paths are comfortable and familiar, so they are difficult to deviate from. Constructing scenarios of the future actually first requires constructing paths that connect the past, present, and future. The narratives are those paths.

    ”In comparing strategy projects within CommCorp, we found that the more work managers do to create novel strategic narratives, the more likely they are to explore alternatives that break with the status quo. In other words, to get to an alternative future, you have to create a story about the past that connects to it.”

    Predicting, prognosticating, and prophesying have been around since time immemorial. The modern version of strategic scenario planning can be attributed to Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute and his “thinking the unthinkable” about nuclear war by taking into account non-linear, disruptive changes that lead to an uncertain future. The first to bring scenarios into the business world was the pioneering strategy guru Pierre Wack at Shell Oil who coined the term. Wack was a colorful and imaginative individual who took Kahn’s insights and repurposed them to affect the quality of judgment rather than quality of predictions.

    Among the many books, case studies, and articles on the Shell planning department, I just completed The Essence of Scenarios: Learning from the Shell Experience, a history of the scenario group culled from interviews of former members. Pierre Wack helped found it and headed it throughout the 1970s. The book concerns the entire history from then until the present, but it devotes a large part to Wack’s work and legacy.

    In contrast to Kahn’s theories, Wack was less concerned about decoding uncertainty or getting predictions right and more concerned with making future uncertainty more relevant to the present situation.

    “Wack was interested in scenarios as a way to ‘see’ the present situation more clearly, rather than as a basis for knowing about the future. The value of the scenarios is not in better forecasting what ‘the’ future will be, but in encouraging already smart people to learn by ‘seeing’ the present situation afresh, from the perspective offered by plausible, alternative futures , in a process that Wack termed ‘disciplined imagination’.”

    With an emphasis on present adaptation instead of future clarity, their first attempts happened to be nicely prescient. Their November 1971 scenarios covering “Producer Government Take/World Economic Development” and their January 1973 scenarios for “Impending Energy Scarcity” presented different tracks for oil prices including: a low slow growth scenario based on the continuation of past agreements with producer countries, a track that the corporate leadership expected; and a high price growth scenario which factored into concerns that producer countries were reaching limits to how much more capital inflows they could absorb.

    These scenarios involved explorations for prices through the late ’70s into the early ’80s. It’s important to keep in mind that, in keeping with the notion that they weren’t meant to be exact predictions, the high price track scenario still ended up being off by a factor of 20 as oil embargoes and inflation pushed prices higher than anyone could have imagined. Despite the fuzziness of the numbers, however, presenting a possible future far off from what was expected shifted thinking outside the company’s comfort zone.

    There was some initial skepticism from top executives, but the scenario planning helped the company to think differently and conditioned them to adjust in flexible ways that they wouldn’t have considered previously. Consideration of the high price track eventually led to Shell investing in nuclear and coal which helped offset the political turmoil and price shock that would arrive in the mid ’70s.

    “In October 1973, the first oil crisis began to unfold, and the entire organization became aware of the possibilities that scenarios offered. The 1973 scenarios report had provided a new frame of reference – the mindset of the oil producer countries. This new frame was significantly different from the usual analytical frame – the mindset of an oil company. The scenarios had enabled Shell executives to rehearse the future as a thought experiment rather than a crisis exercise. When the crisis actually occurred, Shell was able to collectively re-interpret the turbulent situation and to respond much faster than its competitors.”

    In order to be taken seriously, the Shell scenario team had to relate to top management how the oil producers’ situation related to their own situation.

    “In September 1972, Wack gave what those present remember as a three-hour, enthralling performance that was based on an image of the six scenarios as a river forking into two streams, each of which divided into three tributaries. The insight about hither oil prices and possible energy crisis… were integrated into one of these scenarios.”

    This technique demonstrated the narrative of how the high price scenario was linked to Shell’s operations and how it could have sprung forth from Shell’s past. The key was teasing out the culture, values, and qualities of the past that could make that future plausible.

    Similar re-interpretations of the past are what the MIT researchers found were most successful for their tech company. It wasn’t that they provided better predictions, but it helped provide a unifying vision and get everyone to buy into course changes that didn’t seem to fit before.

    “the crash in the market for its existing products had forced everyone at CommCorp to reevaluate the company’s historical strategic trajectory. This questioning enabled one manager to reinterpret CommCorp’s history, not only as a provider of big-ticket hardware for the backbone of the Internet but also as a provider of communications technologies across the whole network. By seeing the company as all about “communications,” the manager was able to propose a project for improving access at the “last mile” of the network. This reinterpretation made a radical shift in a future vision possible: CommCorp could provide small-ticket, standardized products as well as customized, high-end technologies.

    The narratives and scenarios became a way to define the company as it was today and illustrate a more coherent organizational structure. This is possible because of the rich potential of examining the past.

    “strategy making is not about getting the ‘right’ narrative. It’s about getting a narrative that is good enough for now, so that the organization can move forward and take action in uncertain times. This recognizes that strategy will in some ways always be evolving and “emergent.”

    Everyone loves to try to make predictions, but the real value lies in re-evaluating the past and restructuring past trajectories to provide for a launching point to navigate into the future. This “re-programming” the past is the way to deal with an uncertain future. Instead of forecasting futures that merely extrapolate from the status quo or futilely fighting future models that conflict with conventional mental maps, the use of narratives, scenarios, and strategies provides ways to create stronger and more harmonious models of the present.

    Posted in Academia, Book Notes, Deep Thoughts, Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Entrepreneurship, Management, Predictions | 16 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd October 2014 (All posts by )

    The festival of lights in Thailand

    Three Irish girls win the Google Science Fair with an approach to bacteria-enhanced crop growth

    Two versions of “Oklahoma” at Bookworm, with discussion

    10 Disney cartoons from the 1930s, with link to an article on the evolution of Disney’s cartoons over several decades

    The lost art of political persuasion.  This piece at Ricochet argues that politicians are now less about converting the opposition and persuading the undecided, and more about activating those who are already members of their choir.

    Bill Whittle thinks it’s time to talk about some good news (video)

    A recent study suggests that empathy can lead to scapegoating

    Book giveaways during WWII contributed greatly to the popularization of reading and the subsequent growth of the publishing industry.

    This article by a Wharton professor argues that “emotional intelligence is overrated” and, specifically, that it is overrated in sales.  He cites a study in which hundreds of sales people were tested both for emotional intelligence and cognitive ability, and their sales performance subsequently tracked…with the conclusion that cognitive ability was more than 5X as powerful as emotional intelligence in predicting sales performance.  (Actually, I’m pretty sure that the importance of cognitive ability and the importance of emotional intelligence both vary greatly depending on what you’re selling and who you’re selling it to, and also on what kind of resources the salesman needs to leverage within his own organization.)

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Business, Education, Elections, Film, History, Human Behavior, Management, Photos, Politics, Science, USA | 2 Comments »

    Seriously Pathetic

    Posted by David Foster on 29th September 2014 (All posts by )

    Here’s one view of life and of leadership, from the French writer and pilot Antoine de St-Exupery:

    ”A chief is a man who takes responsibility.  He does not say, ‘my men were defeated,’ he says, ‘I was defeated.’”

    And here’s a different view  from Barack Obama:

    Well, I think our head of the intelligence community, Jim Clapper, has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria.

    What a pathetic excuse for a leader.

    Nor should anyone kid themselves to the effect that Hillary Clinton would take a significantly more responsible approach to the job of President, or that that she took a serious and responsible approach to her job as Secretary of State—see my post excusing failure by pleading incompetence.  Neither Ms Clinton nor Mr Obama appears to have much understanding of what it actually means to be responsible for running an organization.

    See also my post thoughts on leadership and command, from two writers and a general.  Can anyone imagine Obama or Clinton working to develop the kind of “feel” for an organization describes as being achieved by the fictional Willie Keith, or engaging in the sort of agonizing soul-searching described by the real William Slim?

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Human Behavior, Management, Obama | 15 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 21st September 2014 (All posts by )

    Some great spiderweb pictures

    Glacier National Park pictures from D L Sly, who writes at Villainous Company

    High school principal bans Chik-fil-A at Booster Club events.  She justifies her decision on grounds of “inclusivity and diversity.”  Well, I guess that could be one translation of the German term Gleichschaltung.

    SWAT team raid on barbershop rebuked by appeals court

    Wishful science:  “if there’s little incentive to publish negative results, whatever reigning paradigm is operating in a given field will be very resistant to change”

    Years ago, Arthur Koestler asserted that human beings are basically crazy and that maybe it would be possible to develop a sanity-improving drug and put it in everyone’s drinking water.  I was reminded of Koestler’s suggestion by this:  Should we all take a bit of lithium?

    Avoiding managerial groupthink with the right kind of diversity

    People succeed where systems fail

    Arguing with Leftists:  How narratives trump everything

    Making subway cars in Yonkers:  a photo essay

    Posted in Business, Civil Liberties, Education, Human Behavior, Law Enforcement, Leftism, Management, Photos | 6 Comments »

    Book Review: Nice Work, by David Lodge

    Posted by David Foster on 12th August 2014 (All posts by )

    Nice Work by David Lodge

    —-

    What happens when an expert on 19th-century British industrial novels—who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory?

    This not being a time-travel novel, the factory is a contemporary one for the book’s setting in mid-1980s Britain.  It is a metalworking plant called Pringle’s, run by managing director Vic Wilcox.  Vic is not thrilled when his boss  (Pringle’s is owned by a conglomerate) suggests that he participate in something called the “shadow” program, designed to make academics and businesspeople better-acquainted with one another, but he goes along with the request.

    Robyn Penrose, literature professor at a nearby university, is also not thrilled about her nomination to participate in the program, but she is concerned about her job in an era of reduced university funding, and also thinks she had better do as asked.  The way the program works is that Robyn will be Vic’s “shadow,”  joining him at the plant every Wednesday, sitting in on his regular activities, and learning just a bit about what is involved in managing a business.

    Vic is a self-made man, not well-educated and with few interests outside work.  He is acutely aware of the danger that faces Pringle’s under the current economic climate, and is resolved that his factory will not join the long list of those that have been tossed on the scrapheap.

    There is nothing quite so forlorn as a closed factory–Vic Wilcox knows, having supervised a shutdown himself in his time.  A factory is sustained by the energy of its own functioning, the throb and whine of machinery, the unceasing motion of assembly lines, the ebb and flow of workers changing shifts, the hiss of airbrakes and the growl of diesel engines from wagons delivering raw materials at one gate, taking away finished goods at the other.  When you put a stop to all that, when the place is silent and empty, all that is left is a large, ramshackle shed–cold, filthy and depressing.  Well, that won’t happen at Pringle’s, hopefully, as they say.  Hopefully.

    Robyn and Vic dislike each other on first meeting:  Vic sees Robyn’s profession as useless, which Robyn sees Vic’s managerial role as brutal and greedy.  She is appalled by what she sees in her first tour of the factory..especially the foundry:

    They crossed another yard, where hulks of obsolete machinery crouched, bleeding rust into their blankets of snow, and entered a large building with a high vaulted roof hidden in gloom.  This space rang with the most barbaric noise Robyn had ever experienced…The floor was covered with a black substance that looked like soot, but grated under the soles of her boots like sand.  The air reeked with a sulphurous, resinous smell, and a fine drizzle of black dust fell on their heads from the roof.  Here and there the open doors of furnaces glowed a dangerous red, and in the far corner of the building what looked like a stream of molten lave trickled down a curved channel from roof to floor…It was the most terrible place she had ever been in her life.  To say that to herself restored the original meaning of the word “terrible”:  it provoked terror, even a kind of awe.  To think of being that man, wrestling with the heavy awkward lumps of metal in that maelstrom of heat, dust and stench, deafened by the unspeakable noise of the vibrating grid, working like that for hour after hour, day after day….That he was black seemed the final indignity:  her heart swelled with the recognition of the spectacle’s powerful symbolism.

    But still:

    The situation was so bizarre, so totally unlike her usual environment, that there was a kind of exhilaration to be found in it…She thought of what her colleagues and students might be doing this Wednesday morning–earnestly discussing the poetry of John Donne or the novels of Jane usten or the nature of modernism, in centrally heated, carpeted rooms…Penny Black would be feeding more statistics on wife-beating in the West Midlands into her data-based, and Robyn’s mother would be giving a coffee morning for some charitable cause…What would they all think if they could see her now?

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Book Notes, Britain, Business, Human Behavior, Management | 12 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 7th August 2014 (All posts by )

    Knitted footwear…may have significant implications for the global shoe industry

    US Civil Rights commissioner uses “science” to argue for restricting the free speech rights of college students.  (Is anyone surprised that he was formerly an aide to Nancy Pelosi?)

    College professor accuses program about gardening of being “racist”

    Functional geniuses and business idiots

    Fuel cells as a major energy source:  for real this time?

    Sea and sand from the sky.  More here.

    The Social Pathologist is back!

    Posted in Academia, Business, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Energy & Power Generation, Management, Photos | 13 Comments »

    Movies About Leadership

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd August 2014 (All posts by )

    PJ Media has a post that lists “10 films that teach important lessons for leading in tough times.”

    I think there are quite a few other movies and TV series that could be placed in this category.  For starters:

    Once an Eagle, which follows the comparative careers of Army officer Sam Damon–an excellent leader–and Courtney Massengale, an officer whose ambitions exceed his abilities and performance.

    Friday Night Lights, focused on leadership in a sports, school, and community context.

    The Caine Mutiny, which is indeed about leadership, albeit of a not very effective kind.  “No one is totally useless, you can always serve as a bad example.”

     

    Others?

    Posted in Film, Human Behavior, Management | 15 Comments »

    Blood on the Tracks

    Posted by David Foster on 2nd July 2014 (All posts by )

    Kevin Meyer has a thought-provoking post (referencing, among other things, the Asiana Flight 214 crash) on achieving the right balance between manual and automatic control of systems.  His post reminded me of something that has been lurking in my queue of things-to-blog-about for a long time.

    On January 6, 1996, Washington Metrorail train T-111 departed the Rockville (MD) station northbound.  Operating under automatic control as was standard practice, the train accelerated to a speed of 75 mph, and then began slowing for a station stop at Shady Grove. The speed was still too great for the icy rail conditions, however, and T-111 slid into a stopped train at the station, killing the driver.

    What happened?  I think the answer to this question is relevant not only to the specific topics of mass transit and railroad safety, but also to the more general issues of manual and automatic operation in system design, and perhaps even to the architecture of organizations and political systems.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Human Behavior, Management, Tech, Transportation | 19 Comments »

    The Limits of Expertise

    Posted by T. Greer on 19th June 2014 (All posts by )

    I originally published this essay on the 18th of January, 2014 at The Scholar’s Stage. David Foster’s recent post on “credentialed experts” has prompted me to resurrect it here. I have not otherwise changed it from the original.

    —-

    Last month Tom Nichols, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College  and a well regarded authority on Russian foreign policy and American nuclear strategy, published a thought-provoking essay on his blog titled “The Death of Expertise:”

    …I wonder if we are witnessing the “death of expertise:” a Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between students and teachers, knowers and wonderers, or even between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.

    By this, I do not mean the death of actual expertise, the knowledge of specific things that sets some people apart from others in various areas. There will always be doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other specialists in various fields.

    Rather, what I fear has died is any acknowledgement of expertise as anything that should alter our thoughts or change the way we live. A fair number of Americans now seem to reject the notion that one person is more likely to be right about something, due to education, experience, or other attributes of achievement, than any other.

    Indeed, to a certain segment of the American public, the idea that one person knows more than another person is an appalling thought, and perhaps even a not-too-subtle attempt to put down one’s fellow citizen. It’s certainly thought to be rude: to judge from social media and op-eds, the claim of expertise — and especially any claim that expertise should guide the outcome of a disagreement — is now considered by many people to be worse than a direct personal insult.

    This is a very bad thing. Yes, it’s true that experts can make mistakes, as disasters from thalidomide to the Challenger explosion tragically remind us. But mostly, experts have a pretty good batting average compared to laymen: doctors, whatever their errors, seem to do better with most illnesses than faith healers or your Aunt Ginny and her special chicken gut poultice. To reject the notion of expertise, and to replace it with a sanctimonious insistence that every person has a right to his or her own opinion, is just plain silly.
    (emphasis added) [1]

    I encourage visitors to the Stage to read Dr. Nichol’s entire piece. It was prompted by what has become a common experience every time he (or fellow UNWC professor and former NSA employee John Schindler) decides to publish a new essay or speak publicly about a pressing issue of the day. Soon after his work is published a flood of acrimonious tweets and e-mails follow, declaring that he does not really understand how American intelligence agencies, the Kremlin, or the Obama administration actually work

    Most of these responses are misinformed. Many are simply rude and mean. They are not an impressive example of what laymen commentators can add to America’s political discourse. Dr. Nichols suggests four rules of thumb for engaged citizens that he believes would improve matters:

    1.The expert isn’t always right.

    2. But an expert is far more likely to be right than you are.

    3. Your political opinions have value in terms of what you want to see happen, how you view justice and right. Your political analysis as a layman has far less value, and probably isn’t — indeed, almost certainly isn’t — as good as you think it is.

    4. On a question of factual interpretation or evaluation, the expert’s view is likely to be better-informed than yours. At that point, you’re best served by listening, not carping and arguing. [2]

     ·


    The trouble with this advice is that there are plenty of perfectly rational reasons to distrust those with political expertise. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Management, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Predictions, Science, Statistics | 21 Comments »

    The Roboticization of Customer Service

    Posted by David Foster on 16th June 2014 (All posts by )

    (Ran into this 2006 post while searching for an old Photon Courier post, and realized it had never been posted on Chicago Boyz.  It is unfortunately still quite relevant.)

    Almost every day, one encounters some business that is attempting to micromanage the interactions between its employees and its customers.

    At lunchtime a couple of weeks ago, I was in the mood for bacon & eggs, so I went to a restaurant (part of a local chain) that has breakfast items all day long. The interaction went something like this:

    Waitperson: Welcome to Snarfers-by-the-Lake, my name is Linda, I’ll be your server today.

    Me: Hi, Linda. I’m kind of in a breakfast mood, so I think I’ll have the bacon & eggs.

    WP (looks confused, as if she’d never heard of this dish before): Bacon & eggs? I don’t think…Oh, that would be our “eggs any style.”

    Me: OK…style I like ’em is over medium, with the bacon pretty crisp.

    WP: Over medium…and would you like bacon or sausage with that?

    Me: Bacon…pretty crisp.

    WP: And our soup today is cream of broccoli.

    Me: Soup with breakfast? That would be something different!

    WP: I know it’s silly, but they make me say it.

    I know it’s silly, but they make me say it. In how many consumer-oriented businesses could employees say the same thing?

    Also a couple of weeks ago, I had to call my local telco, always a dreaded experience. After I had finally gotten through the levels of the voice response menu and got a person, it was:

    CS Agent: Thank you for calling, how may I provide you with exceptional service today?

    How may I provide you with exceptional service today? You can bet the agent didn’t come up with this phrase all by herself. And I doubt if her management came up with it all on their own. No, I detect the fine hand of a consultant here–maybe the pointy-haired guy in Dilbert went into the CS consulting business.

    What imaginable purpose is there in requiring this phrase to be used in thousands of calls per day? Customers will decide if the service is “exceptional” or not based on what gets done or not done. You’re not going to convince them by using the word. And from the standpoint of the CS agents, this kind of thing can only breed cynicism.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Customer Service, Human Behavior, Management | 32 Comments »

    The Rule of Credentialed “Experts”

    Posted by David Foster on 14th June 2014 (All posts by )

    Lead and Gold links an article by Noemie Emery:

    They had a dream. For almost a hundred years now, the famed academic-artistic-and-punditry industrial complex has dreamed of a government run by their kind of people (i.e., nature’s noblemen), whose intelligence, wit, and refined sensibilities would bring us a heaven on earth. Their keen intellects would cut through the clutter as mere mortals’ couldn’t. They would lift up the wretched, oppressed by cruel forces. Above all, they would counter the greed of the merchants, the limited views of the business community, and the ignorance of the conformist and dim middle class…Their stock in trade was their belief in themselves, and their contempt for the way the middle class thought, lived, and made and spent money: Commerce was crude, consumption was vulgar, and industry, which employed millions and improved the lives of many more people, too gross and/or grubby for words.

    These attitudes, Emery notes, explain the passionate attraction that so many academics and journalists felt toward Barack Obama:

    Best of all, he was the person whom the two branches of the liberal kingdom—the academics and journalists—wanted to be, a man who shared their sensibilities and their views of the good and the beautiful. This was the chance of a lifetime to shape the world to their measure. He and they were the ones they were waiting for, and with him, they longed for transcendent achievements. But in the event they were undone by the three things (Fred) Siegel had pegged as their signature weaknesses: They had too much belief in the brilliance of experts, they were completely dismissive of public opinion, and they had a contempt for the great middle class.

    Much of the “expertise” asserted by people in the academic-artistic-and-punditry complex is entirely imaginary, as far as the organization and management of social institutions goes.  L&G cites one of my old posts at Photon Courier:

    In university humanities departments, theory is increasingly dominant–not theory in the traditional scholarly and scientific sense of a tentative conceptual model, always subject to revision, but theory in the sense of an almost religious doctrine, accepted on the basis of assertion and authority. To quote Professor “X” once again: “Graduate “education” in a humanities discipline like English seems to be primarily about indoctrination and self-replication.”… 

    Becoming an alcolyte of some all-encompassing theory can spare you from the effort of learning about anything else. For example: if everything is about (for example) power relationships–all literature, all history, all science, even all mathematics–you don’t need to actually learn much about medieval poetry, or about the Second Law of thermodynamics, or about isolationism in the 1930s. You can look smugly down on those poor drudges who do study such things, while enjoying “that intellectual sweep of comprehension known only to adolescents, psychopaths and college professors” (the phrase is from Andrew Klavan’s unusual novel True Crime.)

    See also L&G’s post How We Live Now: The Rule of Inept Experts.

    I  believe that the overemphasis on educational credentials has played a major part in shifting the power balance between Line and Staff in organizations of all types…here, I am using “Line” to refer to people who have decision-making authority and responsibility, and corresponding accountability for outcomes, while “Staff” refers to people who analyze, study, and advise, but are not themselves decision-makers.  It was once pretty well understood that one should not take a person whose entire experience is in Staff positions (however exalted) and put him in a high-level Line position, where the consequences of failure will be very serious, without first having him gain experience and prove his performance in lower-level Line positions where the consequences of failure will be less-devastating to the entire organization.  This seems to be much less well-understood today, the ultimate example of course being the career path of Barack Obama.

    Fred Siegel, mentioned in Noemie Emery’s article, is the author of the very interesting book The Revolt Against the Masses, which is on my (long) list of books that need reviewing.

    Posted in Academia, Big Government, Book Notes, Business, Civil Society, Management, Media, Political Philosophy, Politics, USA | 17 Comments »

    A Compendium of Useful Reminders to be Consulted in Moments of Confusion

    Posted by Jay Manifold on 1st June 2014 (All posts by )

    Judging by what I see communicated by many of my longtime friends, there are a whole lot of confused people out there these days. Here is a helpful list for them:

    1. Only a small minority of projects, even in relatively successful organizations in highly competitive industries, deliver their promised scope, on time, within budget. A large majority are drastically scaled back, incur huge cost overruns, deliver years later than intended, or are canceled outright. Anything nefarious either fails or is publicized by whistle-blowers or investigators. There are no secret, vast criminal enterprises pulling the wool over the eyes of the populace, and the best-known entities in society, both public and private, can be astonishingly inept.
    2. Large publicly-funded initiatives, other than those intimately connected to the physical survival of the societies in which they are undertaken, are quite likely to be mainly for show, irrespective of their supposedly spectacular significance. The current American example is the ACA, which has not resulted (and almost certainly will not result) in either greater insurance coverage or lower costs, is notoriously not a fully government-operated, “single-payer” system, and has no pathway to lead to one. None of this matters; indeed, many of its provisions, if they ever go into effect, will do so only after the current Administration has departed from the scene. All that matters is that its perpetrators get to claim to have passed “historic” legislation ostensibly providing “universal” health care. For an example from an earlier generation, see the Space Shuttle, which was supposed to fly 50-60 times per year at $5.5 million per launch. The actual flight rate hovered around a tenth of what was promised, and each launch cost nearly a hundred times the original projection. Hilariously, President Obama is now being criticized for ending this, even though it was collapsing from its own weight and consisted mainly of workfare jobs in Republican congressional districts.
    3. Notwithstanding phenomena like the above, the United States is probably the most successful large-population country in the world due to its sheer realism, in particular the relative openness and process orientation of English common law, which (to quote myself) “rather than construct elegant theories and then shoehorn (or bludgeon) societies into an unchanging mold,” exhibits “a willingness to work with the world and human nature as it is.”
    4. Even ignoring the fantastic technological advances, quality of life in the US has improved immensely in the past two decades. Social pathologies have plummeted. The rates of some categories of crime are down 90%, to all-time recorded lows. There are now fewer abortions per capita than at the time of Roe v Wade. Probably three-quarters of Americans live in neighborhoods where violent crime is effectively nonexistent. And the worst labor market in 80 years has done nothing to reverse these trends.
    5. Large-scale, institutionalized technologies range from the very safe (electric-power generation [including nuclear] and transmission) to the so-safe-there-is-no-instance-of-recorded-harm (agricultural genetic engineering). The problem is that in much of the real (that is, Third) world, they are insufficiently available to provide the thoughtless, comfortable existence that pervades most of the West. Living “off the grid” / following a soi–disant “natural” lifestyle is a plaything of rich people who can slink away into town whenever they get tired of hewing wood and drawing water. Especially water with enterotoxigenic E. coli in it.
    6. Pharmaceutical companies are not trying to kill you, nor to provoke health crises to sell new drugs. They may in some instances be trying to convince you that your life depends on continuing to purchase their products, whether it actually does or not. Then again, so is the “health food” store down the street, and in all likelihood, what it’s pushing is far more dangerous.
    7. All religions are not equal. The general heuristic is to judge them by their effects, or at least by their efforts. Those prescribing global expansion through conquest and coercive displacement, and those (especially if they don’t refer to themselves as religions) prescribing the extermination of followers of other religions, are particularly problematic.
    8. Any conspiracy theory that mentions the Mossad, Rothschilds, etc, is every bit as viciously anti-Semitic as Mein Kampf and should be treated as such. Anyone expressing admiration for Marxist notions and personages is no better. Conspiracy theories involving the CIA quaintly ignore the NSA (which is ~6x larger) and, in any case, descend from Stalinist and Maoist propaganda during the early Cold War and the Korean War. Facile anger about the NSA, however, ignores its well-publicized activities with the analog wireline telecommunications of 30-40 years ago, as amply documented in Bamford’s The Puzzle Palace. The phenomena of Wikileaks and Snowden’s massive data theft are an existence proof that such activities can neither be kept secret nor have much influence on real-world events; as someone who read through the supposedly devastating Wikileaks cables remarked, “[American diplomats] sound like Canadians with better access.”
    9. No amount of “smart diplomacy” or supposed avoidance of provocation will protect a country from attack. Only a convincing ability to make an attack more trouble than it could possibly be worth can do that, and even such an ability may be insufficient to deter non-state actors and small groups. In combination with steadily declining costs of dual-use technologies, a more-or-less freelance WMD attack somewhere in the world seems inevitable. When it occurs, the greatest hazards to the immediate survivors will be 1) official overreaction, as by ordering the evacuation of a far larger area than was actually affected and 2) popular derangement, which in the worst-case scenario may create a conspiracy theory popular enough to put an extremist political movement in power, even in a large, democratic nation.

    Commenters are encouraged to provide additional examples and corollaries.

    Posted in Anglosphere, Anti-Americanism, Civil Society, Current Events, Energy & Power Generation, Health Care, History, Human Behavior, International Affairs, Management, Military Affairs, National Security, Organizational Analysis, Predictions, Religion, Society, Terrorism, USA, War and Peace | 17 Comments »

    Thoughts on Leadership and Command, From Two Writers and a General

    Posted by David Foster on 27th May 2014 (All posts by )

    In my review of The Caine Mutiny, I mentioned that the happy-go-lucky protagonist, Willie, eventually becomes a captain, and apparently a good one, too:

    Even at anchor, on an idle, forgotten old ship, Willie experienced the strange sensations of the first days of a new captain: a shrinking of his personal identity, and a stretching out of his nerve ends to all the spaces and machinery of his ship.  He developed the apprehensive listening ears of a young mother; the ears listened in on his sleep; he never quite slept, not the way he had before.  He had the sense of having been reduced from an individual to a sort of brain of a composite animal, the crew and ship combined.

    Achieving this sort of “feel” for an organization is of course far simpler when the organization consists of a fairly small number of people, like the crew of a destroyer-minesweeper or a very-early-stage startup.  But it is challenging even in these circumstances, and many leaders of modest-sized organizations never really accomplish “a stretching out of their nerve ends” to all aspects of the organization.  When the organization is very large and complex–too many people to ever meet personally, many geographical locations, a range of activities beyond the detailed comprehension of any one human mind–achieving a true sense of what is going on is much harder–it is to a substantial extent a matter of creating effective organization structures, choosing the right subordinate leaders, and establishing measurement and incentive systems which tend toward encouraging useful behavior rather than useless or damaging behavior…in addition to personal attributes such as curiosity, realistic sense of life, and ability to learn and to listen.

    Whether the organization be large or small, the leader is far more likely to achieve the kind of depth understanding that Wouk describes if he has a strong sense of personal responsibility and interest in the organization, its people, and its mission.  I’m reminded of some thoughts expressed by General William Slim, who commanded British and allied forces in Burma during WWII, following his defeat by the Japanese:

    The only test of generalship is success, and I had succeeded in nothing that I had attempted…Defeat is bitter. Bitter to the common soldier, but trebly bitter to his general. The soldier may comfort himself with the thought that, whatever the result, he has done his duty faithfully and steadfastly, but the commander has failed in his duty if he has not won victory–for that is his duty. He has no other comparable to it. He will go over in his mind the events of the campaign. ‘Here,’ he will think, ‘I went wrong; here I took counsel of my fears when I should have been bold; there I should have waited to gather strength, not struck piecemeal; at such a moment I failed to grasp opportunity when it was presented to me.’ He will remember the soldiers whom he sent into the attack that failed and who did not come back. he will recall the look in the eyes of men who trusted him. ‘I have failed them,’ he will say to himself, ‘and failed my country!’ He will see himself for what he is–a defeated general. In a dark hour he will turn on himself and question the very foundations of his leadership and his manhood. 

    And then he must stop! For, if he is ever to command in battle again, he must shake off these regrets and stamp on them, as they claw at his will and his self-confidence. He must beat off these atacks he delivers against himself, and cast out the doubts born of failure. Forget them, and remember only the lessons to be learnt from defeat–they are more than from victory.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Education, Human Behavior, Management, Obama, Politics | 15 Comments »

    Nautical Book Review: The Caine Mutiny, by Herman Wouk

    Posted by David Foster on 20th May 2014 (All posts by )

    Just about everyone has seen the movie based on this book, featuring Humphrey Bogart’s famous performance as Captain Queeg.  The movie is indeed excellent–the book is even better, and contains a lot that is absent from the film.  And while the film ends basically after the court-martial scene, the book continue to follow the USS Caine and  key characters for the duration of the war.  In this review, I won’t worry about spoilers re plot elements that were included in the movie, but will try to minimize them as far as other aspects of the book are concerned. After summarizing the story, I’ll comment on some of the issue raised by the book. (A recent article, referencing The Caine Mutiny, refers to Wouk as “the first neoconservative.”)

    Lieutenant Commander Philip Queeg, a rigid and insecure man, is appointed during WWII to the command of Caine, a decrepit old destroyer-minesweeper…the ship and its slovenly-appearing crew are described as being part of the  “hoodlum navy.”  This is Queeg’s first command, and he is desperately concerned to make it a success, deeply afraid of making a mistake which will lead to his failure.  Ironically, it is specifically this fear of failure and perceived need for perfection which is responsible for many, perhaps most, of his troubles. When Caine runs aground the first time Queeg takes her out, he fails to submit the required grounding report for fear of higher authority’s reaction. When the ship cuts her own towline while assigned to target-towing duty, Queeg cannot make up him mind whether or not to attempt recovery of the drifting target–and radios in for instructions.  Incidents like these do not inspire confidence in Queeg on the part of his superiors.

    The officers and crew of Caine also lose confidence in the captain as his obsessive-compulsive behavior becomes increasingly problematic.  As a result of several incidents during combat, there are also concerns about Queeg’s personal courage. While no one aboard Caine likes Queeg once they get to know him, the captain’s most vocal critic is an officer named Thomas Keefer, an intellectual who is an aspiring novelist. Keefer has a cynical attitude toward the Navy, which he refers to as “a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots,” and advises Willie Keith, a young officer who is his subordinate,  that “If you’re not an idiot, but find yourself in the Navy, you can only operate well by pretending to be one.”

    The ship’s executive officer is Steve Maryk. In civilian life a commercial fisherman, Maryk now hopes to make the Navy his career. Maryk is a fine seaman and a good leader, but not a highly-educated man–he is somewhat in awe of Tom Keefer’s intellectual attainments.

    In repeated conversations, Keefer tells Maryk that the captain must be mentally ill, using psychological jargon and concepts that Maryk does not pretend to understand. Maryk is concerned enough about Queeg’s behavior that he begins keeping a “medical log” on Queeg, with the idea of presenting this to higher authority if necessary and possible. The time seems right when Caine shares an anchorage with the battleship carrying Admiral Halsey:  Maryk takes his log, takes Keefer in tow, and heads over to the New Jersey to see if they can speak with the Admiral.  But Keefer, at the last moment, chickens out, asserting that Halsey, with his experience aboard large well-managed ships, would never be able to understand the state of things aboard a hoodlum-navy ship like Caine, and that raising the issue with him would only get the two of them in trouble.  Feeling unable to make the case without support, Maryk gives up on talking to Halsey and the two officers return to Caine.

    But soon thereafter, the old ship encounters a typhooon. Fleet course is 180 degrees, due south–away from the wind–and Queeg refuses to adopt the safer course of heading into the wind even though communication with other ships, as well as radar contact, has been lost.

    An unbelievably big gray wave loomed on the port side, high over the bridge. It came smashing down. Water spouted into the wheelhouse from the open wing, flooding to Willie’s knees. The water felt surprisingly warm and sticky, like blood. “Sir, we’re shipping water on the goddamn bridge!” said Maryk shrilly. “We’ve got to come around into the wind!”

    “Heading 245, sir.” Stilwell’s voice was sobbing. “She ain’t answering to the engines at all, sir!”

    The Caine rolled almost completely over on its port side.  Everybody in the wheelhouse except Stilwell went sliding across the streaming deck and piled up against the windows.  The sea was under their noses, dashing up against the glass.  “Mr Maryk, the light on this gyro just went out!” screamed Stilwell, clinging desperately to the wheel.  The wind howled and shrieked in Willie’s ears.  He lay on his face on the deck, tumbling around in salt water, flailing for a grip at something solid.

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    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Human Behavior, Management, Military Affairs, Nautical Book Project, Transportation | 13 Comments »

    Corporate Culture, George Westinghouse, and Ford’s New CEO

    Posted by David Foster on 10th May 2014 (All posts by )

    Bill Waddell writes about a product-quality decision made by Mark Fields, who will shortly become CEO at Ford…and about the reaction of then-and-current CEO Alan Mulally:

    Early on his tenure at Ford Mulally implemented a process in a weekly review meeting whereby the execs color coded their status reports – green for those on target, yellow for those running behind and red for any project in serious trouble.

    No one had ever brought a red project to the meeting when Fields learned that there was a serious defect in the roll out of the first Edge cars.  Customers and dealers were anxiously waiting for the Edge and it was a critical part of Ford’s strategy.

    According to “Once Upon a Car” – a great book about the crises in the auto industry when the economic bottom fell out in 2008:

    “Fields had two choices, neither one of them good. He could ship the Edges that worked, restart production, and hope the glitch could be found and fixed on the fly. Or he could delay the launch and be the first executive to go into Mulally’s Thursday-morning meeting with a big fat red dot on his weekly progress sheet. He sat down with his team in Dearborn and made the call. “We are not going to ship a vehicle before it is ready,” he said. ‘We just can’t . We have to delay it. I’m going to have to call it a red.’ His staff members looked at him. He could almost feel their pity.

    At the next business review, Fields took his seat, right next to Mulally. As luck would have it, he was the first executive to present. His mind raced. I’m going to get killed here , he thought. Then he took a deep breath and showed everyone the launch page with a large red dot on it. ‘The Edge launch is red,’ he said. ‘And we’re delaying it.’

    Fields thought he felt people moving their chairs away from the table, away from him. Bringing bad news to senior management at Ford was typically avoided at all costs. Nobody wanted to even be near the culprit. The Thunderbird Room got very quiet. Everyone looked at Mulally, waiting for his reaction. A few seconds passed. Then Mulally turned toward Fields, stood up, and started clapping.

    This reminds me of a story about entrepreneur/inventor/industrialist George Westinghouse, which I posted years ago as part of my Leadership Vignettes series, and re-posted more recently:

    The date, sometime during the late 1800s. The scene, a Westinghouse Electric factory complex in Pittsburgh, with an unpaved yard between buildings. A young laborer–a recent immigrant–is trundling a wheelbarrow, filled with heavy copper ingots, over an iron slab which serves as a track across the yard. The wheelbarrow goes off the track and into the mud. As the laborer struggles to get it back on the track, other workers begin mocking him.

    At that moment, a man in formal clothing is crossing the yard. It is George Westinghouse, founder and chief executive of the company. He wades into the mud and helps the man get the wheelbarrow back on the slab.

    Not a word was said, but powerful messages were transmitted: when someone is having problems, you don’t laugh at him–you help him. When things go wrong, no one is too important to dive in and get his hands dirty.

    This is a splendid example of how good organizational cultures are created: through the power of example. Think how much more effective Westinghouse’s action was than the mere posting of a “corporate values statement” containing phrases such as “we must respect our fellow employees at all times.” Not that such things lack value, but they are meaningless unless backed up by action.

    It would have been very easy for Westinghouse to simply ignore the incident and continue on his way. After all, he was heading to a meeting about something–a multi-million-dollar bond issue, say–compared with which a wheelbarrow stuck in the mud would seem to pale in importance. But his instincts were the right ones.

    (The story is from Empires of Light, by Jill Jonnes)

    And similarly, Alan Mulally’s action in applauding Mark Fields’ bad news was far more effective than any poster or e-mail tag line to the effect that “transparency is our highest value,” or some such phrase.

    Disclosure: I’m a Ford shareholder.

     

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Management | 8 Comments »