“No man is an iland.”

So said John Donne, leaving us, in these more gender-neutral and lexicographical days, to decide how to make use of an otherwise wonderful turn of phrase without ourselves being tainted by gender bias or the spelling anarchy of days past, and also without imposing our own sensitivities by changing someone else’s words who, being demised, isn’t in a position to defend himself.

The quote also got me to wondering: If no one is an island (or iland), is anyone an isthmus?

Which in turn got me to wondering: As the only isthmus I can name is the Panamanian one, are there others? A quick Wikipedia check confirms there are, in fact, dozens.

(Also: A suggestion to all highway patrols: Use “Pronounce ‘i — s — t — h — m — u — s'” as a new field sobriety test.)

All this led me to ponder three questions: (1) accepting that no one is an island, does that provide any useful guidance for business leaders and managers? (2) Might some business leaders and managers be isthmi? If so, what lessons might we all learn from isthmus-style leadership and management? And, (3) might we recognize any other geographically oriented leadership or management styles that might, through similarly preposterous analogizing, provide useful insights for us?

Islands: This is an easy one. Organizationally, islands are silos. The water surrounding them helps prevent invasions from other islands. Also continents, which are just very large islands. The result: Organizational islands and those who lead and manage them have the luxury of avoiding collaboration with other parts of the organization.

This is, quite often, quite lovely for the island’s inhabitants; often less so for the enterprise as a whole, leaving it as an exercise for the reader to find figure out what everything beyond the island corresponds to.

Isthmi: Isthmi are small strips of land that connect two large pieces of land. Or, conversely, they’re narrow strips of land that separate two bodies of water. They facilitate trade and migration between the two pieces of land, while preventing trade and migration between the two bodies of water.

Some managers (and leaders; from here on in we’ll use “manager” for brevity rather than “leaders and managers”) … where was I? Oh yes … some managers are isthmi, connecting two groups that otherwise would behave like organizational islands. Others are isthmi in that they prevent groups that might otherwise collaborate with each other from doing so.

If you see yourself as a connector, make sure you aren’t also acting as a barrier without realizing it.

Peninsulas: Peninsulas are island wannabes. They don’t enjoy human contact and aren’t particularly good at it. Or else they aren’t particularly good at human contact and consequently don’t enjoy it.

Peninsular managers want the authority that comes with their managerial title but view the staff that come with it as irritations at best, sources of bad work they have to fix at worst. As for the managers they report to? They’re necessary evils who really ought to understand they’ll manage best by leaving the peninsula alone as much as humanly possible.

Mountains: Mountains are islands without the surrounding water. That makes a big difference in such matters as erosion and how hard it is to reach the base. Mountain managers like this — sycophants easily reach the base to admire them, without having any chance at all of reaching the top. And, like islands, the only mountains that are truly self-made are the volcanic ones (admittedly pushing the metaphor to the breaking point). All the others are what they are due to tectonic forces beyond their control.

Hills: What can I say? Hills think they’re mountains, when in fact they’re just piles of dirt that aspire to mountainhood but are easily climbed.

Lakes: Hey, we needed some water on the list, and oceans were simply too hard to analogize. Lakes, on the other hand? They’re generally pleasant, nurturing, and in the winter, here in Minnesota, at least, they freeze over, allowing those who like this sort of thing to pitch shelters on the ice, drill holes in it, and go fishing, hoping they don’t catch anything because that would interfere with drinking beer and swapping stories with their buddies.

Lake-like managers are also generally pleasant and nurturing. I’ll leave the rest to you.

For that matter, now that you’ve reached the end of this week’s missive, I’ll leave the point of it to you, too. If you think there is one, that’s what the Comments are for.

 

What should we do when the experts change their minds?

Last week, KJR talked about NIST changing (or is it “updating”?) its recommendation regarding its longstanding advice to change passwords frequently.

The question of the hour is, does NIST changing its recommendation make it a more trustworthy source of expertise, or less?

The two obvious and most popular answers boil down to:

More worthwhile: I’d rather take advice from someone who’s constantly learning more about their field, than from someone who learned something once and decided that’s all they need to know.

Less worthwhile: Why should I rely on advice that’s constantly changing? I’d rather rely on positions that don’t change with the time of day, phase of the moon, and the sun’s position in the zodiac.

Before continuing down this path on the information security front, let’s explore a better-known subject of ongoing controversy — the role of dietary fat in personal health.

There’s been a lot written on all sides of this question, so much so that it’s easy to figure that with no medical consensus, what the hell, I’m in the mood for a cheeseburger!

Me, I take a different position: I’m in the mood for a cheeseburger! Isn’t that what pills are for?

No, say the skeptics. There’s published research showing that statins don’t provide much medical benefit and, for that matter, that saturated fats aren’t at all toxic.

As my pre-statin LDLs were way out of whack, I have a personal stake in this, and so here are my personal guidelines for making sense of personal health, information security, or pretty much any other highly technical subject:

Ignore the divisive. Divisive language is easy to spot. Phrases like “The x crowd,” with x = a position you disagree with (“The first amendment crowd,” or, adding 1, “The second amendment crowd” are easy examples.

This sort of ridicule might be fun (strike that — it is fun) but it isn’t illuminating. Quite the opposite, it’s one of the many ways of dividing the world into us and them, and defining the “right answer” as the one “we” endorse.

Fools vs the informed vs experts. Fools believe what’s convenient. The informed read widely. Experts read original sources.

Fools … perhaps a better designation would be “the easily fooled” … have made confirmation bias a lifestyle choice. Faced with two opposing points of view they’ll accept without question the one they find agreeable while nitpicking the opposing perspective to death.

Those of us who try to remain informed read widely. We choose sources without obvious and extreme biases; that go beyond quoting experts to explaining the evidence and logic they cite; and that provide links or citations to the original sources they drew on.

Especially, we deliberately counter our own confirmation biases by looking skeptically at any material that tells us what we want to believe.

Experts? They don’t form opinions from secondary sources. They read and evaluate the original works to understand their quality and reliability in detail.

There’s always an expert. Want to believe the earth is flat? There’s an “expert” out there with impressive credentials who will attest to it. Likewise the proposition that cigarettes are good for you, and, for that matter, that Wisconsin has jurisdiction over the moon on the grounds that the moon is made of cheese.

Just because someone is able to cite a lone expert is no reason to accept nonsense … see “confirmation bias,” above.

Preliminary studies are interesting, not definitive. For research purposes, statistical significance at the .05 level is sufficient for publication. But statistically, one in every 20 results significant at that level is due to random chance.

Desire to learn vs fondness for squirrels. Ignoring new ideas and information is a sign of ossification, not expertise. But being distracted by every squirrel — changing metaphors, jumping on every new bandwagon because it’s new and exciting — isn’t all that smart either. Automatic rejection and bandwagoning have a lot in common, especially when the rejection or bandwagon appeals to your … yes, you know what’s coming … confirmation bias.

Ignoring changing conditions. No matter what opinion you hold and what policies you advocate, they’re contextual. Situations change. When they do they make the answers we worked so hard to master wrong.

The world has no shortage of people who refuse to acknowledge change because of this. But relying on answers designed for the world as it used to be leads to the well-known military mistake known as “fighting the last war.”

Except that nobody ever fights the last war. They prepare to fight the last war. That’s why they lose the next war.

These are my guidelines. Use them as you like, but please remember:

I’m no expert.