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Preventing strongly held opinions

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Today’s KJR is “Based on a True Story.”

Which, if I worked in the movie industry, would mean it’s a work of complete fiction. Congress should form a regulatory agency to evaluate all claims of true-story-ness. It could provide a rating system, ranging from VA-90 (Verified 90+% accurate) to AP-10 (the names of fewer than 10% of the otherwise entirely imaginary characters came from Actual People).

Our public dialog, while based on true stories, is in sad shape, and by understanding what’s wrong with it you can lead your organization more effectively.

And so … Based on a True Story! Last week, following General McChrystal’s unfortunately indiscreet and intemperate criticism of the civilians in and around his chain of command, I read quite a few opinion pieces as to whether (1) Obama should retain or retire him; and (2) whether we should stay in Afghanistan or depart.

With few exceptions, these commentaries were debating pieces, which is to say they suffered from two flaws. First, they presented only one side of a complex picture, creating the pretense of a compelling case. And second, they neglected to compare their recommended solution to any available alternatives.

Ignore everyone who provides this sort of commentary, whether about Afghanistan or something closer to home you can actually influence. They’re the same sort of people who use phrases like, “It’s really very simple,” “In reality,” and, of course, “They think,” (or its synonym, “Some think”) so as to justify their less-than-thorough analyses.

Should Obama have retained McChrystal? Beats me. Prior to Obama’s decision I had no idea who might have been available to replace him (the available alternatives), knew few of the qualifications needed for the job, and knew even fewer of the consequences to evaluate in comparing the alternatives.

Without knowing the alternatives and how to compare them, holding a strong opinion seemed like a bad idea.

Most of the ongoing commentary regarding staying in Afghanistan suffers from the exact same flaws. “Stay” and “Leave” are far from the only alternatives, as staying includes a multitude of flavors, most of which I wouldn’t understand if I saw them. Cataloging the various criteria to be evaluated to assess this list of alternatives I’m not qualified to enumerate is a task that’s even more daunting.

As is usually the case, you can learn from the contretemps of leaders who operate in more public situations than yours. For example:

Should you replace your aging legacy environment with a commercial ERP system? Even the question is wrong, and if you ask the wrong question, whatever answer you arrive at will get you into trouble.

It’s the wrong question because it presents a false dichotomy, leading the unwary into a logical trap. They only see the two alternatives — keeping the legacy solution or replacing it with a commercial ERP system. The universe of alternatives is much broader, including in-house development; integration of best-of-breed solutions; and refactoring, modernizing the legacy solution instead of replacing it.

It’s also the wrong question because it invites argument instead of problem-solving. It asks what you should do, instead of how to decide what to do. Inevitably, the stakeholders will form strongly held opinions first, then gather ammunition in the form of whatever factoids are suited to defending them or attacking the alternative.

The right question? Which alternative should we pursue?

Or, imagine you have your own McChrystal. The wrong question: Keep or terminate?

The right question: Which of the alternatives should you choose? Reprimand, wheedle, demote and replace (and with whom), terminate and replace (ditto), demote or terminate and reorganize … you have quite a few.

Whatever the question, enumerate your alternatives, then list the criteria you’ll use to compare them, and only then gather the information that lets you do so, one criterion at a time.

The tool for the job of comparing multiple alternatives when the evaluation criteria are complex is called a comparison matrix. IT professionals use them all the time when comparing technical solutions.

They’re useful for more than that, and their use creates two valuable mental habits: Understanding the problem you’re trying to solve before you try to solve it; and recognizing that sometimes, “best” isn’t necessarily very good.

To make this stick, Congress should create yet another agency — one that licenses public commentators, requiring that any who publish strongly held opinions must understand and commit to the use of comparison matrices when advocating any solution to any problem.

Here’s the challenge: People who have to face the complexity of the world as it actually is have a much harder time forming strongly held opinions.

They know better.

Comments (10)

  • Bob: If you look at your two examples (McChrystal in or out, and Afghanistan in or out) you see a common pattern: They are binary choices.

    Years ago I was told that an old salesman trick was to “get the customer down to two choices”. I don’t understand why it works as it does; it may have to do with the binary nature of so many of our capabilities (hands, feet, eyes, ears, etc.).

    In any case that piece of sales advice has been a good rule to remember for many years. It’s especially useful when trying to figure out whether I’m being “sold” or not.

  • As I was reading this item re: decision making, I was thinking, this advice sounds very familiar. Having recently read some articles and a book on this topic, as well as watched a couple videos, it took a few moments to recall who you were duplicating. Turns out it was you! (the IBM webinar).

  • With respect to a McChrystal-type situation, I think you’ve missed a crucial aspect of the dilemma: How did that person lose all respect for those around and (especially) above him? Put another way, how did the problem come to exist?

    In a McChrystal-type dilemma, the solution really IS very simple, but only because the time for alternatives has past–and that should be the real take-away lesson. Whether we’re talking about a general or a project manager, that level of disrespect/frustration/boorishness doesn’t magically appear overnight, and a true test of organizational leadership is dealing with such problems when they are small, when the alternatives ARE viable. While an argument can be made that firing McChrystal was the only viable course given the circumstances, that the circumstances ever arose speaks to a larger failing by the rest of the military leadership–they failed to know what was going on with the men under their command, or they failed to confront the problem when it first arose.

    When problems fester long enough, the solutions do become simple–through the attrition of alternatives.

    • Larger problems with the military leadership or not, the situation with General McChrystal is much simpler than Bob or Peter think.

      Military officers are expected to know from the second they take their oaths that public criticism of their leadership is a form of insubordination. The higher in rank or the more public the criticism the worse the offense. It is and always has been a firing offense. That much was made clear by Captain Wesley Jones in my ROTC Military History classes in college.

      Even heroes are subject to military discipline. Gen. Douglas MacArthur was fired for exactly the same reason. While commander of the UN troops during the Korean war he made public statements criticizing the conduct of the war. Military hero or not, President Truman fired him.

      Gen. McChrystal should have learned from from history. Even without the military discipline every officer is supposed to have, nobody is too big to be insubordinate and get way with it. That alone was reason enough to fire him. As it was, he was lucky to just be relieved of his command.

      • Having just finished Jeff Shaara’s “The Steel Wave” about D-Day, I had in mind Eisenhower’s challenge with Patton – a man whose verbal indiscretions made McChrystal seem tepid.

        Eisenhower knew Patton was tremendously important to the Allied war effort, and so did everything he could to cocoon him from the press … and kept him in command in spite of some public statements that under other circumstances would have made him a civilian in no time flat.

  • In general (pun not intended): I was in a class and someone said that the military is very good at creating leaders and not so good at creating managers. A leader makes a decision about a problem, convinces folks that it’s the right decision, (sometimes by rank alone) then goes on to the next problem. This allows problems to fester and doesn’t find the root cause of the problem to allow a permanant solution. A manger analyzes alternatives and manages processes while watching controls/metrics/walk-arounds that tell them if the process/situation is working correctly.

    In specific: One commentator stated that the root cause is that the nature of war has changed and is much more about convincing people that the side you are on is better than the other side. This is (obviously) more politics than it is military strategy. This means that the folks that do (or believe they do 😉 politics well (state department/country leaders) are more likely to believe they can help – leading (inevitably) to friction. Replacing one general with another doesn’t fix the root cause problem – unless the new general has politics (and a very tough hide for “suggestions” 😉 in his makeup.

    • Whatever commentator you were listening to was, quite clearly, ignorant. The nature of war hasn’t changed in the slightest. In The Art of War, written more than 2,000 years ago, Sun Tzu pointed out that the battle is always for hearts and minds.

  • Congress cannot fix the problem because democratic elections _cause_ the problem. The only way to get elected is to promise unrealistic goals. Basic salesmanship (read previous comments). Once elected, now you govern which means you choose between alternatives. In general, there are two, raise taxes or cut spending.

    (That’s why all the politicians end up doing the same thing once in office regardless of political or religious affiliation–there is only a limited set of choices for almost any action. There are more than two as Bob pointed out but usually less than ten if you think about it).

  • Bob, this is sad. How can you have confidence in a president who doesn’t even salutes the flag? or makes silly comments and do silly decisions? A military mind such as Gral. McChrystal can not commit his troops to sacrifice themselves when the president and congress want them to be nice to the enemy, play Canasta and Bingo with them?

    The same thing happens in my organization, managers don’t like change and if the change is to get rid of legacy management, they ignore it even if they agree with you. Not even adaptation is good for them.

    The saddest of all things is that the Army has lost a good and successful general, a great loss to the nation, why? Because is not politically correct? Discipline is though and military code sharpens morality; when amorals intervine (pres. and congress) protection of fundamental and basic military rules demand notice.

    I’m very sorry to see this country degrading itself from within.

    • What’s sad is that you appear to have mistaken a Glen Beck commentary for accurate reporting. Obama certainly does salute the flag. Whether he makes silly comments or makes silly decisions is a matter of interpretation; yours might be different from mine; “silly” isn’t a matter we can discuss objectively.

      What we can discuss objectively is what the military’s counterinsurgency manual states. Read anything at all about it and you’ll find it requires extensive coordination with civilian agencies — counterinsurgency requires winning the “hearts and minds” of the populace, not merely to hold and control territory or kill the enemy.

      The logic of McChrystal’s departure was that he was publicly insubordinate, and encouraged insubordinate attitudes in his officers regarding his civilian commanders. The logic against was that he might have been Patton-like in his abilities as well as his open-mouthedness. The former is certain. The latter is again a matter of opinion … and on that subject I’m not qualified to comment.

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