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When simplicity and accuracy collide, simplicity wins

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Daniel Patrick Moynihan goes with Voltaire and Churchill — they make the rest of us despair of ever saying something both original and well, because inevitably, one of them already said it, only better.

I’m reading Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary (edited by Steven Weisman, 2010). It’s curiously unsatisfactory; also immensely worthwhile.

It’s unsatisfactory in the way one of those all-hand-held roughly-cut documentaries is unsatisfactory: You see a lot of stuff happening, but even with a narrator to provide context it doesn’t really paint a picture.

It’s worthwhile because Moynihan’s letters provide a glimpse into the thinking of a remarkable brain, and an insider’s view of some of the most remarkable political events of the 20th century.

Also, endless brilliant turns of phrase. (Example: “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know the world is going to break your heart eventually.” Second example: “Buildings such as the new Smithsonian and the new House Office Building are unmistakable signs of civilization in decline.”)

Moynihan had a knack for the seemingly fine, but actually fundamental distinctions that are the difference between informed discussion and pointless arguing. For example, as an advisor to President Johnson during the writing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he pointed out that liberty (fair treatment) and equality (fair outcomes) are different, difficult to reconcile, and equally essential in American race relations.

Keeping these straight would still be useful in our national dialog about race … but for our purposes here it’s just an example.

The KJR take-home: This ability to build clarity out of fog by making and exploring distinctions that matter is essential to achieving important results, whether the challenge is leading a nation or an IT organization.

It is, however, as useless for being hired or promoted into an executive role as it is for achieving high office.

What gets you an executive title in too many organizations is, sad to say, the ability to oversimplify.

(I’ll leave it to you to decide whether the same is true for getting elected.)

(Not really … of course it is.)

Imagine a candidate for a CIO position. The CEO explains that IT has collapsed into a bunch of warring departments … a vicious level of siloization … and it’s killing the company. If he’s hired, what would he do about it?

The candidate describes all of the different structural factors that can cause this to happen, from metrics to compensation to geography to the physical workspace design to, sometimes, the unique personalities of the department heads.

He then displays further brilliance by discussing the process through which he’d analyze and reform each of these factors to create an environment that fosters collaboration and trust instead of compartmentalization and suspicion.

He explains, that is, what he’d actually do to address the situation while the interviewer’s eyes glaze over. His brilliance notwithstanding, he doesn’t get the job.

Here’s who might: The candidate who presents a solution that sounds simple and satisfying, so the interviewer (and, later, every audience) wants to believe it will work, even though it falls apart when subjected to even a minimal level of scrutiny.

That would be the candidate who, when presented with the siloization problem, explains that when this happens the solution is to fire the worst offender and his or her closest supporters. The siloization is a response to their shenanigans. Beyond that, their departure will establish for everyone else that continuing to act in silos is a career-limiting move.

Simple and satisfying. A great way to get the job. A poor way to do it, but a great way to get it.

Then there’s you. As a certified KJR-type IT leader, you’ll use simplicity, but a simplicity that clarifies the underlying complexity instead of ignoring it. You explain that to fix silos you need to put two key factors in place: Alignment and collaboration.

Alignment means establishing a common purpose and promoting it persuasively so your IT leadership team, and a critical mass of employees, buys into it.

Collaboration, you continue, means creating cross-functional projects throughout IT … but especially within the leadership team … where members of the currently warring silos have to work together to get the job done.

Alignment and collaboration — that’s what will get the job done.

And it will. Making them happen … fixing any tough problem … takes engineering, not wishful thinking. That’s okay. Great engineering starts with a few clear, simple ideas.

The necessary complexity comes later, after you’ve made the sale.

Comments (6)

  • I recommend Tom Clancy’s Commander Series of nonfiction books, which he co-wrote with four of America’s outstanding commanders.

    INTO THE STORM: A Study in Command
    Into the Storm tells us how leaders learn and grow, and how they forge people, elements and forces together into a campaign of power and precision. We hear how General Frederick M. Franks, Jr. commanded the armor and infantry of VII Corps, the main coalition force that broke the back of Iraq’s Republican Guard. Into the Storm describes the transformation of an army traumatized by the Vietnam War and the metamorphosis of a man devastated by the loss of a leg in that war.

    EVERY MAN A TIGER: Inside the Special Forces
    Combining a broad experience of all aspects of aerial warfare with a deep respect for, and knowledge of Arab culture, General Chuck Horner commanded the U.S. and allied air assets during Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He was responsible for the design and execution of one of the most devastating air campaigns in history. Never before have the Gulf air war and its planning -a process filled with controversy and stormy personalities -been revealed in such rich, provocative detail.

    SHADOW WARRIORS: The Gulf War Air Campaign
    General Carl Stiner was only the second commander of SOCOM, the U.S. Special Operations Command responsible for the readiness of all the Special Operations forces of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, including the Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Rangers, Delta Force, Air Force Special Operations, PsyOps, and Civil Affairs. Together, he and Tom Clancy trace the transformation of the Special Forces from the small core of outsiders of the 1950s through the cauldron of Vietnam and to the rebirth of the SF in the late 1980s and 1990s as the bearer of the largest, most mixed, and most complex set of missions in the U.S. military.

    This one chronicles the 40-year career of the now-retired Tony Zinni, which includes two tours in Vietnam, two years as an instructor at the Basic School in the U.S., and his role as head of the U.S. Central Command. He also served in posts in Okinawa, Vieques Island, Germany, Turkey, and Somalia. Whether or not readers agree with Zinni, this is a book that demands our attention.

  • Another one of your fantastically simple solutions to a complex problem…and simply communicated! Bravo!!

  • Bob
    We need more minds like Daniel Patrick Moynihan today. Someday you will have to write on the subject of how to produce such intellects.

    As usual for KJR, it is a pleasure to be wrenched out of the everyday noise by 800 words that so easily convey complex ideas.

    But I must raise an issue with the idea that “liberty (fair treatment) and equality (fair outcomes) are … equally essential.”

    I may try to provide an ‘outcome’ for my children, but I know my limits. Nobody is guaranteed any outcome (except death and taxes). Our rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Are we foolish enough that we think we can guarantee ‘outcomes’?

    • The point isn’t to guarantee outcomes, especially on an individual level. Moynihan was writing about this shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which addressed the issue of liberty but not equality. He made the point that providing liberty (voting rights and elimination of legal discrimination which were primarily resolutions to Southern problems) did little to address the structural poverty that afflicted blacks because of a long history of both legal and social discrimination.

      Simply saying, “okay, you’re legally equal now” was not sufficient given that history — remediation was needed as well.

      Without taking a position either way, understanding the difference between these two issues would do a lot to lower the volume of the current discussion about whether to continue affirmative action programs or not. Mostly, I hear those in favor of terminating them arguing as if liberty is the only value that matters while those in favor of continuing them ignore liberty as an issue entirely, focusing their attention on equality.

      Little wonder that mostly the two sides talk past each other instead of with each other.

  • Bob,

    I totally understand your comment. But, I think that one big factor in the discussion is that it is much easier for the government to ensure equal liberty.

    As to the government providing equality for everyone. Well, speaking for myself, I’d rather the government stay out of the business of judging whether everyone has what they deserve or not. It is in fact a very hard problem to solve.

    There are too many bad cases of governments trying to treat all of their citizens “equally”. Most of the time the best they can do is to make everyone (except the leaders of course) equally miserable.

  • Oversimplification and its attendant problems are nothing new, of course. (Not that anyone thought it or they were.) At least as far back as the 1920s another brilliant phrase-turner, H. L. Mencken, observed that “[t]here’s always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible, and wrong.”

    We saw that borne out just two weeks ago.

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