Category Archives: leadership

Panetta promotes precision

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One of the few things I have agreed with Dick Cheney about is the wisdom of using a scalpel rather than a truncheon:

The stepped-up drone strikes, Panetta’s opposition to the release of information about CIA interrogation practices, and his resistance to greater oversight of the agency by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have prompted criticism that he is a thrall of the agency’s old guard. In the meantime, the strikes have begun to draw greater scrutiny, with watchdog groups demanding to know more about how they are carried out and the legal reasoning behind the killings.

In an interview Wednesday at CIA headquarters, Panetta refused to directly address the matter of Predator strikes, in keeping with the agency’s long-standing practice of shielding its actions in Pakistan from public view. But he said that U.S. counterterrorism policies in the country are legal and highly effective, and that he is acutely aware of the gravity of some of the decisions thrust upon him.

Panetta may resemble the Company’s old guard, but it’s hard to argue that the organization isn’t stronger under his leadership.  Were I to have one wish, it would be that the tension between the DCI and the DNI come to a head and be resolved once and for all.

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Terror plot a “cascade of failures”

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A New York Times editorial today reviews what happened in the terror incident two weeks ago on Northwest Airlines Flight 253:

The report implicitly acknowledges all of this, saying that the system failed “to identify, correlate, and fuse into a coherent story all of the discrete pieces of intelligence held by the U.S. government” about both the Al Qaeda group and Mr. Abdulmutallab. It also makes clear that this was not a single failure by one agency but was a cascade of failures across agencies and departments and the bureaucracies that are supposed to coordinate them.

It says that once the government learned of a possible plot in Yemen, the intelligence community failed to devote more analytic resources, and it failed to put one agency or official in charge. John Brennan, the senior official responsible for figuring out what went wrong, said on Thursday that only after the failed plot did the intelligence community recognize that the group, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, actually posed a direct threat to the United States. [emphasis added]

This is a fairly straightforward explanation of the problem.  The problem is not individual, but rather systemic.  There are never enough analytic resources to adequately process the overwhelming volume of data collected by the IC, but that is not the primary problem.  The overarching challenge to the IC is that authority, budget, and power are spread across its agencies with no clear leadership or accountability.  Every 8-year-old kid knows what happens when one kid is in charge of building the treehouse and another kid has all the lumber and nails.  If there is to be reform–and it has yet to happen in the past eight years–consolidating budget and accountability is the most powerful lever.

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Best sentence on intel in 8 years

Perspicacity points to Doyle McManus:

“By shining light on organizational dysfunction that’s hard to dramatize, the attempted bombing has highlighted a problem that desperately needs to be solved.”


Denver School Board in group therapy

Here’s a highly political group that decided to seek help:

A Denver marital therapist has been hired to work with school board members after a tumultuous Monday meeting exposed deep rifts among the new board about the future of school reform in the city.

A day after approving controversial reforms at the city’s most troubled middle school and following the swearing in of three new members, the district was wary of a possible legal challenge and that the reform package could be overturned.

Colorado’s open-meetings law specifies when public agencies may close meetings. It does not make allowances for private therapy sessions, only for discussion of personnel actions, contracts or other legal matters.

Board members say healing, public or private, must begin.

I’m torn on whether I think this is a good idea.  There is a lot of potential for this to be done poorly, as has happened in many teambuilding and leadership group therapy sessions.  If it isn’t part of an ongoing effort–that is, a one-off activity designed to heal all rifts–it is certain to fail.  There are also environmental concerns that must be addressed, and those will be tough.  The various constituencies of the board members will tend to have strong ideas about their own priorities and varying regard for those of others.  Although I think it’s generally a good idea for teams to develop awareness of their processes, I’m not sure the board could be called a team, and I’m not optimistic about their chances for success.

Who knows, though?  It worked for Metallica.

UPDATE:  The DPS Board was forced to open its therapy session after a legal challenge by The Denver Post under the Colorado Open Meetings Law.  The initial push for a closed meeting appears to me to be the lesser scandal here–the greater scandal in my view is that the meeting is being held at the Broadmoor Hotel (very expensive) in Colorado Springs (nowhere near Denver).  Ignore everything above–it’s going to be a bust.

Cowen: Examples of successful government bureaucracies

Tyler Cowen addresses the useful and timely question, “what are some examples of successful government bureaucracies?”:

Wars aside, here is a short and very incomplete list: the NIH, the Manhattan Project, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Fairfax County, the World Trade Organization, the urban planners of postwar Germany, some of the Victorian public works and public health commissions, most of what goes on in Singapore, anywhere that J.S. Bach worked.

The European Union has been very good for eastern Europe.  I’ll leave aside the health care issue because we’ve debated that plenty already.  The real question is what all these examples have in common.

I would add–as one commenter did–the Tennessee Valley Authority.  For commonality, I would throw out that most of these (if not all) have some sort of urgency about their objectives.  That point’s debatable, but what isn’t all that debatable is that bureaucracies without urgency and big missions tend to be cumbersome.

France Telecom change program results in 24 suicides

A quick look at privatization news from France:

PARIS, Oct 7 (Reuters) – France Telecom (FTE.PA) on Wednesday began a second day of negotiations with unions on ways to reduce workplace stress blamed by labour leaders for a spate of suicides at Europe’s third biggest telecoms company.

The talks, which are expected to continue for several weeks, are part of France Telecom’s effort to calm the political firestorm surrounding the deaths of 24 workers in the past 18 months.

As sporadic strikes continued at sites across France, Labour unions said management was more conciliatory on the first day of talks, although points of contention remained, such as performance reviews and controls on call centre workers.

…The government, which is France Telecom’s biggest shareholder with 27 percent of shares, has also been closely involved in trying to manage the fallout from the suicides.

To better understand workers’ concerns, “all employees will receive a questionnaire on stress in the workplace” on October 19, said Lombard.

Christian Mathorel, a CGT union representative, was not convinced that management would deliver on its pledges. CGT wants the company to stop monitoring employees’ calls, measuring individual performance and giving managers headcount reduction targets.

“We think the employees are still in danger,” he said. “If we don’t address the fundamental causes behind these dramatic incidents, we will be negotiating in fear of new suicides.”

As one with experience in both managing European employees and working in various roles in call centers, this is an interesting development.  24 suicides in a year and a half at one company’s call center is alarming.  Yet, monitoring calls, measuring performance, and reducing headcount are accepted practices in call centers from Memphis to Mumbai; what caused such a reaction at France Telecom?

My guess:  a change program executed with insufficient employee engagement and up-front data gathering, analysis, and diagnosis.  That’s only a guess, and I’m certain no one could have predicted suicides–it would take a real tyrant to go ahead with that knowledge–but this situation smacks of front-end ignorance of points of resistance.  Did this have to happen?  Probably not.

By the way, good luck with that questionnaire.

Hanlon reveals less malice, more humanity

Sorry it’s been so quiet here of late.  The last few days have been filled with adjusting to a new country and climate, more meetings than I care to list, and–both important and topical–the broad strokes of a series on the power dynamics and interconnections of health care in the United States.  More on that coming Monday.

Meanwhile, boing boing highlights my favorite argument against conspiracy theories:

But as former Nixon aide G. Gordon Liddy once told me (and he should know!), the problem with government conspiracies is that bureaucrats are incompetent and people can’t keep their mouths shut. Complex conspiracies are difficult to pull off, and so many people want their quarter hour of fame that even the Men in Black couldn’t squelch the squealers from spilling the beans. So there’s a good chance that the more elaborate a conspiracy theory is, and the more people that would need to be involved, the less likely it is true.

Or, as Hanlon’s Razor implores, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”  Lincoln, JFK, the moon landing, UFOs, 9/11, Taylor Hicks winning American Idol…  Assuming a conspiracy accords far too much credit to the organizations involved.  That’s not to say that omnipotent organizations with sinister motives don’t exist…  well, yeah, actually that is what I want to say.

Hanlon is relevant to far more mundane matters, too–like health care.  Evil congressmen?  Nah, they’re probably well-intentioned people under a lot of pressure.  Diabolical insurance companies?  Nope, just a few companies trying to survive and protect single-digit profit margins.  Greedy pharmaceutical companies?  Well, maybe a little, but the vast majority of their employees are just trying to do good work in their narrow sphere of influence.  We often confuse organizations with the people who work in them, forgetting that anthropomorphizing organizations assumes too much of the firm and too little of its employees.

There’s no quick and easy moral here, just a nascent thought that it might be worth ratcheting down the rhetoric and thinking clearly about what it is we think and why we think it.  That clarity should produce better answers, or at least better questions, and it might remind us that ultimately we are all in this together.