Monday, December 18, 2006

Fog of war, and colleagues turned enemies

US troops negotiate snow and ice during the battle on Attu in May, 1943."Fog of War" is a military expression used to represent the uncertainty in a theater of operations. The uncertainty, caused by incomplete information, obfuscates the judgment preceding important decisions.

A good leader is expected reduce the fog of war before making a decision and later to live with the consequences of that decision.

Using a WWII episode as an example, we can look at the Japanese invasion the Aleutian islands of Attu and Kiska. After suffering thousands of casualties while retaking Attu, the Allies did not realize that the Japanese had retreated from Kiska under dense fog formation. Without the information, the Allies mustered a costly force of 40,000 American and Canadian soldiers to land on the island. Eventually, some of those forces turned on each other, but more on that later.

In the office environment, similar situations occur when decisions must be made and little data is available. In the absence of data, people invariably resort to the next best thing, which are opinions based on previous experiences.

Just like in the Aleutian Islands, even when the situations may seem similar and cause the illusion of absolute certainty, the technologies underpinning our collective discussions change by the minute. The changes manifest themselves in different ways. Sometimes, a technology may have matured enough to tip the balance used in previous decisions; or new understanding of the consequences of a previous decision may have changed the thought process for solving those kinds of problems. Just think of how many people declared the Java programming language a toy when it first came out on 1997 or derided Ethernet networks as theoretically inferior to Token Ring networks. Those assertions had their merits, but lost their ground as these technologies matured.

One may argue that discussions can always happen with civility, but for as long as one's opinion is based on one's experience, that opinion is indelibly associated with its author. The proponent of an opinion is indirectly putting his reputation behind it. Often, proving an opinion wrong means proving its author wrong. Given enough time and a protracted argument with opposite opinion, colleagues may soon finding themselves defending their ideas and reputations at the same time.

And it can happen to any of us. Creating a new model and collecting specific data to make every single decision in our professional lives is impractical. We will offer opinions and be wrong. We must make peace with the fog of war as it is everywhere. The office version of the fog of war cannot be entirely avoided, but can be reduced to the point where people can still see each other as allies. Negotiation and decision making are sufficiently mature disciplines and some techniques go a long way towards thinning the fog of war.

When facing a choice that requires consensus, the first step is to have all parties to agree on the factors that are important for that decision. The second step is to collect as much data about the alternatives. That collective activity achieves two purposes, (1) it creates a shared framework of perspectives as each party explains why certain factors are important to them; and (2) the newly collected data validates their frames of mind, separating opinion from fact.

There may be conflicts of interest but they will show up early in the process as areas to be worked out instead of manifesting themselves in meeting standoffs.

No matter what technique suits you, it is important to walk into every situation accepting that your experiences may no longer be valid and to be prepared to force a collective back down when diverging opinions start to dominate the discussion. That may be a good point to get the parties to agree on the lack of a model to explain the situation and the lack of data to justify either position.

Walking in armed to the teeth amidst a dense fog without enough information about the situation is extremely dangerous as can attest the troops that landed on Kiska. The Allies faced terrible weather with low visibility, still reeling from the grievous losses incurred in Attu and carrying the chilling memories of hand-to-hand combat with Japanese soldiers. When the situation, experiences, and memories came together, a few of the nervous troops eventually mistook their allies by Japanese platoons and opened fire on each other.

Over 300 lives were lost in a fog of lack of data and bad assumptions.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Office politics, ethics, and the darker shades of gray

PlatoA recurring theme in conversations with friends in the industry is a dislike for politics mixing into personal evaluation systems used in large corporations. In this entry, I wanted to explore the subject under rational lenses to separate real ethics from emotional perceptions.

Many good people have willfully curbed their career potential for fear of losing their immortal souls in a sea of corrupt office mates. Many more good people have inadvertently incurred in the same mistake by not making others aware of their presence. Somehow I felt the majority in both camps have made such decisions without analyzing office politics, at the same time causing more harm than benefit damaging to the business.

There are many equally good people who have entered office politics and hardened their souls to withstand the pressures. Not to be left alone in their pain, people in this group will often shed portions of that pain onto the first group. More frequently than not, the 'sharing' comes courtesy of a rather cynical statement of politics as an unavoidable fixture in the office scene.

There are good politics and bad politics, and it has been my experience that good people practice good politics. They have to become bad people before they start practicing bad politics and that transformation may take a long time. For instance, reviewing a 200-page specification for an architect in your area may be good politics (unless I have lost my ways and can no longer tell the difference); after all you are helping improve the quality of someone's work and may rely on his support later on. The returned favor may be a note to his peers endorsing a reasonable proposal you have in mind. I often think of it as creating time in someone's calendar for some task I need from them.

As a counter example, bad politics would be to negatively influence the reviewers of a proposal that could make your project unnecessary. It takes a lot of selflessness to make the right decision and working with author of the proposal instead; but if one's job solely depends on others being unaware of its uselessness, that may be a job not worth having.

PlatoThe world of politics has a way of pushing away the good people, and I am in good company while saying so. But it is the responsibility of the good people to resist the push and inject good politics into the system. Staying away from politics and proudly resenting others who don't is an act of passive-aggression. Going in and deriding those who choose to stay away is equally unproductive.

Now, for the difficult part, what about the situation where one compromises his integrity to benefit those under his responsibility?

A few years ago, in a leadership class, the instructor brought over a retired officer who had a strong opinion on the subject. He used his own example of playing golf with higher-ranking officers even though he disliked the game and some of the officers. At that point, the other students were directing rather unflattering eyes at him. His calculated pause lasted a few more seconds until he continued: "I did it for my men. When it rained hard in our base, the poorly built barracks invariably leaked water. I could bring in my golfing 'buddies' over, point to the leaks and get special attention on fixing them'.

There is saying "there are many shades of gray between black and white". That may be so, but some are darker than others.

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Battle of Borodino, and when you don't get to pick your battles

Ever heard the advice of "picking your battles"? Well, read on.

The Napoleonic wars lasted over two decades and changed the world in ways that still affect our lives. Most people remember the Battle of Waterloo as the final defeat in Napoleon's otherwise remarkable military career. Fewer will recall the Battle of Borodino, vividly depicted in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Move past the gory body count and you are bound to find a profound lesson in life.

Napoleon's strategy focused on decisive clashes with opposing armies, invariably inflicting heavy losses that forced an immediate surrender. After the word of these flash victories spread through the continent, his numerous enemies soon resigned to French rule.

On 1812, the French army marched inexorably towards Moscow and victory was certain as soon as the Russian army stopped its retreat and faced its destiny. The rest of Europe waited apprehensively for the fall of Alexander's empire. The Russian commander, General Kutuzov, a very experienced general that enjoyed the population support but not the Czar's respect, ordered a stand near the village of Borodino. In agreement with the collective expectation of all watching nations, the French army won the single-day battle.

But in the words of Tolstoy, even as the battle raged on, Napoleon's rule over Europe effectively ended that day. The news of the Russian stand would soon spread across Europe and reach France. The fierce resistance inflicted grievous losses on Napoleon's army; it was clear that equal resistance on future offensives would grind his ability to win through intimidation.

The lesson in life? Faced with an insurmountable challenge or in a difficult position, you may not win, but a strong show of interest and dedication is never wasted. If the problem is important enough, others will pick up from where you left and face that same challenge from a better vantage point. Losing well when there is no chance of victory is also a victory.

Of course it is all a matter of principle and how important and dear the subject may be to you. After all, in a single day, more than 45.000 Russians didn't walk away from Borodino.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, a final stand does not have to be an act of self-destruction. Kutuzov's army was well prepared and he eventually ordered a retreat, leaving Moscow unprotected against the Czar's will. He wanted to preserve his army's strength while the impossibly long supply lines and the rigorous Russian winter made short work of Napoleon's army. At the end of the campaign, the French positions throughout the continent deteriorated rapidly and 3 years later Napoleon saw himself stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean.

Kutuzov's reputation never matched the notoriety achieved by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who led the Spanish resistance and the final victory against Napoleon. Nevertheless, Kutuzov's stand was the beacon of hope for the coalitions that faced Napoleon in the three-year span that separated Borodino from Waterloo.

I do realize the dissonant tone of this lesson. We live in a business environment where signs of discord are forcibly repressed through coaching, mentoring, and performance evaluations. Many people would wish to have a nickel every time they were told to pick their battles. That is not my advice. In my experience, on most of the times, you don't get to pick your battles; they are brought to your doorstep by someone with a disagreeable agenda.

Whether it is a Cowboy Coder explaining why unit testing is not required, or a creationist architect avoiding a formal requirements management process, the battle has been picked for you.

When all alternatives are weighted, all the negotiations failed, and you are faced with the need to make a stand, make it count. Be prepared and don't be stupid, as someone once told me: "The real heroes come back to fight another day".