Realism and the Workplace

A word of caution to those of you who are just entering the workforce. The work world you encounter may differ from the one described in some of the popular management literature out there that advocates lifting wholesale its lessons with nary a concern for repercussions.

Checking email only once a day, for example, is a practice that will very quickly get you fired. Your job is to take such lessons and consciously integrate them into your reality by tempering them against real-world circumstances.

And it is up to all of us to make the lessons, ambitions, hopes, and dreams of how the world ought to be come alive by confronting and questioning with honesty, integrity, and critical thought, the counter-productive inertia that so easily develops in human systems.

Consider that good intentions without power are just that: Good intentions. Power lets us get things done, and without it we are useless.

We have to acquire power in a way that is congruent with our deepest values while maintaining a situational awareness that trade-offs may occur in an environment that does not reflect our deepest values. When we do have power, the onus is upon us to change the system to reflect those values for the betterment of those who succeed us.

Everyday Negotiation

Swathes of literature discuss the nuances and intricacies of successful negotiation. There is plenty of excellent advice out there, but today I want to discuss one technique that comes out of some of the excellent research done on cognitive biases.

In his new book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner in Economics, amongst other things writes about how cognitive biases and heuristics affect how we behave under some of the most mundane of circumstances. In this excerpt, Daniel Kahneman discusses the powerful role of anchoring effects in negotiation and how to fight their influence.

We see the same strategy at work in the negotiation over the price of a home, when the seller makes the first move by setting the list price. As in any other games, moving first is an advantage in single-issue negotiations—for example, when price is the only issue to be settled between a buyer and a seller. As you may have experienced when negotiating for the first time in a bazaar, the initial anchor has a powerful effect. My advice to students when I taught negotiations was that if you think the other side has made an outrageous proposal, you should not come back with an equally outrageous counteroffer, creating a gap that will be difficult to bridge in further negotiations. Instead you should make a scene, storm out or threaten to do so, and make it clear—to yourself as well as to the other side—that you will not continue the negotiation with that number on the table.

Depending on the nature of one’s work or extracurricular persuasions, we are not apt to encounter such instances of overt negotiation with much regularity. But if we think about the myriad of interactions we go through in day-to-day living, often we are looking to get something from someone in exchange for something we possess, or the converse in which someone is looking to get something from us.

If we approach conversations as negotiations (where appropriate, of course), this knowledge may give us pause should we find ourselves working toward an agreement that began from an unfavorable starting point. In such cases we may have the presence of mind to simply walk away. I can’t help but think how contrary this is to our nature, where, when confronted with a challenge the natural instinct is to fight back rather than disengage, even if disengaging is our best course of action.

Behavioral science seems to play this out—we shouldn’t always trust our gut.

The Best Strategic Gift

Over the past week change has come at me hard and fast. My normal routines are gone along with the regularity they once brought.

So I’ve found myself turning inward. Not in an excessive, touchy-feely way, but in a way that has encouraged mindfulness and meditative clarity.

Lately I’ve been making a conscious effort to step back from all the doing and striving and goal-oriented behavior and am approaching things with a beginner’s mind.

Not judging or imposing my thoughts upon what I’m experiencing, but simply experiencing things as they come. It’s difficult to do, and when we’re children and everything is so bright and interesting and new, it requires no special effort to find that space. As we grow older, finding that clarity requires concentration and focus.

It’s easy to get pulled into our mind’s ongoing internal editorials, streams of consciousness of thinking and rumination that can quickly come to dominate one’s daily existence. That’s how we begin to lose touch with the reality of our situation.

Our success is often defined by our ability to act, not react. Establishing mental distance through mindfulness allows us to move beyond being a pawn on the chessboard. With focus, reflective clarity and inquiry, we become the grandmaster that sees the board of our lives from above.

Apple’s Secret to Success is Not What You Think

There is brilliance in execution, but how many times have we mistaken it for innovation or creativity?

Apple’s success lies not in its ability to innovate, though it certainly does that, but in its capacity to achieve supreme alignment in the products it produces. This is execution.

Diamond Multimedia released its portable Rio MP3 player in 1998. HP and Microsoft were showcasing tablet technology as early as 2001. Sony began selling ultra-thin laptops in 2004.

Execution is the ability to focus and discipline one’s efforts into making a product or delivering a service where all elements align into an elegant, effective whole that, by virtue of its quality, provides exceptional value to the customer or client.

The iPod, the iPad, and the MacBook Air are products greater than the sum of their constituent parts.

Sure, it’s sexier to talk about how prescient Steve Jobs is, how creative and unexpected the minds at Apple are. But what if Apple simply pays obsessive, neurotic, disciplined attention to every facet of what it’s doing, afflicted with a drive to perfect that goes beyond the competition, inspired by forces outside the market to execute brilliantly because there simply is no other way?

The technologies Apple has based its growth upon are not unique to the company. What Jobs & Co. did differently was to look at these technologies not as random bells and whistles but as notes on a musical scale that could work in harmony.

The next time you’re confronted with a problem, consider execution as much as you consider innovation. You might be surprised by what you find.

Note: This post was inspired by an interview with Jim Collins that can be found here

Mental Models and Multidisciplinary Growth

One of the things I struggled with while in graduate school was the idea that academic disciplines were mutually exclusively, wholly incompatible frameworks for understanding the world. This concerned me deeply. Some of the world’s greatest discoveries have come about due to people taking things that, at first glance, have nothing in common and smashing them together. For example, chocolate and peanut butter. Or heck, peanut butter and jelly. That’s pure comedy right there, until you taste the result.

In today’s world, things are changing with such rapidity and force that the jobs of today likely won’t exist in ten years. If you limit your study to a single discipline you risk siloing your knowledge and becoming an ossified, outdated unit of human capital. I understand the need for disciplines within academia. It helps define intellectual borders, it keeps everyone on the “same page” so to speak, and gives a sense of orderliness and predictability to academic debate. The problem is, outside the exclusive realm of theory there’s this thing called the real world, and it tends to intervene in a damningly unforgiving way.

I think a better approach is something along the lines of what Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway suggests. There’s an element of the Pareto principle in his philosophy. He advocates the broad acquisition of knowledge across numerous domains that can then be applied to any number of situations. This is similar to what Bruce Lee espoused while developing his self-defense system of Jeet Kune Do, the whole “absorb what is useful and discard the rest” approach to education. In Munger’s words:

[T]he first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.

It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models.

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines—because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough—because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

I hadn’t been able to articulate specifically why academia bothered me until I came across Munger’s work. It seemed ridiculous to me how disciplines would ignore each other and posit frameworks that tried to answer everything when, in reality, they could only answer some things. Going back to finance and investing, anyone who believes you can predict human behavior with physics-like precision is deluding themselves. Compartmentalization doesn’t work if your system of understanding is being tested outside the realm of theory by the selection tests of the real world. Learning should be an exercise in understanding, not an exercise in hubris or ego.

Air Combat and Strategy

I just finished reading Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War, a biography by Robert Coram. It’s a fantastic book, appealing in depth, in complexity, and in its treatment of Colonel John Boyd, one of the finest unsung heroes of contemporary military science.

In the truest sense of the word, John Boyd was a genius. Taking just a brief tour of his accomplishments, we discover he wrote the manual on air-to-air combat. Before Boyd, dog-fighting was seen as some interpretative art–like ice dancing–and beyond the realm of science.

Boyd served as an instructor at the Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School (the nomenclature and design were later copied by the Navy, hence “Top Gun,” however Boyd’s Air Force institution was the original and the real deal). At age 33, he wrote a booklet on air superiority titled “Aerial  Attack Study.” It was so revolutionary that, since the time of its release, no further advances have been made in aerial combat strategy. Boyd’s booklet was the first and last word on tactical piloting and weapons use.

Boyd later developed the Energy-Maneuverability Theory. The E-M Theory gave fighter pilots for the first time a rubric to determine the energy potential of any given maneuver at any altitude for any aircraft, whether it be their own or their enemies. Before the acceptance of Boyd’s E-M Theory, fighter jets were designed to fly fast in a straight line or fly high. The F-15 was the first to be developed with maneuverability in mind. Boyd played a critical role in its construction and design.

Later Boyd and the “Fighter Mafia,” as they were dubbed, became the most influential ad hoc group the Pentagon had ever known, and in time fathered the F-16 and the F-18. Boyd’s later works like Patterns of Conflict and The Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action Loop helped form the bedrock of the Defense Reform Movement and led to much of the strategy behind the first Gulf War.

We on occasion run into similar quandaries in our daily lives as a fighter pilot does in the sky. At times the stakes can be just as serious. So what of it? How could a fighter pilot trying to jockey a $20 million aircraft apply to such mundane matters as politics?

First, it’s important to recognize that we are all complicit in politics, whether it be the public governance type or just what happens in our family lives. Politics has come to be used as a pejorative and that proves unfortunate. If you head to Definr, my favorite online dictionary,  and search for politics, the first definition you’ll come up against is this:

politics (

n 1: social relations involving authority or power [syn: {political

Read that one carefully. First, “social relations.” By design, humans are social creatures. There are macro-sociological arguments abound that titrate from our inherently social nature our improved chances for survival and hence the broader evolutionary process. The final segment of the definition, which reads “involving authority or power,” is the crux of this deceptively simple definition.

All relations involve authority or power whether we like it our not. Relations with girlfriends, boyfriends or spouses, children, parents, pets (okay, maybe the goldfish gets a pass), trolls on the internet, or the barista at Starbucks (I need my latte now!). Politics is power.

When John Boyd developed the OODA Loop, he found a means to power for the fighter pilot. Later the OODA Loop would find its way into business and government. In aerial combat, a pilot cycles through the steps of Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action ad infinum. He scans the airspace for enemies and, upon recognizing a threat, orients the enemy into the broader context of the air battle. Based on this synthesis, the pilot decides and acts in accordance with the provided information.

The idea  is to see what your enemy sees and get inside his OODA Loop. To be able to feint and counter-attack, to anticipate, this delineates an effective usage of the OODA Loop.

For example, let’s presume Pilot A is tailing Pilot B. Pilot B, in an attempt to lose Pilot A from his six, applies hard rudder, angles to starboard and pulls high Gs in a sharp turn that orients him perpendicular to the earth. Pilot A is in a slower aircraft and won’t be able to keep up. But Pilot A, tactically, is inside Pilot B’s OODA Loop, and through a series of quick observations and decisions, he chooses to pull hard to port to intercept Pilot B’s flight line and go for the kill.

The OODA Loop has since been expanded beyond what Boyd originally intended, and has made headway into business and manufacturing circles, amongst other trades. In power conflict, the mind is critical. More specifically, the ability the mind has to adapt and maneuver in congruency with whatever structure, ambiguity, or chaos may surround it. Boyd refers to maneuvers that disorient an opponent–those acts that innervate an opponent’s OODA Loop–as fast transients. The quicker a pilot can cycle through these loops in combat, or the faster a business can recognize and act to solve problems, the more successful each will prove to be.

In life we are forever confronted with challenges, with conflict, with social relations that demand we act. The game grows more difficult as the number of variables increase. By observing and orienting ourselves to the actions of others, we can come to a better understanding of the realities that surround us, and loose ourselves from the placid and comfortable narratives that conceal truth.

And here, it’s important to note that it is action that is what matters. Not words, but actions and the results of those actions. It’s important to make this distinction and not lull oneself into complacency through a susceptibility to outward poses. When confronted with conflict, learn to take action, and decisive action at that. As Boyd said, don’t worry about your own flanks. Instead, make your opponents worry about theirs.