Strong opinions, weakly held

Tag: strategy

Your dogma is already obsolete

Last week’s New York Times included a book review of defense reporter Fred Kaplan’s book “The Insurgents,” which covers General David Petraeus, counterinsurgency doctrine, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It explains well how falling in love with your ideas can get in the way of success.

Kaplan writes about how proponents of counterinsurgency doctrine in the military worked the media, defense scholars, and the defense establishment to replace the existing Cold War doctrine with their own ideas. Here’s how the reviewer, Thanassis Cambanis, describes their better days:

President Bush had promoted the COINdinistas because they were flexible, pragmatic problem solvers and because he had a nagging problem on his hands: how to get out of Iraq without looking defeated. Counterinsurgency was just one part of the fortuitous mix that yielded a just-good-enough resolution for Iraq. Petraeus and the officers and experts had been right about how to fight in Iraq and reached plum positions in the Pentagon.

And here’s the conclusion:

The COIN brigade forced the Army to adapt, to become what one officer called “a learning organization,” but the Pentagon failed to grasp the most important lesson of the decade: that the military does best when it can learn new types of missions quickly, whether delivering aid after a tsunami, stabilizing a failed state or running covert missions against international terrorist rings. Instead, it exchanged an old dogma for a new one. Once persuaded that the military could do counterinsurgency, few in Washington stopped to think about when it should do it.

This story reminded me a lot of the tech industry. Last year, GitHub’s Ryan Tomayko wrote a “here’s what works for me” blog post about his management style, which was fantastic. Here’s the crux of it:

It’s often cited that GitHub doesn’t have managers. In my opinion, a better way to describe the phenomenon would be to say that everyone at GitHub is a manager. Instead of assigning 100% management duties to individuals, the basic role of management is spread between 1.) every single employee, and 2.) a set of custom in-house tools that serve to keep everyone in the know with regards to other projects.

I think this is a pretty brilliant philosophy, and my impression is that it works very well for them. That article changed the way I think about my work as a manager.

This weekend I listened to a presentation from a developer at GitHub about their “no managers” corporate structure. This presentation essentially argued that the GitHub approach is indisputably the best way to run a company, and that all other corporate structures are broken.

This is exactly the trap that the military officers Fred Kaplan wrote about fell into. It’s a form of lazy thinking. Every problem and situation is unique. Nearly all people are naturally inclined to cling to heuristics rather than thinking deeply about problems and adapting to solve them.

This is one of the great penalties of success. People try something, meet with success, and then attempt to apply that formula over and over again, failing to recognize that new problems require new solutions. Often the real reasons for success go completely unexamined, because people are so eager to embrace it as proof of their own brilliance.

To the proponents of counterinsurgency doctrine, every war looks like an opportunity to apply counterinsurgency doctrine. To the GitHubber, every corporation should work like GitHub.

When people propose that all problems look the same, or even worse, that problems look different but that old solutions are still ideal, it’s a strong sign that they’re operating from within their dogma rather than starting with the problem and working their way out. There’s nothing that invites disaster more than falling in love with your own good ideas.

Staying out of the way of platform vendors

Here’s some useful advice from Chris Dixon for companies that are trying to build products without getting run over by platform vendors:

Normally, when third parties try to predict whether their products will be subsumed by a platform, the question boils down to whether their products will be strategic to the platform. When the platform has an established business model, this analysis is fairly straightforward (for example, here is my strategic analysis of Google’s platform). If you make games for the iPhone, you are pretty certain Apple will take their 30% cut and leave you alone. Similarly, if you are a content website relying on SEO and Google Adsense you can be pretty confident Google will leave you alone. Until Twitter has a successful business model, they can’t have a consistent strategy and third parties should expect erratic behavior and even complete and sudden shifts in strategy.

Strategies: “best” strategies versus “better” strategies

In a long, wide-ranging dialog with Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell makes the following observation:

After my piece ran in The New Yorker, one of the most common responses I got was people saying, well, the reason more people don’t use the press is that it can be beaten with a well-coached team and a good point guard. That is (A) absolutely true and (B) beside the point. The press doesn’t guarantee victory. It simply represents the underdog’s best chance of victory. It raises their odds from zero to maybe 50-50. I think, in fact, that you can argue that a pressing team is always going to have real difficulty against a truly elite team. But so what? Everyone, regardless of how they play, is going to have real difficulty against truly elite teams. It’s not a strategy for being the best. It’s a strategy for being better. I never thought Louisville — or, for that matter, Missouri — had a realistic shot at winning it all in the NCAAs this year. But if neither of those teams pressed, they wouldn’t have been there in the first place. I wonder if there isn’t something particularly American in the preference for “best” over “better” strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively “best” strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren’t nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front.

This is a really powerful observation. I often think of it when I think about all of the interviewing tips you see from people who work at places like Google. When what you are offering is a job at Google, you can take a different approach to hiring than you can most other places.

People are always encouraged to emulate the biggest and best, but the most effective strategies are tailored to suit the specific position of the organization adopting them. Telling a startup to be like Google (or General Electric) is like telling a sardine to imitate a shark or a blue whale. It’s not going to work.

Gruber on leadership

John Gruber contrasts the leadership styles of Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer bsaed on recently leaked memos written by each. Good stuff.

Winning process

Paul DePodesta is a baseball guy who was made famous in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball. At the time of the writing he was the assistant to A’s general manager Billy Beane, and then went on to serve as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Now he works in the front office for the San Diego Padres. On his blog, he writes about the basics of building a successful team. The key is to focus on process rather than outcome:

We all want to be in the upper left box – deserved success resulting from a good process. This is generally where the casino lives. I’d like to think that this is where the Oakland A’s and San Diego Padres have been during the regular seasons. The box in the upper right, however, is the tough reality we all face in industries that are dominated by uncertainty. A good process can lead to a bad outcome in the real world. In fact, it happens all the time. This is what happened to the casino when a player hit on 17 and won. I’d like to think this is what happened to the A’s and Padres during the post-seasons. 🙂

As tough as a good process/bad outcome combination is, nothing compares to the bottom left: bad process/good outcome. This is the wolf in sheep’s clothing that allows for one-time success but almost always cripples any chance of sustained success – the player hitting on 17 and getting a four. Here’s the rub: it’s incredibly difficult to look in the mirror after a victory, any victory, and admit that you were lucky.

The whole article is well worth reading.

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