Always question the obvious

It’s common wisdom that among the virtues needed to succeed in business, and for that matter, any competitive enterprise, are passion and a sense of urgency.

Both of these, though, have drawbacks. They lock orientation, sort of like painting over your windshield and stomping on the accelerator. “Urgency” is particularly pernicious because it becomes a corporate loyalty test: Just execute the plan, act now, don’t think, and for God’s sake, don’t question.

Instead of “create a sense of urgency,” I’d suggest something like “form an accurate and shared mental model of what’s going on.”  This means that you’re going to have to consider alternative explanations for unfolding circumstances and keep as many options open as long as possible. Practice a wise parental serenity in front of a mirror.

Now, for passion. There’s a great article in Monday’s Wall St. J. whose title says it all: “How an entrepreneur’s passion can destroy a startup” (paywall) by Harvard prof Noam Wasserman. The heading of a sidebar tells why, “Is your passion blinding you?”  As Wasserman explains:

Passion can wreak havoc with founders’ judgment when they’re crafting their early business plans. They focus on rosy scenarios, assuming they’ll get up and running quickly and build sales without a hitch.

Worse, anybody who doesn’t demonstrate the requisite passion for the scenarios or the plan will quickly become a non-person. Reminds one of funerals for the glorious leaders of North Korea.

Avoiding the passion trap is hard. Wasserman quotes Steve Jobs as suggesting “Follow your heart, but check it with your head.” Good advice, but fiendishly hard to do. In a new book on why people stick with beliefs despite all evidence to the contrary, appropriately entitled The Unpersuadables, Will Storr observes that the primary function of the human brain appears to be to construct rationale for paths we’ve already decided to follow. Where the heart leads, the mind will follow. And the smarter you are, the more clever and plausible rationale you can construct.

One way to think about operating inside the OODA loop is that the side who can best “check with his head” and accept the results — in other words, really test hypotheses, not fall in love with them — will have an enormous competitive advantage. In a sense, this is the point of Conceptual Spiral.

So instead of passion and urgency, I recommend to you such virtues as insight, equanimity, appreciation, and the Schwerpunkt /Auftragstaktik model of leadership. Passions fade and urgency burns itself out, but these virtues can sustain you for a lifetime.


12 thoughts on “Always question the obvious

  1. Most “conventional wisdom” is only sometimes true. Sometimes. Sometimes it is completely wrong.

    I think that at some point, such wisdom gets hard wired? That in turn drives a belief system. Perhaps it also hardens beliefs and makes a person less open to new ideas.

    That does in turn demand the question, why don’t people change their minds when overwhelming evidence to the contrary is presented. Perhaps it is human nature to create a stay in your lane type of bureaucracy?

    If so that does not bode well for our long term future.

    – Chris

    • That does in turn demand the question, why don’t people change their minds when overwhelming evidence to the contrary is presented.

      Boyd wondered about that, too, but more about how to use it as a weapon. In other words, how to speed up the process of locking the opponent into a false view of the world just long enough for our side to exploit it.

      • An interesting question. It has a lot of use in politics, potentially business, and of course, in warfare.

        -In politics, I would have to say that the Islamic fundamentalist groups have done a much better job of this than any state actor has, particularly in the case of the US.
        – I suppose, Russia is doing a good job of it right now.
        -Arguably, the 2003 initial invasion phase made good use of that tactic too.

        Business is the most interesting one of this. Is your goal to “lock” in customers? Or competitors? The other question is, can you get repeat customers with this strategy?

        My guess is that in the West, it seems that people have never really accepted in large numbers the fundamental idea of the scientific method – the idea that inquiry should be based on empirical evidence. To be sure, Islamic fundamentalists do not either, but they seem to learn from their mistakes much more effectively.

        The mistakes of Vietnam were mostly repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan. The F-35’s very existence is proof that the military industrial complex has learned nothing from the debacles of the past. I’m sure we could put together many more mistakes.

        At heart though is the idea that the scientific method presents evidence which threatens some of people’s most cherished beliefs or systems.

        – Chris

      • The F-35’s very existence is proof that the military industrial complex has learned nothing from the debacles of the past.

        I don’t know. It seems like the F-35 is serving the needs of the military-industrial-congressional complex very well.

      • I suppose you have a point. Keeping the money flowing are they with the F-35? The military industrial complex designs weapons for the money it seems and not the effectiveness.

        To them, it has become “obvious” that heavy fighters designed to be radar-stealthy, super complex are the future of warfare like the F-35 or F-22, using large radar guided missiles, alongside (and perhaps replaced someday by) unmanned drones.

        Perhaps Iraq is like that too. It has become impossible in some regards for the US to walk away from Iraq, owing to its actions in the previous few decades. That has also removed a key force that no matter how brutal, brought some measure of stability in the area. Since then, the very enemy that the US swore to fight has operated at will, which could never have happened had Saddam remained in power. that too is very profitable for the defense industry.

        – Chris

      • Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex

        One of the rounds of NATO increase was that group of candidate members were told that if they voted in the UN for US invasion of Iraq … their application for NATO membership would be viewed much more favorably (and they would get foreign aid to buy “NATO-compatible) military hardware (from the US). This enormously increases MICC quarterly profits 1) military action in Iraq(&Afghanistan) increases weapons needed by military 2) further expansion of NATO members and new customers for US military equipment, and 3) the wars last decade saw enormous increase in the roles played by military/civilian contractors (recent GAO report that $60B in iraq improvement projects by US contractors have little or nothing to show; shades of “Economic Hit Man” … part of original justification for Iraq invasion was that it would *ONLY* be $50B … it is now heading for 100 times that).

        recent news about radar stealth

        US loses Simulated Air War with China
        Chinese and Russian Radars On Track To See Through U.S. Stealth

        however much of analysis is five or more years old; from 2007

        Russian / PLA Low Band Surveillance Radar Systems (Counter Low Observable Technology Radars)
        Assessing the Joint Strike Fighter

        and from 2008: Assessing Progress on the Joint Strike Fighter Program

        and from 2009: Assessing Joint Strike Fighter Defence Penetration Capabilities

        also last decade: RAAF vs F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter

        … F35 stealth was designed specifically for flying towards adversary ground-based radar (forward and down) so that it could deliver air-to-ground munitions to take out that radar. It relies on F22s flying cover to handle other threats.

  2. Note that “convential wisdom” may also have contextual assumptions that get lost over time … so that when the environment &/or context changes … “conventional wisdom” impedes adaptation. goes along with Boyd’s comment about never mentioning doctrine because day-2 doctrine turns into dogma

  3. So frequently dogma/doctrine becomes like static orientation along with losing all the original context, assumption, requirements. Boyd would talk about constantly observing from all possible facets (as countermeasure to static orientation).

    A corresponding dogma/doctrine scenario is to teach a large number of different dogma/doctrines along with the original contexts, assumptions, and requirements … for a person to compare & contrast.

    Then get the person compare & contrast arbitrary contexts with contexts for a variety of different dogma/doctrine. This gets into Muth’s command culture education

    • lwh0,

      Thanks. I don’t disagree, but unless you run the whole group through that process simultaneously, you lose the ability of doctrine to build Einheit.

      Knowing the dangers, as you describe them, you can mitigate them and still preserve the benefits of doctrine.

      • Note that this is somewhat Muth’s theme in “command culture” … German “command culture” encouraging tension between multiple, independent, creative action/tactics and operating towards common goal/strategy. The US misunderstood and went for predictable stimulus/response, beating in conformity, attempting to eliminate creativity … prevailing with massive, overwhelming resources.

  4. “When I get new information, I change my position, what sir, do you do with new information ?”
    *John Maynard Keynes. As quoted by Chalmers Johnson.

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