6-21-05 - 2


Often you can know things to be true without being able to defend them or really know why. I've written about this before in the context of poker - poker intrigues me because of the way it reflects the human thought process; there are these great poker pros, like TJ Cloutier, who really do not understand poker theory and couldn't tell you why they play exactly as they do, but they know how to play. This is a very human way of thinking, cobbling together circumstancial truths and creating a knowledge base that they can extrapolate from. I was made to think of this by an old PBS Frontline "Rumsfeld's War" , which is a great episode. One of the things it talks about is Rumsfeld's argumentative style of managing. Whenever someone in the Pentagon would present a point, Rumsfeld would say "prove it". He would challenge the assumptions, require them to be justified, attack the bases of rationale. (this is extremely reminiscent of McNamara, btw). This sounds great in principle, I've often done that in my own experience as a manager. The problem is that you can easily tear down things that are in fact correct. In Rumsfeld's case, his subordinates and advisors were telling him that roughly 400,000 troops would be needed in Iraq to properly secure the peace after the war. Rumsfeld attacked this and wound up with a much lower number. Of course the originals advisors were roughly correct, but that was based on experience, and Rummy was able to dig it down through argument.

Another factor at play there was finding subordinated willing to screw themselves. This is common practice in management, and I was often subject to it in the video game industry. Basically, the manager has an answer they want to hear, but they want to make the subordinate suggest it so that they can then blame you and say you asked for it to be that way. In games this happens with schedules. There are many ways to do this, but in large teams, such as the Pentagon, one of the tricks is to find someone willing to accept your number and promote them, which also demotes the person who refused it. For example, a manager wants the primary team to add some feature; the lead says it'll take 10 days; the manager says, oh, I was thinking more like 5 days. If the lead stands firm at 10, the manager puts his feelers out under the table and finds a guy on the team who says he can do it in 5. If the lead still objects, the manager goes around him and gives the task straight to the guy who said 5. Very quickly, the lead learns that if he wants to keep power, he needs to agree with the manager or he'll be short-circuited. The same thing happens all the time in government - when an adviser is giving answers that the boss doesn't like, they're simply cut out of the picture, and someone saying the right thing is brought in. Then the boss can say "it's not my fault, it's what the advisers told me", though of course the boss created that truth.

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old rants