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by Richard Martin

“So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for every thing one has a mind to do.”
Benjamin Franklin

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman

This week I’d like to discuss the topic of cognitive biases. These are the ways in which our minds trick us, or can be tricked, into thinking in a way that is not fully conducive to realism and success in our undertakings. If there is anything that can undermine readiness, it’s that.

The content in the diagram above was created by Buster Benson of the Better Humans website. He took the ad hoc list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia–incidentally, probably the most complete such archive–and organized them according by similarity. The list was then organized graphically by John Mahoogian.

The important point is that the cognitive biases can be classified or collapsed into four main categories:

  • Too much information
  • What to remember
  • Not enough meaning
  • Need to act fast

Let’s consider how these can impact our readiness for change, uncertainty, risk, and opportunity.

  1. Too much information: The world is a kaleidoscope. How can we know what is important and what isn’t? The only way to make sense of the data and information coming at us constantly from all directions is in light of our goals and plans. I find the concepts of threat and opportunity are most useful, but how do we distinguish them? An opportunity is anything that can advance us toward our goals or enhance the effectiveness of our actions. A threat is anything that can block attainment of our goals or hinder our actions toward them.
  2. What to remember:There is too much information to remember it all. That’s why we need to classify it according to whether it is an opportunity or a threat. However, even this can get tedious. We can become overly focused on the ways (options, plans) and means (inputs, resources) and forget what it was we were trying to achieve in the first place. This is why military commanders and planners follow the dictum to always get back to the mission. What are we trying to achieve? What are our mission and end state? What are the commander’s intent and concept of operations? It is only by asking ourselves these questions regularly throughout our planning and action that we can stay on target, filter out the irrelevant, and put our resources and energy on what will get us the biggest effects for our efforts.
  3. Not enough meaning:Most of what happens and surrounds us is meaningless. In other words, stuff happens; it may be random or not, relevant or not, but we’re just not sure. So what do our brains do? They invent stuff. We see causes and correlations where there are none. We impute intentions to others and to impersonal forces where there are none. We project our thoughts, feelings, and intentions onto others, or we anthropomorphize collective phenomena, such as the “market,” the “competition,” the “environment,” the “government,” “immigrants,” etc., etc. Needless to say, we can get wrapped around the axle for nothing. The only remedy that works against this is to test our assumptions and hypotheses by putting ourselves in the others’ shoes and trying to imagine what they are thinking, feeling, intending, planning from their perspective, not ours.
  4. Need to act fast:This is common in fast-changing, risky or dangerous situations, such as emergencies and crises. My definition of a crisis is any time we’ve lost control of the situation and events are moving faster than you can assimilate and react to them. An emergency is a crisis where the risks to life and limb are imminent or actual. The best way to accommodate the need to act fast is through preparation and planning prior to a crisis occurring. To do this requires anticipation, and for that you need to consider what could go wrong–or right–beforehand. By extension, you need to set in place the tools and procedures to meet that need when the time comes.

There are no surefire ways of eliminating cognitive biases. They are inherent to human nature and the fact that we are constantly trying to assess what is really the case “out there,” in the world, or “in here,” in our minds and bodies. We are also trying to find the optimal means and ways available to achieve our ends. Furthermore, we are constantly assessing–or should be–our ends and values, to ensure that they are still relevant and congruent with our higher goals. This takes constant vigilance, self-cultivation, and self-discipline to carry out, along with a good dose of humility and openness to change, ideas, and criticism.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

by Richard Martin

Copyright : Nikom Twytit | 123 Stock Photo

I always advocate looking at what we’ve accomplished in order to gain a better grip on where we need to go in the future. This is crucial to learning and readiness as well as for continuing improvement and development. December is a good time to do this as it provides a natural break point for after-action review and self-development.

What were my objectives at the beginning of the year?

Have I achieve my goals in the following areas: financial, strategic, professional, leadership, personal, family, developmental, educational, motivational, volunteering?

Could I have been more focused on key goals and activities?

On the other hand, was I too focused on some areas, to the exclusion of other important goals and activities?

Did I have a strategy and overall plan? Did I adhere to them or was I flexible in adjusting to circumstances and needs as they evolved?

Did I have a good support network and employ it to its fullest?

Did I procrastinate and waste time on irrelevant activities and time fillers?

Did I exercise regularly and care for myself in body, mind, and spirit?

Have I put off important personal and professional matters because I feared the effort or consequences?

What am I most proud of having accomplished or changed during the year that is ending?

What am I least proud of? How can I avoid that in the future?

Was I opportunistic during the year so I could progress faster toward my goals and implement my strategy with greater effectiveness and efficiency?

Did I seize and maintain the initiative, or did I coast on previous gains and try to defend my position?

There are still 4 weeks in December. What are the three key things I can do, right now, to make the end of 2017 a success?

What opportunities are close at hand and that I can seize to gain/regain and/or maintain the initiative as I head into 2018?

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

Copyright: Tomas Marek | 123 Stock Photo

by Richard Martin

“Then you, or anyone else who is to be ruler and trustee, not only of himself and his private business, but also the city and city’s business, must first acquire virtue himself.” Plato, Alcibiades

The Alcibiades was considered in Antiquity to be the entry point to Plato’s philosophy. Although studying his works eventually led to esoteric discussions on the nature of ideas and reality, i.e., metaphysics, the process was all in the service of determining who should lead in public life, how they should be educated and selected, and how they should actually lead and manage the affairs of state.

The recent spate of revelations of abuses by prominent leaders in business and other areas shows that the question of ethical and virtuous leadership is still alive and remains as pertinent as ever. The emphasis on political leadership in the Alcibiades and Plato’s other works should not blind us to the relevance of this wisdom for the exercise of leadership today, no matter what the field.

Alcibiades was a real historical figure in 5th century B.C. Athens. An aristocrat by birth with the most noble lineage, extremely wealthy, physically attractive and charismatic, Alcibiades was destined and entitled, or so he thought, to lord it over his fellow Athenians. He didn’t start the destructive Peloponnesian War against Athens’ deadly rival Sparta, but he was instrumental in prolonging the struggle and convincing the assembly to launch an ill-fated punitive expedition against the Greek-Italian city-state of Syracuse. When the operation started to go pear-shaped, Alcibiades jumped ship (literally), and defected to Sparta, and eventually Persia, Athens’ supreme nemesis. His boundless ambition and egotism led him to repeatedly switch sides and led to his ultimate assassination, as even the Persians’ grew to distrust him.

Plato’s dialogue Alcibiades ostensibly presents a conversation between Socrates and a youthful Alcibiades on the cusp of manhood. As summarized by translator and editor D.S. Hutchison,

“Socrates feels the time has come to approach Alcibiades and bring him into his intellectual and moral orbit. It is Alcibiades’ lust for power that Socrates appeals to, promising that Alcibiades will never amount to anything without his help. In the discussion that follows, Alcibiades is brought to see, very reluctantly, that he knows nothing about moral values or political expediency and that he needs to cultivate himself assiduously in order to realize his enormous ambitions. But what is the ‘self’ that he needs to cultivate? It is his soul, the ruler of his body. The virtues of the soul that he needs to acquire are the intellectual skills that give it the authority to rule, over its body and over other people as well.”

In a later work, The Republic, Plato shows Socrates presenting what those virtues should be: courage, justice, temperance, and practical wisdom, i.e., the judgment to know what to do, when to do it, and to what end. To take Harvey Weinstein as the most revealing example of how to break all of those principles, Weinstein himself showed little moral courage; he preyed on women who were ambitious and prone to accept his abuses and advances in order to further their careers. Quentin Tarentino, his long-time collaborator, has admitted to his lack of courage in turning a blind eye for decades on Weinstein’s lasciviousness. Weinstein’s injustice is obvious, as is his lack of temperance and self-control. He was a slave to his passions. As for practical wisdom, his exploitative strategies eventually turned against him. Uma Thurman recently tweeted that a bullet was too quick for him, implying that he deserved to suffer a long and humiliating downfall.  I’ll leave others to judge the wisdom of her own attitude.

My point, however, is that Weinstein is a modern-day Alcibiades. He couldn’t rule his own desires, his “soul”; in the process, his exploited, degraded, and abused subordinates and business partners. We can add his name to a long list of others in recent years who have illustrated themselves by their lack of a moral compass. If, in the final analysis, one can’t lead ethically, with wisdom and justice, then one shouldn’t lead at all.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

By Richard Martin

Copyright: scanrail | 123 Stock Photo

  • Are you preparing to fight the last war, or are you learning by assessing and adapting to current and future realities?
  • Are you set in your ways, or ready to consider alternatives?
  • Do you look for ready-made solutions to your challenges and problems, or do you think things through for yourself?
  • Do you have a specific process for analyzing trends, risks, threats, and opportunities, or do you just wing it and go with the flow?
  • How confident are you in your data, explanations, and knowledge? Could you increase your confidence in these?
  • Do you often claim you’re the victim of bad luck or the beneficiary of good luck, or do you look for explanations and causes that can be traced back to your skills, processes, systems, and inputs?
  • Do you stay as vigilant and aware as possible? Do you know what this means in terms of trends, opportunities, threats, and risks?
  • What are your forecasts and predictions based on? Validated information and causal explanations, or simply assumptions and hopeful wishes about the present and the future?
  • Are you prepared for risks, obstacles, threats, and opportunities? Do you assume your competitors are as smart as you?
  • How robust and resilient are you and your organization? Are your plans flexible and adaptable under changing circumstances?

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

By Richard Martin

© Rotislav Sedlacek | 123 Stock Photo

My study of military history has taught me that most soldiers and warriors throughout history have gone willingly, if not enthusiastically, into battle. They followed their comrades in arms, and they followed their leaders. They participated in behaviour that was downright counter to their survival and the wish to live a long and prosperous life. In many cases, they fought to defend themselves, their families, and their lands against hostile depredations. But in many other cases, perhaps most, soldiers and warriors have fought for conquest, glory, pride, courage, status, recognition, and booty.

 

On the other hand, the Canadians who have served and sacrificed for peace and security around the world present something of an outlier in this respect. Since the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, Canadians have largely fought or operated oversees, taking on the forces of countries that have threatened Canada and its allies directly and indirectly, or endangered world peace and security. Over 116,000 have given their lives in these missions, and countless more have sustained debilitating mental and physical wounds. Of these, 158 Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2011. Often forgotten is that approximately 130 Canadian soldiers have died in peacekeeping missions.

It’s only by talking to combat veterans that we can gain a true appreciation for the sheer difficulty of combat and what is involved in military leadership. I was on a battlefield tour when serving in Germany. A Canadian veteran of the D-Day campaign had been a platoon commander during an operation to capture and secure Carpiquet Airfield, near Caen, Normandy. His recall of the engagement was of crawling uphill under the enemy’s grazing fire. Rationally, he knew full well that he had fought on an airfield, and that his memories of crawling uphill must be mistaken. On the other hand, he couldn’t shake the persistent impression of having to struggle against gravity. When he eventually visited the battlefield after the war, he could see that the ground was basically flat and even. It was an airfield after all. But still, the memory stuck with him, and it was only decades later that he could picture the fight in a more objective manner.

The leadership challenge in combat is singular. That soldiers under your command will follow you is not necessarily given, despite the weight of military discipline. Charly Forbes, a veteran infantry officer with the Régiment de Maisonneuve during the Second World War and the Vandoos in Korea recounted his baptism of fire. He had just taken command of a depleted platoon in a company that had been decimated only days before by friendly fire from Allied bombers. He had to lead his platoon to take out a German machine gun that was holding up the battalion’s advance. He did his combat estimate and came up with a simple plan and briefed his men. On his signal, they would run on the flank to assault the machine gun nest while his own machine gunners would lay down covering fire. As he gave the signal, he leapt up and rushed toward the German MG. After a few yards, there was so much withering fire that he had to take refuge in a shell hole. That’s when he realized that there was only one of his soldiers with him. Unflustered, the private said, “It’s okay sir; we’ll take ‘em out,” and the two of them completed the mission.

What does it take to lead soldiers and partake in combat? What makes your troops want to follow you? What makes you want to lead them in this dangerous and, frankly, irrational behaviour? It seems daunting, but it has been done since time immemorial. Coercion and punishment are always possible, but they only work to a certain point. In the final analysis, the best troops are the ones that want to fight, that have morale and cohesion, and who are willing to follow their officers and NCOs until the mission is done. This is what most sets apart the Canadian soldier, sailor, or airman.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.

By Richard Martin

Source: Canadian Armed Forces

Leadership is the art of influencing others to get things done in the manner and to ends desired by the leader. The biggest challenge comes not in figuring out what to do, or even in how to do it, but rather in communicating your intent and actually getting people to implement it and achieve desired results.

Companies–small, medium, and large–can have this problem, even those with sophisticated, complex operations and processes. I call this the “disconnect problem”: There is a break between what goes on in a leader’s brain and what happens on the ground to achieve the mission and vision. The resulting gap leaves the organization open to distorted information transfer, mutual incomprehension, corrosive conflict, and other forms of friction.

How can a leader overcome this disconnect problem, and get from her intent to her desired outcomes? There are a few basics that have to be respected. First, there must be a clearly articulated mission with a concrete vision of the end state or desired outcome. This aim must be articulated into supporting objectives which are in turn broken into specific functions and tasks.

The resulting work hierarchy then becomes the framework for assigning responsibilities, authority and accountability, along with the resources and supporting structures and systems to get the job done. It isn’t enough to browbeat people or simply set goals and make compensation depend on their satisfactory achievement. This is a necessary but non-sufficient condition for attaining the aim.

When I went through leadership and command and staff training the army, we had to learn how to “assign troops to tasks.” We were taught–and realized through experience–that things only get done when you have a reasonably good understanding of the mission and effort involved, but also when the work is actually assigned to real people, along with the weapons, vehicles, equipment, ammunition and combat stores to achieve assigned tasks. Otherwise, it’s all just wishful thinking.

Are you just browbeating people into implementing your intent, or do you have a clearly articulated plan, with specific assignment of responsibilities and enablers? If the former, then start now to be more specific in transforming your intentions into actionable direction on the ground. If the latter, then refine your approach and ensure that all levels in your team are doing the same. Also, seek to apply “troops to tasks” to all areas of endeavour within your organization.

© 2017 Alcera Consulting Inc. This article may be used for non-commercial use with proper attribution.