Understanding Complexity by Snowden and Boone

The following are excerpts from “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” published in Harvard Business Review by David Snowden and Mary Boone.

A complex system has the following characteristics:

  • It involves large numbers of interacting elements.
  • The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.
  • The system is dynamic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances. This is frequently referred to as emergence.
  • The system has a history, and the past is integrated with the present; the elements evolve with one another and with the environment; and evolution is irreversible.
  • Though a complex system may, in retrospect, appear to be ordered and predictable, hindsight does not lead to foresight because the external conditions and system constantly change.
  • Unlike in ordered systems (where the system constrains the agents), or chaotic systems (where there are not constraints), in a complex system the agents and the system constrain one another, especially over time. This means that we cannot forecast or predict what will happen.

Some thinkers and practitioners have started to argue that human complex systems are very different from those in nature and cannot be modeled in the same ways because of human unpredictability and intellect. Consider the following ways in which humans are distinct from other animals:

  • They have multiple identities and can fluidly switch between them without conscious thought.
  • They make decisions based on past patterns of success and failure, rather than on logical, definable rules.
  • They can, in certain circumstances, purposefully change the systems in which they operate to equilibrium states in order to create predictable outcomes.

 

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“The Dichotomy Of Leadership” by Jocko Willink & Leif Babin

“The Dichotomy of Leadership” is the follow-on publication to Willink and Babin’s first venture, “Extreme Ownership.” Many of the lessons from the first book are repeated in this book but the authors take a closer look at the dichotomies that appear to leaders at all levels. Leadership, just as in life, takes a certain level of balance across multiple spectrums. If the scale tips too far in one direction or the other, an entire ecosystem can be in jeopardy. At first glance, the lessons preached in “Extreme Ownership” can seem just that, extreme. Upon closer inspection the reader will find that “extreme” is analogous to “all-encompassing.” None of the character traits like aggressiveness or humility are useful if taken to the extreme. But if the individual owns the actions and consequences of their entire world to an extreme level, they can only be successful if they understand and are successful in balancing the dichotomies of leadership. Three of my personal favorite dichotomies are Aggressive but not Reckless, Confident but not Cocky, and Humble but not Passive.

  1. We discovered firsthand that the principles of leadership are “simple, but not easy.” There are strategies, techniques, and skills that take time and practice to utilize effectively. The foremost requirement for potent leadership is humility, so that leaders can fully understand and appreciate their own shortfalls.
  2. In most cases, rather than extremes, leadership requires balance. Leaders must find the equilibrium between opposing forces that pull in opposite directions. Being aggressive but cautious, disciplined but not rigid, a leader but also a follower—it applies to almost every aspect of leadership.
  3. The goal of all leaders should be to work themselves out of a job.
  4. If mistakes happen, effective leaders don’t place blame on others. They take ownership of the mistakes, determine what went wrong, develop solutions to correct those mistakes and prevent them from happening again as they move forward.
  5. The first Law of Combat: Cover and Move. This is teamwork—every individual and team within the team, mutually supporting one another to accomplish the mission.
  6. It doesn’t matter if one element within the group does its job: if the team fails, everybody fails.
  7. The second Law of Combat: Simple. Complexity breeds chaos and disaster, especially when things go wrong. And things always go wrong.
  8. The third Law of Combat: Prioritize and Execute. When multiple problems occur simultaneously (which happens often), taking on too many problems at once results in failure. It is imperative that leaders detach themselves—pull back from the details—and assess to determine the highest priority to the strategic mission.
  9. The fourth Law of Combat: Decentralized Command. No one leader can manage it all or make every decision. Instead, leadership must be decentralized, with leaders at every level empowered to make decisions, right down to the frontline troopers in charge of no one but themselves and their small piece of the mission.
  10. To empower everyone on the team to lead, team members must understand not just what to do but why they are doing it. This requires clear and frequent communication up and down the chain of command—and most importantly: trust.
  11. “The fact that you care about your people more than anything—but at the same time you have to lead them. And as a leader, you might have to make decisions that hurt individuals on your team. But you also have to make decisions that will allow you to continue the mission for the greater good of everyone on the team.
  12. Here are the commons symptoms that result from micromanagement: 1. The team shows a lack of initiative. Members will not take action unless directed. 2. The team does not seek solutions to problems; instead, its members sit and wait to be told about a solution. 3. Even in an emergency, a team that is being micromanaged will not mobilize and take action. 4. Bold and aggressive action becomes rare. 5. Creativity grinds to a halt. 6. The team tends to stay inside their own silo; not stepping out to coordinate efforts with other departments or divisions for fear of overstepping their bounds. 7. An overall sense of passivity and failure to react.
  13. The mission, the goal, and the end state must be explained in a simple, clear, and concise manner.
  14. I should have explained that more clearly to you,” I said. “Leaders can actually take too much ownership. Yes, with Extreme Ownership you are responsible for everything in your world. But you can’t make every decision. You have to empower your team to lead, to take ownership. So you have to give them ownership.
  15. There were times when I let things slide, confusing the idea of “taking care of your people” with allowing them not to work as hard.
  16. There is a time to stand firm and enforce rules and there is a time to give ground and allow the rules to bend. Finding that balance is critical for leaders to get maximum effectiveness from their team.
  17. the most important explanation a leader can give to the team is “why?” Particularly when a leader must hold the line and enforce standards, it must always be done with the explanation of why it is important, why it will help accomplish the mission, and what the consequences are for failing to do so. It must never be done with the attitude of “because I said so.” To do so will result in far more pushback and more difficulty in getting the team to achieve the standards you are trying to enforce.
  18. While a leader must do everything possible to help develop and improve the performance of individuals on the team, a leader must also understand when someone does not have what it takes to get the job done.
  19. Most underperformers don’t need to be fired, they need to be led.
  20. The goal of any leader is to get the most out of every individual—to push each individual to reach his or her maximum potential so that the team itself can reach its maximum potential.
  21. A leader must be loyal to his individual team members and take care of them, but at the same time he must be loyal to the team itself and ensure that every member of the team has a net positive impact and doesn’t detract from mission execution.
  22. Leadership—at every level—is the critical factor in whether a team succeeds or fails.
  23. The best leaders—often those who learned through experience what worked and what didn’t—looked out for the long-term success of the team and the mission. They didn’t shy away from tough conversations to correct underperformance. They held the standards high and ensured the team was fully prepared for the worst-case scenario. Leaders who pushed their people to excel, to continuously learn and grow, enabled their teams to become comfortable in situations where they were previously uncomfortable.
  24. As in everything, leaders must find the balance in training and focus on three critical aspects: realism, fundamentals, and repetition.
  25. Training must be continuous for everyone. Each person gets better with iterations, so it is important to plan repetitive training over time that challenges each member of the team—particularly leaders.
  26. The best training programs are not orchestrated from the top but driven from the bottom—the frontline leaders who are closest to the action and the lessons learned.
  27. Make time for the things that are important.
  28. Aggression is not always the answer. Aggression must be balanced with logic and detailed analysis of risk versus reward.
  29. While being aggressive is a great default attitude to have, it still must be balanced with caution and careful consideration to ensure it is not a case of excessive risk with limited reward.
  30. Problems aren’t going to solve themselves—a leader must get aggressive and take action to solve them and implement a solution. Being too passive and waiting for a solution to appear often enables a problem to escalate and get out of control.
  31. The best teams, don’t wait to act. Instead, understanding the strategic vision (or commander’s intent), they aggressively execute to overcome obstacles, capitalize on immediate opportunities, accomplish the mission, and win.
  32. Losing your temper is a sign of weakness.
  33. The aggression that wins on the battlefield, in business, or in life is directed not toward people but toward solving problems, achieving goals, and accomplishing the mission.
  34. It is a leader’s duty to fight against this victory disease so that the team, despite its success, never gets complacent.
  35. While a leader wants team members to police themselves because they understand why, the leader still has to hold people accountable through some level of inspection to ensure that the why is not only understood but being acted upon.
  36. If a subordinate is not performing to standard, despite understanding why, despite knowing the impact on the mission, and despite being given ownership, then a leader must hold the line.
  37. The leader must drill down and micromanage tasks in order to get the subordinate on track. But the leader cannot stay there. The leader must eventually give subordinates leeway to perform based on their own intrinsic drive—not because they are being held accountable, and not based on the micromanagement of the leader, but because they have a better understanding of why.
  38. Use accountability as a tool when needed, but don’t rely on it as the sole means of enforcement. A reliance on heavy accountability consumes the time and focus of the leader and inhibits the trust, growth, and development of subordinates.
  39. “Leading” didn’t mean pushing my agenda or proving I had all the answers. It was about collaborating with the rest of the team and determining how we could most effectively accomplish our mission.
  40. Every leader must be ready and willing to take charge, to make hard, crucial calls for the good of the team and the mission. That is inherent in the very term “leader.” But leaders must also have the ability to follow. This was a difficult dichotomy: in order to be a good leader, you must also be a good follower. Finding that balance is key.
  41. When the team wins, much of the credit goes to the leader, whether or not that leader was the person driving the operation, tactics, or strategy, and a good leader pushes the praise and accolades down to their team.
  42. You should strive to have the same relationship with every boss you ever work for, no matter if they are good or bad. Whether they are an outstanding leader whom you admire, a mediocre leader who needs improvement, or a terrible leader for whom no one on the team has respect, you must strive to form the same relationship with all of them.”
  43. The relationship to seek with any boss incorporates three things: 1) They trust you. 2) They value and seek your opinion and guidance. 3) They give you what you need to accomplish your mission and then let you go execute.
  44. Misery can be a remarkably effective teacher. And this was a lesson I would never forget: don’t try to plan for every contingency. Doing so will only overburden you and weigh you down so that you cannot quickly maneuver. Yes, contingency planning is extremely important.
  45. For planning, there is a dichotomy within which leaders must find balance. You cannot plan for every contingency. If you try to create a solution for every single potential problem that might arise, you overwhelm your team, you overwhelm the planning process, you overcomplicate decisions for leaders.
  46. Nothing breeds arrogance like success.
  47. There was a dichotomy to being humble: being humble didn’t mean being passive. It didn’t mean not to push back when it truly mattered. While I didn’t have the visibility or complete understanding of the strategic picture that the boss and his staff at the task group had, they also lacked understanding of how strategic direction or requirements impacted our tactical operations on the front lines. And it was up to me to push that information up the chain of command. Humility has to be balanced by knowing when to make a stand.
  48. While a leader can’t be passive, a leader must also carefully prioritize when and where to push back. Leaders have an obligation to support their chain of command and carry out the orders that come from above.
  49. A leader must be humble, must listen to others, must not act arrogant or cocky. But a leader must balance that and know that there are times to question superiors, to push back, to stand up and make sure the right things are being done for the right reasons.
  50. A leader cannot be passive. When it truly matters, leaders must be willing to push back, voice their concerns, stand up for the good of their team, and provide feedback up the chain against a direction or strategy they know will endanger the team or harm the strategic mission.
  51. Leaders must be humble enough to listen to new ideas, willing to learn strategic insights, and open to implementing new and better tactics and strategies. But a leader must also be ready to stand firm when there are clearly unintended consequences that negatively impact the mission and risk harm to the team.
  52. Where are you casting blame or waiting for others to solve problems that you should be solving?”
  53. Naturally, leaders must be attentive to details. However, leaders cannot be so immersed in the details that they lose track of the larger strategic situation and are unable to provide command and control for the entire team.
  54. Leaders must still be attentive to the details, understand the challenges of the teams executing the mission at the front echelon, and position themselves where they can best support their teams. This is the dichotomy that must be balanced: to become engrossed in and overwhelmed by the details risks mission failure, but to be so far detached from the details that the leader loses control is to fail the team and fail the mission.

 

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Thoughts for My Sons: A Collective

This blog itself started as a collection of excerpts from books I have read. As a repository for thoughts, I value having a single collection point of searchable and linkable notes to re-visit easily. So while the blog is for my own edification, I have started keeping a catalog of thoughts to share with my two sons over time. Many of these thoughts, quotes, sayings, and aphorisms apply to my own life, but I want my sons, along with anyone else whom may find value in them, to have them as well. A majority of these ideas I cannot attribute to anyone in particular because I write them down in a small notebook at the time I hear them so they are not forgotten to the annals of a busy mind and busier life. Over time I will continue to add to these thoughts and maybe one day even later I will expound on each of these thoughts individually.

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Extreme Ownership Fundamentals

I cannot express how grateful I am for discovering Jocko Willink and the message that he, and his teammate Leif Babin, deliver. Their book, “Extreme Ownership” and distills lessons learned on the battlefield down to fundamental concepts that can be applied to everyday life. Those lessons apply to both business and personal life. I myself have found tremendous value in applying a greater degree of ownership to everything in my life and have already benefited from the added level of discipline. Willink prescribes four fundamental concepts that he calls the Law of Combat.  They are Cover and Move, Simple, Prioritize and Execute, and Decentralized Command.

Willink and Babin intimately describe each of these concepts in great details in “Extreme Ownership” and “The Dichotomy of Leadership.” Additionally, their Leadership Development Handbook summarizes each of these concepts. Those summaries are ideal for this forum.

Cover and Move: “Each member of the team is critical to success, while the main effort and supporting efforts must be clearly delineated. If the team fails, everyone fails. Even if a specific member of the team or an element within the team did their job, but the overall team fails and the mission isn’t accomplished, they all still fail. If the team succeeds, they all succeed. Accomplishing the mission is the highest priority.”

Simple: “Combat, like anything in life, has inherent layer of complexities. Simplifying as much as possible is crucial to success. When plans and orders get too complex, people will not understand them. And when things go wrong, which they inevitably will, this lack of understanding will make things worse. Plans and orders must be simple, clear, and concise.”

Prioritize and Execute: “Leaders must recognize the situation they are in, analyze the issue, and respond. Then, move on to the next priority and execute on that. And the same for the next priority, and so on. Certainly in combat, and in any dynamic environment, the most important quality in a leader is to remain calm under pressure and make good decisions. When feeling overwhelmed, combat leaders are taught to Relax, Look Around, Make a Call.”

Decentralized Command: “Simply put, everyone leads. Leaders at all levels understand the overall mission (the commander’s intent) and are empowered to make decisions in key tasks necessary to accomplish that mission in the most effective and efficient manner possible.”

There have been countless situations that I have encountered where these simple philosophies have served me well, and passed the test of their functionality. Using one of Leif Babin’s own litmus tests by asking if this approach is effective or ineffective, these principles have resoundingly passed the test.

 

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“As a Man Thinketh” by James Allen

 

This is a short book that tries to encapsulate a lot in a very little amount of writing. I appreciate it for its succinctness as well as for its message. Man is, in one way or another, in control of everything around him, including his circumstances. Many of those circumstances are a result a Man’s willingness to accept responsibility, protect one’s mind, and live a life of daily, unmitigated discipline. Don’t like your job, then fix it. Don’t like your body, then fix it. Don’t like your friends, then fix it. One especially pertinent point James Allen makes, is that many people do not treat their mind as such a critical piece of the body. “If you would protect your body, guard your mind. If you would renew your body, beautify your mind.” It seems obvious that we must protect our bodies from harm. However, many of us are flippant to protect our minds in the same way. The thoughts we have, the ideas that we let in, can all be attacks on our mind. These attacks weaken our resolve and make us question our very being. At the same time, some of those perceived attacks could be the mechanism we use to beautify our minds.

  1. Character is not a thing of favour or chance, but is the natural result of continued effort in right thinking.
  2. Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armoury of thought he forgoes the weapons by which he destroys himself; he also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.
  3. As a being of Power, Intelligence, and Love, and the lord of his own thoughts, man holds the key to every situation, and contains within himself that transforming and regenerative agency by which he may make himself what he wills.
  4. When he begins to reflect upon his condition, and to search diligently for the Law upon which his being is established, eh then becomes the wise master, directing his energies with intelligence, and fashioning his thoughts to fruitful issues. Such is the conscious master, and man can only thus become by discovering within himself the laws of thought; which discovery is totally a matter of application, self analysis, and experience.
  5. Man is buffeted by circumstances so long as he believes himself to be the creature of outside conditions, but when he realizes that he is a creative power, and that he may command the hidden soil and seeds of his being out of which circumstances grow, he then becomes the rightful master of himself.
  6. Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.
  7. Here is a man who is wretchedly poor. He is extremely anxious that his surroundings and home comforts should be improved, yet all the time he shirks his work, and considers he is justified in trying to deceive his employer on the ground of the insufficiency of his wages. Such a man does not understand the simplest rudiments of those principles which are the basis of true prosperity, and is not only totally unfitted to rise out of his wretchedness, but is actually attracting to himself a still deeper wretchedness by dwelling in it, and acting out, indolent, deceptive, and unmanly thoughts.
  8. Here is a rich man who is the victim of a painful and persistent disease as the result of gluttony. He is willing to give large sums of money to get rid of it, but he will not sacrifice his gluttonous desires. He wants to gratify his taste for rich and unnatural viands and have his health as well. Such a man is totally unfit to have health, because he has not yet learned the first principles of a healthy life.
  9. Here is an employer of labour who adopts crooked measures to avoid paying the regulation wage, and, in the hopes of making larger profits, reduces the wages of his workpeople. Such a man is altogether unfitted for prosperity, and when he finds himself bankrupt, both as regards reputation and riches, he blames circumstances, not knowing that he is the sole author of his condition.
  10. Law, not confusion, is the dominating principle in the universe; justice, not injustice, is the soul and substance of life; and righteousness, not corruption, is the moulding and moving force in the spiritual government of the world. This being so, man has but to right himself to find that the universe is right; and during the process of putting himself right he will find that as he alters his thoughts towards things and other people, things and other people will alter towards him.
  11. The body is the servant of the mind.
  12. If you would protect your body, guard your mind. If you would renew your body, beautify your mind.
  13. Even if he fails again and again to accomplish his purpose (as he necessarily must  until weakness is overcome), the strength of character gained will be the measure of his true success, and this will form a new starting point for future power and triumph.
  14. Strength can only be developed by effort and practice.
  15. There can be no progress, no achievement without sacrifice.
  16. Victories attained by right thought can only be maintained by watchfulness. Many give way when success is assured, and rapidly fall back into failure.
  17. They do not see the long and arduous journey, but only behold the pleasant goal, and call it “good fortune,” do not understand the process, but only perceive the result, and call it chance.
  18. The calm man, having learned how to govern himself, knows how to adapt himself to others.
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Successful People vs. Unsuccessful People

successful_unsuccessful peopleSuccessful People

  1. Give other people credit for their victories.
  2. Compliment
  3. Embrace change
  4. Forgive others
  5. Keep a “to be” list
  6. Read everyday
  7. Accept responsibility
  8. Operate from a transformational perspective
  9. Exude joy
  10. Have a sense of gratitude
  11. Share information and data
  12. Continuously learn
  13. Keep a journal
  14. Keep a “to do/project” list
  15. Talk about ideas
  16. Set goals and develop life plans
  17. Want others to succeed

Unsuccessful People

  1. Secretly hope other fail
  2. Never set goals
  3. Have a sense of entitlement
  4. Criticize
  5. Fear change
  6. Think they know it all
  7. Say they keep a journal but really don’t
  8. Horde information and data
  9. Don’t know what they want to be
  10. Blame others for their failures
  11. Hold a grudge
  12. Talk about people
  13. Fly by the seat of their pants
  14. Take all the credit for their victories
  15. Operate from a transactional perspective
  16. Exude anger
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9 Rules of Combat for Everyday Life

By combining military principles with everyday life, I find that it is easier to keep myself disciplined in both arenas. The military application of the following nine rules are evident. How they apply to civilian life, whether it be family or work, are harder to distill. Either way, going through each of the nine principles is just another way to look at all of life’s problems, and hopefully solve some of the challenges, both foreseeable and unknown.

  1. OBJECTIVE: Your goal(s) must be clearly defined, decisive, and obtainable.
  2. OFFENSIVE: Seize the initiative when it presents itself. Be aggressive, not reckless.
  3. MASS: Use and concentrate your greatest strengths.
  4. ECONOMY OF FORCE: Know what is secondary and give it minimal effort. Utilize all of your resources in the most efficient means possible.
  5. MANEUVER: Be flexibly and adaptable to changing needs.
  6. UNITY OF COMMAND: Delegate authority and responsibility but be accountable for the final result.
  7. SECURITY: Understand what you are up against.
  8. SURPRISE: Choose the right time to attack.
  9. SIMPLICITY: Simple does not mean easy. Make plans that are clear, concise, and easily communicated.

In life we must choose a path to follow. At the end of path there should be goals. Look at yourself and define what your objective is. Never lose sight of that goal so you can ask yourself if the things you are doing are keeping you on the path, or if they are bringing you closer to your objective. When the opportunity presents itself, act. Do no hesitate to take quick and decisive action. Be aggressive, not reckless, when pursuing opportunity. Do not be a victim of analysis paralysis. Concentrate your greatest strengths at your enemy’s greatest weaknesses. Be careful dividing your forces or resources. As once said, when a dog chases two rabbits, they both get away. By having a clearly defined objective, you can easily identify distractions. Do not let those secondary detractors fool you. Prioritize your expenditures and pay minimal heed to everything else. Because you are ready to strike decisively and aggressively, maintain a posture that allows flexibly and the ability to adapt to the changing landscape. Do not become so beholden to your own thoughts and plans that you are unwilling or unable to adapt. A leader should have three things; authority, responsibility, and accountability. Be humble enough to grant authority to your subordinates and give them responsibility. Hold them accountable but be willing to accept ownership of everything, even when they fail. During success, give credit to subordinates. During failure, take responsibility. That is the first step to developing solutions. Know your enemy and the situation. Knowledge will provide security, but do not rest. Use that understanding to surprise your demons. Simple does not mean easy. Simple does not assure success. Simplicity does allow for strong fundamentals, on which taller and taller structures can be built.

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