Follow-up on Ebola : Practical thinking is strategic, managing expectations is tactical

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ebolaNot to stray too far into politics, but one of the purposes of New Gov Office is to save government from the corruption and paralysis of tactical obsession.

Recent events indicate a lot of upside-down thinking in our approach to the Ebola crisis.

Brave Heart was a good film, but…

One clear sign of tactical thinking elevated to strategy is the motivational, “Brave Heart” approach to leadership, managing emotions and perceptions rather than managing practical realities. This application of social instincts—euphemistically, people skills—is inappropriate to higher planning levels where the real key to success is properly integrating the group effort to external reality.

Brave Heart leadership, focused inward toward the psychological “people problems” of accomplishing plans and goals, is perfectly fine so long as there’s someone higher up the chain focusing outward toward objective reality, to make sure those plans are practical and the goals realistic.

Therefore, people skills represent an inherently tactical mode of leadership.

We’ve been conditioned by decades of sports films to think that having a coach deliver a rousing half-time pep talk is the most effective way to deal with real-world competitive challenges. It’s all about keeping up your spirits, never mind the discouraging facts that are in the way!

This works really well, of course, when sympathetic Hollywood writers are authoring the script.

The tactical instincts of our human evolutionary legacy expect, and often demand, this sort of people-skills leadership. But, it can be a disastrous bias. Strategic organization is too evolutionarily novel to rely on mere instinct; we haven’t been doing complicated things in large enough groups long enough for natural selection to spread genuine strategic thinking throughout the gene pool.

Among human beings, this aggressively rational, strategic thinking is the anomaly rather than the rule.

William Wallace lost his war, and we cannot afford to lose to epidemics.

As some have pointed out, government response toward the encroachment of Ebola in the US has leaned toward people-skill tactics, even at the highest strategic levels, boosting spirits with reassurances that have, at best, had a shaky relationship with the facts.

We don’t mean to imply that this is peculiar to the current administration or its political party, because all partisan cliques exhibit these same flaws. It is illustrative, however, to take a look at this most recent example. Scott Gottlieb and Tevi Troy at the Wall Street Journal put it this way:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], despite a rocky beginning, now recognizes that containing Ebola presents unexpected challenges of technique and execution. The White House, for its part, apparently thinks it is a messaging problem.

Messaging, of course, equals social skills.

The Gottlieb-Troy quote brings us to another consequence of upside-down leadership, i.e., having tactical “Brave Heart” thinking at strategic levels. In response to outside criticism, CDC has now issued new guidelines for Ebola safety gear.

To rephrase this for greatest impact: the agency assigned the task of controlling and preventing disease, in the most powerful government in human history, had to be pressured by outside expertise before issuing more effective means of controlling and preventing the spread of a disease.

CDC should have been leading the way on this, not embarrassed into following by outsiders. We see this same intellectual lag throughout the US government, which was once a fountain of innovation and forward thinking.

After all, this interwebz thing where you’re reading this was originally a government project.

Everything in its proper place, tactically and strategically.

Particularly when it comes to human resource (HR) processes that should help government organizations avoid becoming upside-down, Federal agencies now tend to bandwagon on stale fads that indulge social instincts, like worker engagement surveys, rather than recognizing the dangers of primitive social instincts and correcting for them.

In an epic case of frying-pan-to-fire reform, the US Intelligence Community recently flirted with a radical transformation of its rewards and promotion system to focus it entirely on the widely deprecated one-on-one performance review model. Opposition to, and evidence against, this highly bias-prone practice has been growing for some time. Luckily, after significant controversy, only one agency retained the dubious plan.

These sorts of instinct-driven practices in HR block rational thinkers from positions of strategic leadership. Social comparison biases and Dunning blindness seal these disparities in an immutable, upside-down hierarchy and the organization stagnates into incompetence, losing its competitive advantage over outsiders.

Why the expertise gradient along CDC’s perimeter? Why did outsiders have to press disease control reform on an organization that should have been the leader in disease control? Expertise resides inside the mind of a human being. The obvious answer is that the wrong minds, meaning the wrong people, are in charge at CDC.

Assuming that there are still intelligent and rational people at CDC (and there clearly are or the organization would be entirely dysfunctional) the organization must have become intellectually upside-down at some point. Will the wrong people be removed and the right people moved up? We’re waiting to see.

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