Monday, October 24, 2016

Defining the Right Ends Takes Time

That's one the observations I took away from my association's latest Board meeting. Defining the right "ends" (i.e., the high-level outcomes the association is in the business of achieving) takes time. And by time, I don't mean hours or days. I mean years.

Hear me out.

My Board adopted a modified version of the Carver Policy Governance model five years ago. As part of that adoption, they wrote their own Governance Policy, which attempted to spell out, as clearly as possible, the differing roles between the Board and the staff executive when it came to strategy and execution. Here are the actual clauses from that document:

“Ends” determination is a pivotal duty of the Board. The Board will determine what results are to be achieved, for whom, and at what cost, and clearly express these “ends” in the mission, strategic priorities, ends statements, success indicators, and budget of the association.

Tactical responsibility is delegated to the CEO. The “means” employed to achieve the association’s “ends” are the responsibility of the CEO and the staff members and association volunteers he or she assigns and recruits to assist him or her. In providing needed direction to the CEO, the Board will only describe the “means” that are unacceptable, and will neither approve nor micromanage staff-level activity. The Board will rigorously monitor the performance of the CEO, but only to the degree that identified “ends” are being achieved without violating the unacceptable “means.”

These ideas were first written down and approved in October 2011. The Board then immediately turned its attention to its part of this new strategy and execution model: determining the ends (the results that were to be achieved, for whom, and at what cost). They quickly adopted a series of statements to describe these ends and to provide direction to me, the CEO, regarding tactical directions to pursue.

Going back and looking at some of those early statements, I realize now that they were very much less statements of expected outcomes and much more statements of expected areas of activity. Examples of those early statements include:
  • Promote competitive advantages of fluid power over other technologies.
  • Drive and support pre-competitive fluid power research.
  • Develop and connect members to talent pipelines.
It may seem obvious now, but these were not ends statements at all, and it took us some time to realize that. We eventually came up with a new term to describe them: strategic priorities. They were priorities the association needed to focus on, and each required a significant allocation of time and resources by the CEO, but if the Board was going to take its responsibility for determining the ends seriously, they still needed to craft specific statements describing our expected outcomes.

Looking back through the record, it would be three years before the term "ends statements" made it into our lexicon, with an attempt in October 2014 to create not just clear statements about expected outcomes, but also associated metrics (or success indicators) by which we could determine objectively if those ends were being met.

To continue the example, the statement above describing the need to "Develop and connect members to talent pipelines had, by this time, evolved into the following strategic priority: "Build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce." Within it, however, the Board now defined three statements of specific result or outcome:
  • Young people understand fluid power’s potential as a technology and as a career path.
  • Technically-trained individuals have successful pathways to long-term careers in the fluid power industry.
  • NFPA connects its members to the talent they need to grow their businesses and advance fluid power technology.
These are much closer to true ends statements, each describing a desired future state while remaining agnostic about how such a state should be created. For clues in that direction, the Board needed more specific statements of strategic intent, something we would call success indicators because they would define the measurable areas of progress that would tell us if the end they supported was being achieved. In the example of "Young people understand fluid power's potential as a technology and as a career path," three such success indicators were identified:
  • Young people are accessing information on how fluid power works and its impact on the quality of life.
  • Number of middle and high school students participating in fluid power-themed curriculum and extra-curricular activities is increasing.
  • Number of graduating high school seniors enrolling in curriculum that includes fluid power at 2- and 4-year colleges is increasing.
Now, if you look at some of those statements in outline form...

I. Strategic Priority: Build and connect our members to an educated fluid power workforce.
     A. Ends Statement: Young people understand fluid power's potential as a technology and as a career path.
          1. Success Indicator: Young people are accessing information on how fluid power works and its impact on the quality of life.

...I think you can begin to see how these different statements about priority, result, and metrics have come, in the overall, to represent what I'm now calling the strategy agenda of my association. In the above example, I've shown the outline for one success indicator, within one ends statement, within one strategic priority. At the time those shown were approved by the Board, there were three strategic priorities, seven ends statements, and twenty-six success indicators. That made for a longer, but still digestible, agenda for what the association should be tooled to achieve.

And although that's the basic framework that the association has been in since, over the intervening two years, each Board meeting has been an opportunity to discuss and revise the statements themselves, bending them ever closer to true statements of priority, result and metrics. The strategic priorities have become more generic, defining wide, but finite areas of association activity. The ends statements have become more results-focused, stripping out many of the still-embedded means and focusing solely on the intended outcomes. And the success metrics have become ever more aligned with the ends themselves, providing a clearer and clearer tactical pathway to follow in order to achieve the strategic objectives of the association.

It's been a journey of five years. And although I doubt we'll ever be ready to carve any of these statements in stone, we've clearly made a ton of progress. The Board is much more adept at discussing and defining what must be achieved, and I am in a much better position to define and allocate the necessary resources with confidence. We're on the same page with regard to what should be achieved and what it will take to get there.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 17, 2016

Who Drives the Granularity of the Discussion?

I heard something on a recent video posted on Seth Kahan's visionary leadership website that really resonated with me.

When it comes to strategic association Board agendas, it is the job of the staff executive to make sure the Board members themselves are driving the granularity of the discussion.

By which, I assume Kahan meant that the Board members have to be the ones who decide what to dig into, and how deep to do the digging.

To which, all I can say is yes, yes, and YES!

Here is what I attempt to do at every one of my Board meetings.

First, present and lay out the status of the organization. We already have a plan, with goals and action plans designed to achieve strategic objectives. How are we doing on that plan? Where are we succeeding? Where are we failing? And what explains the differential between areas of success and failure?

Second, give the Board time to discuss the status just presented. Let them ask questions and provide only what you perceive to be factual responses. In my experience, they will drive quickly into the areas of greatest concern, probing and investigating until they understand the core issues.

Third, present and lay out the strategic challenges facing the organization. These can be, but often aren't, connected to the failures revealed and discussed in the operational plan. More frequently, they are much bigger issues--strategic inflection points in which the organization has to make a choice, with those choices having significant ramifications on the use of association resources. Generally speaking, don't provide solutions to these challenges (at least not at this time). Focus instead on explaining them fully and describing the perceived impacts of the choices facing the organization.

And fourth, give the Board time to discuss the strategic challenges. Again, let them ask questions and provide only what you perceive to be factual responses. Here, as before, they may surprise you in driving quickly towards the area of most pressing strategic need. And as those areas are revealed, the immediate objective is not to resolve them, but to devise a mechanism for discussing and resolving them in later portions of their meeting.

This whole process takes about two hours, and effectively allows the Board to set their own agenda for the rest of their meeting. In doing so, they have and will continue to drive the granularity of their discussion, deciding on their own how deeply they need to dig into each item.

Too often, when I have tried to dictate this granularity for them, deciding ahead of time where they will and will not focus, the meeting very quickly goes off track as Board members rebel against the topics that have been selected for them.

So take Kahan's and my advice. For truly useful strategic conversations, let the Board itself decide what does and does not need their attention.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

By Sorrow’s River by Larry McMurtry

Book 3 of McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives, so called because they relate the trials and tribulations of the members of an English family named Berrybender as they make their way in the frontier American West of the 1830s.

The primary Berrybender is named Tasmin, a beautiful and fierce-spirited woman married to Jim Snow, an American frontiersman with a famous non de guerre.

“Why would Jimmy want to talk to you anyway, monsieur?” Tasmin inquired. “He ain’t French, and he ain’t nice to strangers.”

“But our readers, madame! Our readers!” Clam insisted. “They know of your famous Sin Killer. They know, but not enough. We will disappoint all of Europe if we come home with no news of the Sin Killer. In Europe he is more famous than Hawkeye, or Natty Bumpo, or any of the characters of Mr. Cooper. It is said he was struck by lightning and feels it is his mission to wipe out sin. They say he can shoot a bow like an Indian, or the rifle like Hawkeye. So please, Madame Snow--when do you expect him to return?”

Yes, Jim Snow is the Sin Killer, introduced in the so-titled first volume of this series. And his mission, indeed, is to wipe out sin.

Tasmin, who had grasped Jim’s arm, felt him stiffen suddenly--his face became dark with anger and he moved so quickly that no one, later, could remember the exact sequence of his actions. Suddenly the pole was in his hands--a pole that they had sharpened to make a goad for their slow and sleepy ox. The pole was Signor Claricia’s. He used it to jab the ox, when the ox seemed about to stop altogether. He had been holding the pole nervously when Obregon approached. But suddenly the Sin Killer had it; Obregon could do no more than open his mouth in shock when Jim hit him in the face with the pole so hard that he was knocked completely off his mule. The pole broke. Jim threw it aside, caught Obregon by his feet, and dragged him to the gully, across from where the renegades waited. Blood poured from the unconscious man’s broken mouth. None of the renegades moved a muscle. Jim pushed Obregon over the edge--he tumbled a few times and lay flat on his back, at the bottom of the gully.

“It’s a bad sin, selling people!” Jim yelled. “Tell him that when he wakes up.”

As I’ve written before, Jim Snow is a kind of wild man’s Natty Bumpoo, a Pathfinder, not just through the wilds of the American West, but through the unforeseen currents and eddies of human morality.

Except Jim has abandoned Tasmin in By Sorrow’s River, gone off to scout a better way forward for their party in hostile Indian territory. And in Jim’s absence, Tasmin relies more and more heavily on another metaphorical frontiersman, Pomp Charboneau.

“Ma said I was born by sorrow’s river,” he said. “I seem to carry a weight. It keeps me from being quite like other men.”

Pomp’s “Ma” is Sacagawea, the historical Indian woman who had accompanied Lewis and Clark on their famous journey, and Pomp is the baby she had carried on her back for most of that journey, grown now to young adulthood in McMurtry’s fiction. In Jim’s absence, he becomes Tasmin’s lover, a relationship that culminates at Tasmin’s prompting, not his. And to Tasmin, Pomp is a vexing lover indeed.

She told herself she had better not rush him. Once he learned more about passion he would surely be more active. She must be patient with him, a hard resolve, because she was by nature impatient. Now that she had had a little of what she wanted, she saw no reason not to have more--yet she knew it might be best to accept his shyness, for a time. She tried to brush away the shadow that dappled her happiness. What if Geoff was right? What if Pomp valued calm more than passion? What if in his depths he just wasn’t sensual? His body had responded to her, but even then, his soul he seemed to keep for himself. He was a man without strategies. Even Jim Snow, no very refined seducer, had more guile and much more temperament. She continued to hold Pomp and kiss him, but she couldn’t quite get his sad words out of her mind. He had been born by sorrow’s river--he seemed to carry a weight other men needn’t carry. What could these words mean? She hated all such reflections.

Yes, Tasmin hates all such reflections, but McMurtry doesn’t, for he has clearly set Pomp up as a kind of anti-Jim Snow, an anti-Sin Killer, a man of quiet and melancholy reflection, not spirited and moralistic action.

And it is in Tasmin’s vacillation between her love for these two opposite men that McMurtry is able to spin his fiction, telling us something about America in the process, especially the American West of the time period he is describing.

Tasmin, shaken by a homesickness the more powerful for being, in immediate terms, hopeless, just kept walking, heedless, into the empty prairies that lay between her and all that she desired: English order, English privilege, English intelligence, English lanes, even English clouds. The great prairie sky that had thrilled her so the first time she beheld it, on that first ecstatic moment of the banks of the Missouri, now seemed a brutal thing, a sky under which the worst barbarities were enacted--indeed, might yet be enacted on herself, her siblings, and her child unless they were lucky. She wanted to be again in a place where men saw themselves as lovers of women, rather than killers or trappers.

It is, to Tasmin, and to us, a foreign place with brutalities unimaginable. It is not to be survived, but to weather it McMurtry is telling us one must either be a Jim Snow or a Pomp Charbonneau, a man of action or a man of reserved indifference.

Occasionally, at night, Pomp found that he wished his old tutor, Herr Hanfstaengl, were with him so they could examine the interesting questions that arose in the course of the day: for example, that he, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, had readily caressed a bear but had declined, on more than one occasion, to caress Tasmin Berrybender, a woman he both cared for and admired. They had made love once, he and Tasmin--she had easily drawn his seed into her body, their pleasure very sharp. Most men would have hastened to repeat this pleasure--repeat it as often as possible; and yet Pomp hadn’t. In fact he had done what he could, short of insult, to avoid further embraces with Tasmin. Herr Hanfstaengl, possessed of a stout wife and eleven children, would surely have been curious to know what he had declined to pursue this love affair. Was it because Tasmin was the wife of his friend? Was it from morality that he abstained? Or was it merely that his temperament was to stand apart?

Pomp contemplates the proper course of action: to grapple with the moral conundrums of his world, or stand apart from them? And in doing so, he evokes another famous contemplator of the same subject. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and, by opposing, end them. This is the fundamental question of By Sorrow’s River, philosophy dressed up in the idiom of the bawdy and brutish American West.

And, of course, let’s not forget that famous opening line of Hamlet’s soliloquy. To be or not to be.

Captain Reyes advanced toward Pomp until he stood at point-blank range. Only then did he raise his musket. For a moment he allowed his gaze to meet that of the young man he was about to kill. The young man’s eyes were unfrightened, undisturbed. Once he looked into his intended victim’s eye, the captain, to his great surprise, could not turn away, for in the young man’s eyes he seemed to see understanding--even sympathy--neither of which Captain Reyes had ever been offered in his life. It was as if the condemned man, the favorite, saw it all: the early glory, then the bitter failure on the plains, the stalled career, the dull cadets, the dust. He saw it all; he understood.

Captain Reyes is an (unfortunately) underdeveloped character, a Spanish soldier that holds a grudge against William Clark for evading him with his Corps of Discovery, who enters late in the narrative with a vendetta against Pomp Charbonneau.

Then, while Captain Reyes was considering the possibility that he had misjudged this quiet, sympathetic young man, a gun went off. Pomp Charbonneau fell, as Lieutenant Molino had fallen. The understanding eyes went blank. Captain Reyes turned, to see what fool had fired, and realized, to his shock, that the drifting smoke came from his own musket. He had fired.

Several other characters have been killed, and now Reyes kills Pomp--the weight carried by Pomp through life giving him the ability to recognize those weights in others but, ultimately, not the ability to prevent his own demise. Immediately thereafter Reyes kills himself, overcome with the grief and futility of his existence. And as the bodies pile up, McMurtry can’t resist giving the reader one final clue as to what he’s been toying with in this narrative.

“Why it’s like the bard,” Lord Berrybender said, looking around him. “Dead men everywhere you look. Exeunt omnes, or pretty nearly.”

Exeunt omnes, indeed. The novel ends a page later, and we’ll have to wait for Book 4 to see how Jim Snow reacts to all this carnage. Unlike Pomp, as we are sure to be reminded in that final page, Jim is a fighter, someone who would have “scattered these poor shivering Spanish boys” of Captain Reyes’s “like quail.”

The fact that McMurtry decided to title the next volume “Folly and Glory,” however, tells me that the Sin Killer’s chosen method for grappling with the world may not come off in the end any better than Pomp’s. If Pomp is Hamlet, one must wonder, will McMurtry paint the Sin Killer as the manipulated Othello?

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, October 10, 2016

Fixing the Leaky Pipeline

Last week, I wrote a post titled Education Is Not Enough, in which I argued that associations interested in developing a better educated workforce for the industries or professions they represent have to do more than just create new education programs. If they really want to close the gap in qualified employees that is facing their members, they have to also create new connection programs--programs designed to bring their members into contact with the students being educated in the association's education programs. I concluded with post with:

There's no guarantee that the people you educate are going to find their way into your industry. If your experience is anything like ours, the pipeline you think you're building will prove leakier than you expect.

I wanted to expand on that concept this week, and describe three key reasons why I think these connection programs are essential.

1. We don't control the flow. My association enjoys some long-standing partnerships with the academic institutions that educate our industry's future workforce. One of those partnerships recently resulted in a comprehensive study of how our industry's employees (primarily engineers) found their way into their positions. We wanted to understand the typical pathways and inflection points that steered successful people into our industry rather than someplace else. The conclusions surprised us. Time and again, at multiple points along a successful person's educational pathway, it was an educator--not an interaction with a company or someone in our industry--that helped bend that person's trajectory towards our industry. Academic faculty--in high school, in community colleges, and in universities--exert tremendous influence over an engineer's future career path, and they are the people in a position to direct the flow of future employees through what we might otherwise choose to think of as our employment pipeline.

2. Company employees are busier than ever. My association has developed several successful education programs that are preparing and providing better educated employees for our industry. And some of our member companies are there on the leading edge of these programs, ready and willing to scoop up the best of these candidates as soon as they matriculate. But most of our member companies are not. The vast majority of them are not even aware that these education programs are in place. The demands of our marketplace keep them focused almost entirely on running their operations and keeping their companies meagerly profitable. The news that a school three states over is graduating well-trained engineers that are looking for jobs in our industry is received not with excitement but with trepidation, because the time and resources needed to develop and maintain a relationship with that distant institution and its on-going series of graduating classes are more than they feel they can spare. It sometimes feels that if we're not able to deliver qualified candidates to their office for regular Monday morning interviews, the swift running river of their business will keep them forever separate from the people they need to keep that business growing.

3. They validate that the education programs are actually working. But getting the companies engaged, no matter how many time and resource barriers stand in the way, is necessary, because it not only delivers the help these companies need, it validates in a way nothing else can that the education programs themselves are actually meeting their needs. Lots and lots of current degree and training programs produce professionals who are not educated in anything that the industry that is looking to hire them needs. Only by getting industry into a position where they can evaluate the quality of the candidates being produced by your education programs, and then giving them a mechanism to actually change the your program's content, will you find yourself on a pathway towards success. In my experience, it usually takes several iterations to get something like this right. Just pouring money into curriculum development doesn't actually solve your problem.

So there it is. Three reasons why the workforce pipeline you're building may be leakier than you think. Your association doesn't control the flow of students, your member companies are too busy to engage, and building education programs without industry feedback won't produce education your industry needs. Figure out a way to patch those holes and you might actually have a chance to succeed.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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Monday, October 3, 2016

Education Is Not Enough

I just finished reading the latest white paper from Elizabeth Weaver Engel of Spark Consulting, this one written with Shelly Alcorn of Alcorn Associates Management Consulting, entitled "The Association Role in the New Education Paradigm." If you'd like a copy, you can download it here.

Dealing with the fundamental thesis of the white paper--that there is a crisis brewing in the global education-to-employment system, and that associations are uniquely positioned to provide useful solutions--is a massive undertaking. And indeed, fully half of the document is dedicated to laying out the case for action--from increasing student debt levels to increasing misalignment between what is being taught in post secondary education and what skill sets are sought by employers.

I'm not going to dispute any of the cited facts or figures. Indeed, I hear a lot of supporting comments from my own members, who are just as frustrated with the quality of community college and university graduates in their industry as those quoted and described in the white paper. What I find much more interesting is the white paper's prescriptions for what associations should do about it.

Fix it.

With an educational system that is being disrupted, college students graduating with degrees that fail to provide them practical job skills, and more adult and nontraditional learners than ever, associations stand at a crossroads. There are enormous needs we can meet: creating high-quality, competency based education; fostering social learning; and providing clear pathways to employment for students, the long-term employed, returning veterans, or those individuals who are about to see their jobs significantly affected by the rise of automation and artificial intelligence. It's a big opportunity--and a big challenge. In what follows, we offer some practical advice about how to start meeting it.

In other words, it's time for associations to step-up and solve these problems. What follows this paragraph in the white paper is indeed some practical advice, including:

  • Conduct ongoing in-depth workforce analysis;
  • Clearly define actual competencies needed, including soft skills;
  • Clearly define career pathways;
  • Consider alternative delivery methods and new technologies;
  • Professionalize content development and delivery;
  • Provide quality certification programs; and
  • Create effective alliances.

It's a good list. My association has been working on the "workforce issue" for about twenty years now (nine under my leadership), and in that time, we have taken all of these steps either directly or in partnership with other organizations. But in my experience, the list remains incomplete because it deals only with the first half of the "education-to-employment system."

I've recently adopted some new terminology in my association when talking about this problem. Yes, I generally say, we must support and deliver "education programs"--courses, curriculum and certifications meant to educate more people in the competencies and soft skills required by our industry. But we can't stop there. We must also support and deliver "connection programs"--websites, career fairs and conferences that are designed to bring hiring managers from our member companies in contact with the people being impacted by our education programs.

The white paper is a good read, with real practical advice. But don't focus solely on education programs when trying to address the challenges it effectively describes. There's no guarantee that the people you educate are going to find their way into your industry. If your experience is anything like ours, the pipeline you think you're building will prove leakier than you expect.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene caused a wave of excitement among biologists and the general public when it was first published in 1976. Its vivid rendering of the gene’s eye view of life, in lucid prose, gathered together the strands of thought about the nature of natural selection into a conceptual framework with far-reaching implications for our understanding of evolution. Time has confirmed its significance. Intellectually rigorous, yet written in non-technical language, The Selfish Gene is widely regarded as a masterpiece of science writing, and its insights remain as relevant today as on the day it was published.

That’s the blurb on the back cover of my copy of The Selfish Gene, a 30th anniversary edition, with a new introduction and expanded endnotes by the author.

I wish I could say I enjoyed it as much as whoever wrote that did.

My frustration with the text comes from two main sources.

First, the very metaphor Dawkins has chosen to communicate his conceptual framework--that of an anthropomorphic, “selfish” gene, working willfully to perpetuate itself in subsequent generations of the organisms that it inhabits--does, for me, exactly the opposite of what Dawkins evidently wants it to. He expects the metaphor to make natural selection easier to understand. For me, however, it obscures the essential truth of natural selection under an unnecessary and inexact metaphor.

Second, both Richard Dawkinses--the one who wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, and especially the one who wrote the new introduction and expanded endnotes in 2006, comes across as, to put it bluntly, an arrogant jerk.

The endnotes, especially, read very much like a petulant tirade against Dawkins’s many critics. And in that tirade, it seems, the esteemed professor isn’t above taking his share of pot shots.

One critic complained that my argument was ‘philosophical’, as though that was sufficient condemnation. Philosophical or not, the fact is that neither he nor anybody else has found any flaw in what I said. And ‘in principle’ arguments such as mine, far from being irrelevant to the real world, can be more powerful than arguments based on particular factual research. My reasoning, if it is correct, tells us something important about life everywhere in the universe. Laboratory and field research can tell us only about life as we have sampled it here.

That, from my perspective, is Dawkins’s erudite way of saying that he doesn’t expect other scientists to understand the power of his intellect, myopically focused, as they inevitably are, on the simple facts of their laboratory and field research. It was a bit of a surprise to encounter these comments, as I typically enjoy reading endnotes to get a kind of etymology and color commentary on the concepts and quotations expressed in a book, not to be reminded over and over again that the author thinks he’s smarter than everybody else.

And, to further prove his point, Dawkins includes after the endnotes a handful of extracts from reviews of his work--each more fawning than the one before.

The author’s modest assessment of his own ideas tends to disarm criticism, and here and there the reader finds himself flattered by the suggestion that he should work out a better model if he doesn’t like the one given.

It makes me wonder if I even read the same book that these reviewers did. Dawkins, in my view, wasn’t flattering me by assuming I could come up with a better idea than he had, he was smugly and passive-aggressively asserting that he knew that I couldn’t.

But let me get back to my first frustration, because it is by far my bigger problem with the text. Based on the extended defense of the metaphor Dawkins offers in his new introduction, I have to assume I’m not the only person who was frustrated with the device.

The Selfish Gene has been criticized for anthropomorphic personification and this too needs an explanation, if not an apology. I employ two levels of personification: of genes, and of organisms. Personification of genes really ought not to be a problem, because no sane person thinks DNA molecules have conscious personalities, and no sensible reader would impute such a delusion to an author.

More passive-aggressive chicanery. “No sane person” and “no sensible reader” are nice ways to call one’s critics insane and insensible. But I don’t object to his personification of genes because I think he’s saying genes actually do have personalities. Dawkins goes to great lengths here and elsewhere to disarm his readers of that interpretation.

I once had the honour of hearing the great molecular biologist Jacques Monod talking about creativity in science. I have forgotten his exact words, but he said approximately that, when trying to think through a chemical problem, he would ask himself what he would do if he were an electron. Peter Atkins, in his wonderful book Creation Revisited, uses a similar personification when considering the refraction of a light beam, passing into a medium of higher refractive index which slows it down.

And a paragraph or so down…

Personification of this kind is not just a quaint didactic device. It can also help a professional scientist to get the right answer, in the face of tricky temptations to error. Such is the case with Darwinian calculations of altruism and selfishness, cooperation and spite. It is very easy to get the wrong answer. Personifying genes, if done with due care and caution, often turns out to be the shortest route to rescuing a Darwinian theorist drowning in muddle. While trying to exercise that caution, I was encouraged by the masterful precedent of W. D. Hamilton, one of four named heroes of the book. In a paper of 1972 (the year in which I began to write The Selfish Gene) Hamilton wrote:

“A gene is being favoured in natural selection if the aggregate of its replica forms an increasing fraction of the total gene pool. We are going to be concerned with genes supposed to affect the social behaviour of their bearers, so let us try to make the argument more vivid by attributing to the genes, temporarily, intelligence and a certain freedom of choice. Imagine that a gene is considering the problem of increasing the number of its replicas, and imagine that it can choose between…”

That is exactly the right spirit in which to read much of The Selfish Gene.

That’s all fine. But what I object to is that the personification doesn’t help me get to the right answer. Actually, it gets in the way of my understanding how genes actually work.

The key concept, to my way of thinking, is not the gene, but selection.

Within each species some individuals leave more surviving offspring than others, so that the inheritable traits (genes) of the reproductively successful become more numerous in the next generation. This is natural selection: the non-random differential reproduction of genes. Natural selection has built us, and it is natural selection we must understand if we are to comprehend our own identities.

That’s from the foreword to the original edition of this book, and I agree with it wholeheartedly. The focus should be on the process of selection, and the thing being selected. Personifying genes puts the emphasis in the wrong place, because it isn’t the gene that’s naturally selected, it’s the gene’s expressed biological structure or behavior. Dawkins, and other evolutionary biologists, call that the gene’s phenotype, and Dawkins himself will go on to write a book even more groundbreaking than The Selfish Gene about the importance of the phenotype in natural selection. In The Extended Phenotype he will argue, correctly, I think, that it’s not just the biological structures and behaviors of the organism that get selected, but also the effects those structures and behaviors have on the external environment. These “extended” phenotypes, the beaver’s dam perhaps serving as the most famous example, are just as important to determining which genes occupy the gene pool as the things the genes are more directly responsible for.

Understanding the role of the phenotype, extended or otherwise, in natural selection, is absolutely key to understanding evolution, and personifying the gene, I think, obscures that fact.

Dawkins, of course, knows the importance of the phenotype.

Once upon a time, natural selection consisted of the differential survival of replicators floating free in the primeval soup. Now, natural selection favors replicators that are good at building survival machines, genes that are skilled in the art of controlling embryonic development.

This is absolutely essential. Selection at the organism level (what Dawkins here calls a “survival machine”), drives survival at the gene level. That means that genes that express things that aren’t selected for, or which are selected against, don’t survive. And it also means that genes that don’t express anything, or express things that cannot be selected, survive or perish for entirely different reasons. It has nothing to do with the “selfishness” of the gene.

But even knowing this, Dawkins allows his language to get sloppy.

We saw that some people regard the species as the unit of natural selection, others the population or group within the species, and yet others the individual. I said that I preferred to think of the gene as the fundamental unit of natural selection, and therefore the fundamental unit of self-interest.

And there he goes, ready to jump off into his gene personification strategy, apparently blind to the obfuscation of what’s really going on that results. It all gets quickly complicated, but throughout his many examples and applications of the metaphor, I can’t shake the feeling that Dawkins has devolved into “just-so” story territory with some of his conclusions.

Other evolutionary biologists I’ve read tend to think that everything is driven by gene expression and natural selection. Not just biological structures, but behaviors as well. Interestingly, Dawkins seems determined to carve out a special territory in animal behavior that genes do not affect. But it is here that his personification of genes really seemed to break down for me.

He talks, reasonably, about how difficult it would be for genes to predict and prepare the animal they live in for all the dangers it will face in its life.

When an embryo survival machine is being built, the dangers and problems of its life lie in the future. Who can say what carnivores crouch waiting for it behind what bushes, or what fleet-footed prey will dart and zig-zag across its path? No human prophet, nor any gene. But some general predictions can be made. Polar bear genes can safely predict that the future of their unborn survival machine is going to be a cold one. They do not think of it as a prophecy, they do not think at all: they just build in a thick coat of hair, because that is what they have always done before in previous bodies, and that is why they still exist in the gene pool.

See how excellently Dawkins destroys his own personification metaphor with this last explanatory sentence? It practically made me call out: “If they don’t do any thinking, then why are you bothering to tell me that they do? What’s wrong with the explanation in your last sentence?” Polar bear genes code for thick coats of hair because evolution has selected polar bears with thick coats of hair as better adapted to their environment, and they have therefore produced more offspring than ancient polar bears without thick coats of hair. Dawkins makes the exact same point as the paragraph continues, but nestled comfortably back inside his metaphor.

They also predict that the ground is going to be snowy, and their prediction takes the form of making the coat of hair white and therefore camouflaged. If the climate of the Arctic changed so rapidly that the baby bear found itself born into a tropical desert, the predictions of the genes would be wrong, and they would pay the penalty. The young bear would die, and they inside it.

No, the genes aren’t making any predictions, right or wrong. Thick coats of hair would not have a selective advantage in a tropical climate, so animals with those genes would no longer reproduce more frequently than others, and the presence of those genes in the gene pool would be reduced. Is that really so hard to understand?

But let me allow Dawkins to build to his bigger idea--that genes actually don’t control all animal behavior. His claim is that in order to best ensure their survival, genes can only provide their “survival machines” with a simple set of instructions, what Dawkins calls a “program,” that will work more often than not.

One way for genes to solve the problem of making predictions in rather unpredictable environments is to build in a capacity for learning. Here the program may take the form of the following instructions to the survival machine: ‘Here is a list of things defined as rewarding: sweet taste in the mouth, orgasm, mild temperature, smiling child. And here is a list of nasty things: various sorts of pain, nausea, empty stomach, screaming child. If you should happen to do something that is followed by one of the nasty things, don’t do it again, but on the other hand repeat anything that is followed by one of the nice things.’

Other than the amusing idea that Dawkins has actually written the program for the human mind here, it again strikes me as needlessly complicated and overwrought. There is no program, so why describe it as such? Genes that code for pleasurable sensations from certain stimuli (if such genes truly exist) are endemic to certain species because their phenotypes (a desire for sweet tasting things) were selected as advantageous to survival and reproduction. Searching for sweet tasting food resulted finding more nutritious food, which resulted in stronger “survival machines.”

But okay, if it’s easier for you to think that the genes are consciously programming their hosts to manipulate their environment in certain ways, then go ahead and think that way. That metaphor is, essentially, why Dawkins wrote this book. The book is more about a way of understanding evolution than it is about understanding evolution itself.

Here’s Dawkins’s final conclusion associated with this line of thinking.

I am trying to build up the idea that animal behaviour, altruistic or selfish, is under the control of genes in only an indirect, but still very powerful, sense. By dictating the way survival machines and their nervous systems are built, genes exert ultimate power over behaviour. But the moment-to-moment decisions about what to do next are taken by the nervous system. Genes are the primary policy-makers; brains are the executives. But as brains become more highly developed, they took over more and more of the actual policy decisions, using tricks like learning and simulation in doing so. The logical conclusion to this trend, not yet reached in any species, would be for the genes to give the survival machine a single overall policy instruction: do whatever you think best to keep us alive.

So, in this world, where genes provide high-level instructions, and brains make day-to-day decisions, does that mean some behaviors aren’t caused by genes? I can’t tell because Dawkins seems to take both sides of the argument in the excerpt above--genes exert both indirect influence and ultimate power over behavior. And if there are behaviors that are not caused by genes, can those behaviors still be naturally selected? Whatever their source, gene expression or brain decision-making, will certain behaviors best adapted to their environment come to dominate a population through an evolutionary process? And if so, if “brain” behaviors are naturally selected, does that close the door on the little piece of free will that might otherwise be poking through Dawkins’s theory? Despite not being caused by our selfish genes, our behaviors have still been selected for us by Darwinian evolution, leaving us incapable of even contemplating non-selected course of actions.

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And Dawkins certainly doesn’t provide them for me. In fact, he barely even acknowledges that these questions exist. Much of The Selfish Gene was like that for me--the application of the “selfish” metaphor placing far more questions in my mind than answers.

But hold on. Before I try to dissect even more confusing examples, perhaps it’s best simply to end on two surprising confessions I came across in the text.

Is there any experimental evidence for the genetic inheritance of altruistic behaviour? No, but that is hardly surprising, since little work has been done on the genetics of any behaviour.


This story illustrates a number of important points which came up in the previous chapter. It shows that it can be perfectly proper to speak of a ‘gene for behaviour so-and-so’ even if we haven’t the faintest idea of the chemical chain of embryonic causes leading from gene to behaviour.

Wait...what? You wrote a whole book about selfish genes, dedicating more than half of it to how those selfish genes drive certain behaviors (altruism being the current behavior-du-jour, evidently, among evolutionary biologists), and not only is there no evidence that genes do that, but you also don’t have the faintest idea how they might do that?

I forget which scientist said that if you don’t know how something works, then you don’t really know that it does work. I’d like to think that that scientist was Richard Dawkins, who has probably at least thought of using that argument in his battles with Creationists.

I give up.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Monday, September 26, 2016

How Many Eggs in Your Basket?

I used this metaphor the other day when talking about all the things our association does. If our mission is the basket, I said, and the strategic objectives that we pursue in order to achieve that mission are the eggs, then we have six eggs in our basket.

Described that way, that doesn't sound like a lot. But, in fact, it is, especially when one considers how easy it can be to confuse eggs with baskets.

What do I mean by that? Let me try to explain it this way. How many people in your organization--staff and volunteers alike--really see the basket? If your organization is like mine, the answer will be far fewer than the number of staff and volunteers who see only one or more of the eggs.

A lot of people in your organization spend all their time in one area of strategic engagement. Staff or volunteer, their focus is in one area. This dynamic is even more prevalent outside your organization. Unlike your internal staff and volunteers who are probably aware of other eggs in your basket, external partners and stakeholders almost always view your organization entirely through the prism of their engagement point. From their perspective, their egg is your basket.

And that's where the trouble comes in.

Every organization has to make choices. Choices about how many strategic priorities to have, but more importantly for this discussion, choices about how many resources to allocate to each priority. Some organizations put all of their resources behind one priority, but those organizations are typically not associations. Associations, by and large, tend towards the other extreme. They have many priorities and fewer resources to assign to each.

Maybe you see where I'm going with this. What happens when a person (internal or external to the organization), whose focus is entirely on one of the eggs, comes to believe that the organization is not dedicating enough resources to their favored priority? If given the chance, what kind of decision might that person make about the number of competing priorities and the resources dedicated to each?

Here's the reality. Your organization should be a basket, not just a random collection of eggs. And decisions about the amount of resources to dedicate to each egg have to be made by people who not only see the basket, but understand the inevitable interdependence of the eggs it contains.

Decisions at that level are a lot harder, but they are more likely to help you actually fulfill your mission.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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