Monday, February 27, 2012

Pockets of Chaos

image source
I'm still working my way through Humanize by Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant and am still enjoying it. I just finished the chapter on "How to Be Open," in which the authors talk about the need for more human organizations to be decentralized, and was really struck by the following thoughts on how to bring about cultural change in favor of decentralization (emphasis is mine):

The concept here is about creating containers. By offering 20% time, Google gives its employees a limited container within which they have leeway, flexibility, and freedom. This is the hallmark of a decentralized culture. You are not completely inverting your organizational pyramid structure. You are simply figuring out how to give the maximum freedom to specific pockets within the system, while still being able to maintain the integrity of the enterprise. Centralized cultures, on the other hand, put in controls to prevent the chaos they assume would ensue were the controls not in place. They limit who can decide, and they demand records of time spent that map back to job descriptions and task lists (typically with a punishment for noncompliance). Decentralized cultures place limits, too, but they do it at the lowest level possible. They look for ways to create pockets of chaos because they know that's where the power of a decentralized system is unleashed. But they have to be real pockets of chaos. You actually have to let people make the decisions in those contained realms and then be clear about what happens after. Let people spend time on projects they deem important (some of the time). Increase the budget that department has to bring in outside consultants or buy equipment. The challenge is in making the pockets of chaos as big as possible, while still having controls on what emerges out of the chaos. Implementing new practices like these helps create a more decentralized culture.

This "pockets of chaos" idea is absolutely crucial, and I think the Humanize authors do a tremendous service in illustrating it and its potential advantages. Too often, when talking to leaders in heavily centralized organizations, you'll get a lot of push-back on the idea of decentralization. You'll get attacked for advocating for a complete absence of control, for allowing every person throughout the organization to have complete and total autonomy. You'll be dismissed as a crackpot (or worse, as unserious), more focused on individual freedom than on organizational objectives.

In my experience, these arguments are attacking a strawman. They're attacking the idea of anarchy, not of decentralization. Decentralization, at its essence, is a system that diffuses responsibility for experimentation and action throughout the system, rather than keeping those functions tightly constrained within an elite group. To be successful from an organizational perspective, everyone in the system has to understand and support the mission, know what tactics are off-limits, and have control over the resources necessary to try new things.

When leaders argue against decentralization, I think they are more often pushing back against one or all of these requirements. They don't want to communicate the mission because they frankly don't act in support of the mission themselves. It's a similar situation with defining which tactics are off-limits. They have no problem defining what others cannot do, but they don't want their own actions to be placed under similar constraints. They act according to a different set of priorities that derive from their power base rather than from the objectives to which their power is intended to be applied. And with regard to giving others control over resources--they simply don't trust others to use them wisely.

I try not to be too hard on these leaders. I understand where they're coming from. Communicating clearly, living your mission, defining limits, trusting others to make good decisions--these are all hard things to do, even when your motivation is organizational effectiveness. The leader typically has direct accountability for organizational performance, and that makes us hold these things closer to our vests than we probably should.

"Pockets of chaos," however, is a concept that can help us frame the necessary conversations with the people we lead and begin moving in the decentralized direction. Forget about the whole organization if that's too much to bite off. Start with a single project. Something non-threatening to your power base. Sit down with the project leader and hammer out the three essential pieces: (1) What's the objective by which success will be measured? (2) What tactics are off-limits? (3) What resources do they have at their disposal? Then, step out of the way and see what happens.

That kind of chaos can be a very positive thing.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Rise of the American Nation by Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti

Believe it or not, this is my high school American history textbook, which has been carted around in boxes or sitting on forgotten shelves since the mid-1980s. Whatever possessed me to read it now? Well, I was looking for a broad, succinct and authoritative history of the United States, and this more or less fit the bill.

And you know what? I really enjoyed reading it. I learned much more than I thought I would. Primarily, it seems, I learned how little I actually know about particular events and time periods in American history. What follows is a sampling of the things that seemed to leap off the page at me, demanding that I take notice of them and adjust my perception of the American nation appropriately. Maybe they are well known by everyone else and I was just sleeping in history class on the days they were taught. If so, I ask your forgiveness for my naiveté.

But before I start the list, let me make two general observations.

First, this experience has made clear to me how one’s view of history is tainted by their perceptions and political preferences of today. It’s a little like how the future is always imagined in the context of the present. Just as it is difficult to imagine a future fundamentally foreign from the world we live in, it’s hard to look at the past without filtering it through our modern sensibilities and political framework. And my sensibilities and political framework has changed quite a bit since I was in high school. If I had read this book this closely then, I’m sure an entirely different list of things would have jumped out at me. Reading this book has not only taught me a lot about American history, it has also helped me see how much I have changed in the last twenty-five years.

And second, I couldn’t help but notice how good the book was at sticking to an honest description of the facts, and keeping from its pages any sense of slanted political commentary. Today’s textbooks (which I clearly haven’t read) are derided by some as being full of political correctness and revisionist history, but if this book is any indication, I’d have to say those accusations are pretty overblown. The authors sometimes describe what motivated opposing political sides on particular issues, but only to help the student understand why certain actions were taken at certain times. I think they did an excellent job staying above the fray and describing history as accurately as it could be in such a format for such an audience.

Okay? Here goes.

1. European nations clearly thought the New World was theirs for the taking.

From the 1300s to the 1700s, the story of America has its beginnings in the European explorers who came looking for trade routes to the Far East and, after it was discovered that there were a couple of continents in the way, valuables and extensions of their colonial empires. The view among European nations that this “new world” was theirs for the taking is well demonstrated in this choice excerpt:

Spain and Portugal, both leaders in the new age of exploration and discovery, did not hesitate to claim all of the Americas. In 1494 they signed a treaty establishing a Line of Demarcation about 1,100 miles west of the Cape Verde Islands. According to the treaty, all new lands explored west of this line were to belong to Spain. All new lands explored to the east were to belong to Portugal.

Looking at a map, it’s clear that Spain got the greater part of this bargain, but it amazes me to think that the rulers of Spain and Portugal thought they had the right to even enter into such an agreement. But they were no different than any of the other European powers at the time (and America of a few centuries later—see #9 below). King James I of England granted charters for people and companies to set up shop in the New World, supposedly under his protection and by his decree.

2. People fled to pre-colonial America to escape religious persecution in Europe.

During the 1500s and 1600s, Europe was torn by religious strife that broke out shortly after Columbus’s voyages. At that time nearly everyone in Western Europe belonged to the Roman Catholic Church. The conflict began when some people began to question certain Church practices and beliefs. Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in Switzerland were two such people.

These religious leaders and people who shared their feelings broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and established Protestant, or “protesting,” religious organizations. Roman Catholics called this movement the Protestant Revolt. Protestants called the same movement the Reformation. By whatever name, this religious conflict was not just a battle of words and ideas. Armies marched, wars were fought, and thousands of people died in battle or were burned at the stake in the name of religion.

We all know this. It falls almost automatically of our tongue.  But before reading this textbook, I never consciously connected the Protestant Reformation and the violence that erupted following it as an integral part of the exodus story from Europe to America.

3. Those seeking freedom to practice their religion curtailed that freedom for others when given the reins of power.

Plymouth was for Separatists. Massachusetts Bay Colony was for Puritans who had not at first completely rejected the Anglican Church. Colonists who refused to accept the official religious beliefs were often thrown in jail or driven from the colony. Once exiled, they might be put to death if they returned. Such was the fate of Mary Dyer, a Quaker, who was hanged in Boston in 1660 when she returned to protest the persecution of Quakers.

At first it was only Rhode Island, founded by Roger Williams, that took a different path.

In Rhode Island there was no established church. Church and state—that is, the government—were separate.
No one could be taxed for the support of the church. No one could be forced to attend church. No one had to belong to a church in order to vote. People could worship as they pleased and speak their minds freely.

Maryland and Pennsylvania had similar practices, but both required a professed belief in “Jesus Christ,” in the case of Maryland, and in the “One Almighty God,” in Pennsylvania. Had it not been for the experiment in Rhode Island, one has to wonder if such a concept would have become part of the growing American tradition.

4. The first public schools in the English-speaking world were in Massachusetts.

They were started, evidently, to insure the ability among the populace to read the English Bible. The law, passed in 1647, mandated that every town with more than 50 households would hire a teacher of reading and writing with town funds, and those with 100 households or more had to provide an actual school to prepare young men for college. Everyone, rich and poor alike, were to benefit from these expenditures.

This law was the first of its kind in the English-speaking world. It was not popular everywhere in Massachusetts. Towns sometimes neglected to provide the education ordered by the law. Nevertheless, the law was a landmark in the history of education. It expressed a new and daring idea—that education of all the people was a public responsibility.

5. Even Thomas Jefferson acted unconstitutionally when he thought a higher purpose was being served.

The particular instance that brought this illumination was the Embargo Act of 1807. In it, in order to reduce the number of Americans being impressed on the high seas into the English Navy, President Jefferson urged for and Congress passed a law forbidding Americans from trading with any foreign nation. Not just England. Any foreign nation. It also forbade American vessels to leave for foreign ports. After twenty years of arguing against acts of previous administrations and Congresses on the grounds that they were unconstitutional, the Father of Liberty brings about the most oppressive attack on personal freedom since the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. It is episodes like this that lend credence to the view that American history is one long tale of ever-increasing encroachments on the personal liberty first guaranteed under the Constitution (see #6, below).

And please. I can’t help but ask. What is an “American vessel?” A ship owned by the United States? Or a ship owned by a citizen of the United States? Of course it is the latter, but the very phraseology, albeit a common convenience, lends itself directly towards the kinds of usurpations of liberty envisioned in the Embargo Act itself. Today, no one stands a chance of successfully arguing that the United States government doesn’t have the right to restrict the freedom of movement of its citizens, but back in the early days of the nation, before major precedents had been set, it may have been a worthwhile discussion to have. Is my car an “American car?” How about the computer I’m typing on. Is it an “American computer?” What rights should the government have over the possessions of its citizens?

6. It doesn’t matter which political party is in charge. The power of the Federal government always increases.

In 1816, even before President Monroe was elected for the first time, the Republicans took steps to strengthen the growing nation. In so doing, they increased the powers of the federal government at the expense of states’ rights. To justify their actions, they used a loose interpretation of the Constitution, like the one favored earlier by Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists. This was one reason that the Federalist Party disappeared. By 1816 the Republicans were doing many things the Federalists had favored doing for years.

This one was absolutely stunning to me. I know about Federalists like Alexander Hamilton, people who wanted a strong federal government and fought passionately for powers that were eventually NOT explicitly given to the federal government in the new Constitution. And I know about Republicans like Thomas Jefferson, people who would always see the United States as a plural noun, as a collection of free and independent states, and the Constitution as the document where those states explicitly gave only a limited number of enumerated powers to a federal government of their own creation. But I guess I never fully realized how little that dispute at the founding of our country actually mattered in the long run.

7. History has an almost creepy tendency to repeat itself.

Read this and tell me what period of history it is talking about.

By [year] all sections of the United States were enjoying prosperity. Conditions were so prosperous, in fact, that various groups had begun to indulge in overspecualtion. This was excessive, risky investment in land, stock, or commodities in the hope of making large profits. Southerners, tempted by rising prices for cotton, bought land at inflated prices. Western settlers, tempted by rising prices for grain and meat, also scrambled to buy land. Manufacturers in the Northeast, eager to take advantage of the general prosperity, bought land and built new mills and factories.

All these groups borrowed money to finance their enterprises. Many banks encouraged the frenzy of speculation by lending money too freely on the flimsiest security.

Then came the crash. Late in [year] the directors of the Bank of the United States ordered all their branch banks not to renew any personal mortgages. The directors also ordered the branch banks to present all state bank noted to the state banks for immediate payment in gold or silver or in national bank notes. State banks could not make their payments and closed their doors. Farmers and manufacturers could not renew their mortgages, and many lost their property.

By mid-[year], because of numerous foreclosures, the Bank of the United States had acquired huge areas of land in the South and Middle West and many businesses in the East. People ruined by foreclosures blamed the bank for their troubles and called it “the Monster.”

Astute students of history will pick up on the references to the Bank of the United States and realize that we’re talking about The Panic of 1819. But replace the “Bank of the United States” with the “Federal Reserve System” and investments in “land, stock, or commodities” with “mortgage-backed securities” and you have the story of the Great Recession of 2008. Spooky.

Wait. Here’s another.

The roots of the depression. The depression of [year] had its roots in events that occurred largely during [name]’s administration. After his election in [year], [name] had gradually withdrawn federal funds from the Bank of the United States. He then deposited this money in “pet banks,” many in western states. With the federal money as security, the “pet banks” printed large amounts of their own bank notes.

Many “pet banks” were also “wildcat banks,” which issued bank notes far in excess of the federal funds on deposit. Because they were so plentiful and had so little real value, these bank notes were easy to borrow. People borrowed this “easy money,” often with a minimum of security, to buy land and to invest in the nation’s growing transportation system. For a time it seemed as though almost everyone was speculating with borrowed money.

Land speculators were especially active. Between [year] and [year], yearly federal income from the sale of public land rose from about [amount] to about [amount twelve times as much]. Much of this money was in the form of “wildcat” bank notes. The United States Treasury was flooded with unsound currency.

In July [year] President [name] acted to check the wave of speculation sweeping across the country by issuing the Specie Circular. This Executive Order forbade the Treasury to accept as payment for public land anything except gold and silver, known as specie, or bank notes backed by specie.

The panic of [year]. Shortly after [name] issued his order, the trouble began. The sale of public land dropped off sharply because few people had gold or silver coins to pay for the land. Persons holding bank notes began to ask the banks to exchange the bank notes for the gold or silver itself. Many banks could not redeem their own bank notes. As a result, banks began to fail. By the end of May [year], soon after President [name] took office, every bank in the United States had suspended specie payment. Before the panic ended, hundreds of banks had done out of business.

As the banks failed and sound money disappeared from circulation, business suffered. Factories closed. Construction work ended on buildings and roads. Thousands of workers lost their jobs. Hungry people rioted in the streets of New York and Philadelphia.

President [name] and other leaders of the time did not think that the government could or should do anything to try and stop the depression. [Name] declared that “the less government interferes with private pursuits, the better for the general prosperity.” Thus he could only sit back and wait for the depression to run its course.

No, this isn’t 2008, either, although it could very well be with a swap of “fractional reserve banking” for “wildcat banks.” And it’s also not 1929, although it again could very well be with a swap of “Wall Street speculation” for “land speculation.” No, the fact that banks were issuing their own notes, backed or not by their own reserves, is the clue that this is 1837 and the two presidents are Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren.

8. The Mexican War was a war of aggression started by the United States.

They don’t teach this much in high school (at least not the high school I went to), but the evidence is right there in the textbook. There was a border dispute. Some people thought the Mexicans invaded the United States and attacked American soldiers. Others (and most historians today) thought Americans invaded Mexico and were attacked by Mexican soldiers. Either way, the Mexicans struck the first blow, and that’s probably why most people, if they know anything about it at all, think the Americans were fighting for some kind of noble cause. They weren’t. They were fighting to acquire territory that they thought they were entitled to, and which most international observers understood to be part of Mexico.

9. Americans clearly thought the world was theirs for the taking. 

The phrase most often used is Manifest Destiny. Its spirit is no more brilliantly illustrated than by something called the Ostend Manifesto.

In 1848 President Polk had tried to buy Cuba for $100 million. Spain had refused to consider the offer, but some southerners continued to cast longing eyes at Cuba. Finally in 1854, the American ministers to Great Britain, France, and Spain met is Ostend, Belgium. They issued a statement now know as the “Ostend Manifesto.”

The ministers declared that, if Spain refused to sell Cuba to the United States, the United States would have the right to seize it by force. President Pierce disavowed this statement, but northern abolitionists were furious. They pointed out that southerners were ready to plunge the nation into war in order to add slave territory to the Union.

Doesn’t that make sense? If you don’t sell me your iPad, I have the right to take it from you by force. After all, it has been ordained by God that I should possess all the iPads, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. How else can they be kept safe, and how else can I ensure that nobody is using them against me and my interests?

10. The raw politics of the day shaped every era of American history.

By raw politics I mean the political maneuvering that parties do to gain and keep control of the various branches of government. Every era has them, and to try and understand why things happened without understanding the political priorities and motivations of the major players is to never fully understand what happened and why. These two paragraphs refer to the North’s plans for reconstructing the South as the Civil War began to draw to a close.

Some Republicans frankly admitted that their thinking about reconstruction was influenced by practical politics. They believed that, when the war ended, white southerners would reject the wartime Republican Party and flock to the Democratic Party. Southern Democrats returning to Congress would probably support northern Democrats, thus making the Republicans a minority party. Such a combination might endanger measures supported by many Republicans—a high tariff, national banks, free land, and federal aid to railroads.

The Republicans could keep the Democrats from gaining majority power in state as well as federal governments in two ways. First, they could give voting rights to the former slaves. These new voters would support the Republicans at the polls in gratitude for emancipation. Second, they could keep former Confederate leaders from voting or holding public office.

Political calculation—maintaining power in Congress—was a factor in reconstruction policy, just as it is a factor in every modern issue before today’s Congress. It’s easy to remember that about the present, but someone difficult to remember that about the past.

Want another example? How about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson who, whatever you think of his politics (if you even know who I’m talking about), was evidently not guilty of anything the Founders would’ve thought was an impeachable offense. But that didn’t stop his political opponents, the “Radical” Republicans who controlled Congress.

To find grounds for impeachment and to reduce the President’s power, Congress in 1867 adopted the Tenure of Office Act over Johnson’s veto. Under this law the President could not dismiss important civil officers without the Senate’s consent. Believing the law unconstitutional, Johnson decided to put it to a test. In February 1868 he demanded the resignation of Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. Stanton has consistently cooperated with Johnson’s political enemies.

The House immediately adopted a resolution that “Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, be impeached of high crimes and misdemeanors in office.” The Radicals also charged that Johnson “did attempt to bring into disgrace, ridicule, contempt, and reproach the Congress of the United States.” The Radicals cited occasions when the President publicly made “with a loud voice certain intemperate, inflammatory, and scandalous harangues” against Congress “and did therein utter loud threats and bitter menaces.”

Shocking, I know. Bitter menaces? How such a man ever got elected in the first place is a mystery.

Under the Constitution a President may be impeached on grounds of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Although the charges brought by the House against President Johnson were of doubtful legality, he was nevertheless impeached.

Johnson’s trial before the Senate, presided over by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, lasted about two months. After prolonged debate it became clear that Johnson was not guilty of any offense for which he could legally be removed from office. Nevertheless, when the Senate vote was counted, it stood 35 to 19 against Johnson, just one vote short of the necessary two-thirds majority required for removal from office. Johnson continued to serve as President for almost a year, until his term expired, but his influence was at an end.

It’s another episode from history eerily reminiscent of a more current controversy. Looking back a hundred a fifty years, it’s always so simple to see the political motivations for what they are. Why do we have such a hard time when the events happen today or in our recent past? Do we somehow think that the leaders of today are above such petty motivations? Is that what people thought in Johnson’s time?

11. Industrialization profoundly changed the character of the nation. 

The mechanization of American life began in the early 1800s with inventions like water-powered mills, steam-powered machines and interchangeable parts, and industrialization began in the late 1800s with something they called the Industrial Revolution.

In years to come, the Industrial Revolution would help unite the American people. It would help solve problems of transportation by binding the nation together with a web of steel rails. It would provide Americans with unheard-of labor-saving devices. It would profoundly affect the roles and status of both women and men in American life. It would help Americans conquer the wilderness and make use of what were then considered the inexhaustible resources of forest and sea and soil. It would in time transform the United States into the wealthiest nation on earth.

Living now in the 21st century, it is difficult to understand how different life was before industrialization. I caught a glimpse of how surreal the new ways of life must have seemed to people used to the old from this paragraph about “company towns.”

Workers in so-called “company towns” faced the greatest disadvantages. There were mining districts in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and textile-mill regions in the South where companies owned entire towns—all the houses, stores, and other buildings. The companies employed the teachers and the doctors. The local magistrates and the police owed their jobs to the company. In these towns workers did not dare protest the rent they paid for their company-owned houses or the prices they paid in the company-owned store. Frequently, the workers received part of their wages not in cash but in credit at the company store.

I listened to a podcast recently that talked about how our modern educational system is also a product of the Industrial Revolution, where things like standardized testing and multiple-choice questions were invented specifically to have a better and more reliable way to train children and immigrants for the life of an industrialized worker. The podcast in question argued that it was time to start rethinking some of those educational institutions because the necessary workforce of today or tomorrow is so radically different from the one that built Henry Ford’s Model Ts, but that’s not to undermine the profound effects industrialization has had on our nation. In many ways, its legacy has not yet reached its climax.

12. Industrialization led in great measure to imperialism. 

The textbook offers an interesting explanation for the age of imperialism that began near the turn of the 19th to the 20th centuries:

The Industrial Revolution was largely responsible for the mounting interest in colonies. Factories needed raw materials in ever-growing quantities. Manufacturers, to keep their factories operating, had to find new markets for their finished products. Improvements in transportation, especially the steamship, enabled businesses to buy and sell in a truly worldwide market. As trade increased and profits accumulated, business executives and bankers looked overseas for opportunities to invest savings.

And it was really the Spanish American War that gave the United States is first taste of being a colonial power. As a result of winning that war, the Americans found themselves in possession of the Philippines, and facing a dilemma. Should they set the people of those islands free? Or force them to live under American rule. In 1898, then President McKinley made the decision for us. As he later explained…

…the United States could not return the Philippines to Spain, for “that would be cowardly and dishonorable.” It could not give them to France, Germany, or Great Britain, for “that would be bad business and discreditable.” It could not turn them over to the Filipinos, for they were “unfit for self-government.” McKinley concluded, “There is nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them.”

Swell. Except the Filipinos did not want to be uplifted or civilized (many were, in fact, already Christians).

The conquest of the Philippines turned out to be more difficult that the defeat of Spain. The Filipinos, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, fought as fiercely against American rule as they had against Spanish rule. For three years 70,000 American troops fought in the islands at a cost of $175 million ($4.6 billion in 2011 dollars) and with a casualty list as high as that as the war with Spain.

And when the Americans finally won, they set up a government for the Philippines with an appointed governor, a small elected assembly, an appointed upper house, and the ability of the United States Congress to veto all legislation passed. I wonder if any of that would have sounded familiar to the guys who dumped British tea into Boston Harbor in 1773.

One of the things I found most surprising about this 25-year old textbook was the way it didn’t shy away from a treatment of imperialism at all. Chapter 29 is titled “American Expansion in the Caribbean; 1898-1914,” and one of its section headings is “Americans begin to build an empire in the Caribbean.”  It seems true and appropriate to me, but it seems like most Americans are opposed to that kind of perspective on our history. To see it handled so matter-of-factly in print, especially in a textbook aimed at teenagers, underscored for me the explanatory power of such a reading.

A big part of this was evidently a corollary Teddy Roosevelt added to the Monroe Doctrine, stating that not only would the United States act aggressively against any nation seeking to set-up colonies in the New World, but that the United States would act as a kind of police officer in any disputes between outside nations on those in the Americas. The corollary led to lots of interventions—in Puerto Rico, in Cuba, in Colombia, in Panama, in the Dominican Republic, in Haiti, in Costa Rica, in Guatemala, in the Virgin Islands, in Nicaragua—until Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover eventually tried to put an end to it during their administrations. FDR, too, sought a new footing with Latin America in his Good Neighbor Policy, which supposedly said that no state had the right o interfere in the internal or external affairs of another, and that the United States was now opposed to policies of armed intervention.

13. The federal government assumes radical powers in war time.

Imagine if this happened today.

The President was authorized to set prices on many commodities, including such essentials as food and fuels. He was also authorized to regulate, or even take possession of, factories, mines, meat-packing houses, food processing plants, and all transportation and communication facilities. The President exercised these vast powers through a number of wartime agencies, or boards.

The War Industries Board, established in [year], became the virtual dictator of manufacturing. It developed new industries needed in the war effort. It regulated business to eliminate waste and nonessential goods. Before the war’s end, the War Industries Board was engaged in regulating the production of some 30,000 commodities.

Other federal agencies also took an active part in planning the war program. The War Finance Corporation loaned public funds to businesses needing aid in manufacturing war materials. The Emergency Fleet Corporation built ships faster than [enemy] submarines could destroy them. The Railroad Administration took over the operation of the railroads, reorganized the lines, and controlled rates and wages. The Fuel Administration stimulated a larger output of coal and oil and encouraged economies in their use.

This wasn’t World War II. This was World War I. But it clearly presaged a lot of the government activity that took place during World War II to marshal industry for the war effort.

14. Some horrible things have more or less been erased from the public consciousness and, although true historical events, bear no real weight on the modern citizen’s understanding of his or her history.

The “Bonus Army,” 17,000 strong, arrived in Washington, D.C., in June 1932. They were veterans of World War I and they called themselves the “Bonus Expeditionary Force.” Many arrived with their families. They traveled in freight cars, trucks, and wagons and on foot. They were in Washington to plead for a war bonus owed them. The money was not due until 1945, but they wanted it in advance.

They were allowed to live in empty government buildings and to camp on a swampy area across the Potomac River. The army provided them with tents, cots, field kitchens, and food. When the Senate refused to grant to bones payment, most of them gave up a returned home with money provided by the government.

Some 2,000 of the veterans, many of whom had no place to go, decided to stay. They were ordered to leave. In a clash with the police, several veterans and police officers were killed. Army troops then moved in with machine guns, tanks, and tear gas. The troops drove the veterans from the buildings and broke up their encampment across the river, burning the shacks as they did so.

I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one. I’d never heard of it before, and this is the sum total of the information presented about it in the textbook. Imagine if 17,000 Gulf War Veterans marched on Washington today, demanded payments they had been promised to help them during times of economic depression. Imagine next that, while these veterans were camped out on the Mall, Congress voted not to support them and they were sent away. Those that didn’t leave voluntarily, some 2,000 of them, were attacked by the units of the National Guard, pepper spray and assault rifles used as needed to clear people out, and flamethrowers used to destroy the detritus they left behind. Could such a thing happen today? I would’ve have thought no, but knowing that such a thing did happen in 1932 forces me to reassess my assumptions.

15. America’s entry into World War II didn’t end the depression. It deepened it.

I was especially sensitive to this one, because the idea that World War II, and the government spending that accompanied the war effort, ended the Great Depression is one of the most enduring historical misunderstandings of our time. I wanted to see how this high school textbook would handle it, so I was sure to underline passages like this:

Where did the money come from to finance the war? A little more than one third came from taxes, which were raised to the highest level in American history. The government borrowed the remainder, chiefly by selling huge issues of bonds. Because of this borrowing, the national debt shot upward from about $49 billion in 1941 to nearly $259 billion by the spring of 1945.

The dollar cost of the war was staggering. By 1945, military expenditures totaled $400 billion. This was twice the sum that the federal government had spent for all of its activities, including all wars, between 1789 and 1940!

And this:

Despite these [rationing] efforts, the process of consumer goods rose, especially food prices. By 1944 the cost of living had risen 30 percent above 1941 prewar levels.

And this:

In July 1942 the National War Labor Board (NWLB) tried to work out a compromise. It granted a 15-percent wage increase to meet the rises in living costs. Several months later Congress and President Roosevelt authorized the NWLB to freeze the wages and salaries of all workers at the newly established levels.

And this:

The most drastic means of controlling profits was the excess profits tax, levied in 1940. The tax obliged corporations to pay to the government as much as 90 percent of all excess profits.

The highest taxes in American history, including a 90 percent excess profit tax on businesses. A ballooning national debt. A 30-percent increase in the cost of living with frozen wages and salaries. Exactly how did all of this get America out of the Great Depression?

16. The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis were two separate incidents.

All you Boomers can start razzing me now, but somehow I managed to conflate the two episodes in my admittedly poor understanding of the Kennedy administration. It’s not such much that I consciously thought they were the same thing. I just didn’t really know what the Bay of Pigs was and I must’ve just pushed it together with the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The textbook has set me straight, but here’s the funny thing. Knowing how that they are separate incidents—the Bay of Pigs refers to an April 1961 CIA invasion of Cuba that was an attempt to overthrow the Castro regime and the Cuban Missile Crisis is, of course, the standoff between the Americans and the Soviet Union over nuclear missiles in Cuba in October 1962—I’m left with the conclusion that the two events were, in fact, related.

Not that the textbook actually connected those dots for me. Regardless of what you think of Fidel Castro, do you suppose he was motivated to bring Soviet missiles and technology to his island nation because his giant American neighbor had tried to overthrow his government with a CIA-led invasion?

17. The Vietnam War was an unconstitutional mistake, based on a lie, that irrevocably blurred the line between right and wrong.

I don’t know how else to characterize it. Especially when you read about the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

On August 4, 1964, President Johnson appeared on television with shocking news. He announced that two American destroyers had been attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin. The President stated that he had therefore ordered American planes to bomb North Vietnamese torpedo bases and oil refineries. He also asked Congress to grant him authority to take action against North Vietnam.

The President did not tell the nation that the American ships had been assisting South Vietnamese gunboats that were making raids on North Vietnam’s coast. He also did not inform the nation that there was some doubt whether there had been any attack on American ships at all.

Three days later Congress granted the President’s request. It adopted what became known as the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. This gave the President power “to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attach against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression.”

The House votes unanimously for the measure. The Senate passed it by a vote of 88 to 2. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon, who voted against it, warned that “we are in effect giving the President warmaking powers in the absence of a declaration of war. I believe that to be a historic mistake.

At a minimum, I believe Senator Morse was right. It was a historic mistake. One, unfortunately, that future Congresses would repeat in future situations. What I find most striking about this is that it is language from a high school history textbook, published a little more than 20 years after the fact. This isn’t some anti-war rag. This is mainstream history, boiled down to a few declarative sentences, and it all but says that the President lied and that the war was fought unconstitutionally.

And what a war.

The Air Force poured bombs, napalm, rockets, and machine-gun fire on Viet Cong villages, hideouts, and supply routed in South Vietnam. … With support from the air, South Vietnamese and American ground forces carried out “search-and-destroy” mission against the Viet Cong. In areas they could not hold or defend, they moved the people to refugee centers and burned the villages.

The Viet Cong, by the way, were not robots, but human beings, and their villages were populated by families. By the end of the war, at least 6 million people were refugees and 160,000 South Vietnamese and 922,000 Viet Cong and North Vietnamese people had been killed.

Yet the textbook only uses terms like “guerilla tactics” and “terrorism” to describe the actions of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese. What was that I said about history repeating itself?

18. There were two energy crises in the 1970s.

The energy crisis of the late 1970s is a dim memory for me (I was born in 1968). I remember the lines of automobiles at the gas station, but what I don’t remember is the energy crisis of the early 1970s, the one President Nixon tried to deal with, in part by announcing a program to make the United States independent of all foreign countries for its energy requirements by the early 1980s. How’d that work out?

19. President Reagan had virtually nothing to do with the release of the American hostages in Iran.

This, too, exists as one of my earliest political memories. Somehow, I was left with the impression that after Carter’s failed negotiations and botched rescue attempt, President-elect Reagan secretly brokered a deal with the Iranians and saw the hostages released on the day he was inaugurated as President.

That’s evidently not what happened. Instead the Carter Administration continued to negotiate after the failed rescue attempt, and secured the release with the Algerian government acting as a neutral arbitrator and in exchange for a payment in gold tonnage and a promise never to interfere with Iran’s internal politics again (that last bit I actually picked up from Wikipedia, not my high school textbook).

Why did Iran want a promise that the U.S. would never interfere with them again? Because the reason the hostages were taken in the first place stemmed from the CIA-led overthrow of the democratically-elected Iranian government and the installation of the Shah, a dictatorial ruler, in 1953. The Shah had eventually been deposed in 1979 by an internal revolution, and he had fled to the United States for protection. The hostage takers wanted the Shah returned to Iran so he could be executed for his crimes against the Iranian people, and they took the hostages when the U.S. refused to comply.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Whose Job Is It to Be the Facilitator?

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Have you been following the weekly series on facilitation on Jeffrey Cufaude's blog? I am--and I'm getting a lot out of it. So much of what I do as an association CEO is about facilitation--about helping a group achieve consensus and determine a productive path forward--that I typically welcome any help I can get on the subject.

But one of his recent posts really got me thinking about one of my other roles--that of volunteer board member--and the obligations that board chairs (what I'll refer to as CGOs, Chief Governance Officers, in the rest of this post) must share for effective facilitation at the board table. In Facilitation Friday #4, Cufaude offers this suggested list of questions for facilitators to use in helping group members link together disparate threads of their on-going conversation and identify the meaning behind what is occurring.

  • So where are we at from your perspective?
  • What might the idea(s) we are considering mean for your efforts or what we collectively need to do next?
  • How does what Tonya just shared relate to the points Andrew and Wanda were making earlier?
  • What are you noticing right now and what might it mean for where we go next?
  • What, if anything, isn't connecting for you or making sense right now?
  • We've heard lots of different viewpoints. Any common threads among them?

Reading them, I began to ask myself: who should be asking these questions at an association board table. The CEO? Or the CGO? I think lots of people would say the CEO. There are times, of course, when an outside facilitator may be best, but in the day-to-day functioning of an association board, I think most people would say facilitation is most appropriately developed as part of the CEO's toolbox.

But guess what? I disagree. I think the most effective boards are the ones where the CGO plays this role.

Most CEOs are too close to many of the issues being discussed at the board table. They have perspective, yes, important perspective, but theirs is and should be one voice among many. It is the CGO that more appropriately has ownership of the discussion and decision-making process of the board. He/she has a better opportunity and, importantly, the expectation of other board members, to sit at enough of a distance from the discussion to ask the questions Cufaude supplies above. His/her role isn't to decide the outcome, but to help the board extract meaning from its deliberations.

I was pretty decided in this opinion, and then I read this excerpt from Facilitation Friday #5:

When you hold a formal leadership position with a group you are facilitating—staff director leading a team meeting, board chair facilitating a board meeting—the perceived authority and power of your role can become a barrier to individuals seeing you primarily in a facilitative capacity. Because you have more of a vested interest in the outcome of the discussions, you may have a tendency to lead the meeting toward an outcome you find acceptable rather than facilitate the group to an outcome it will own.

And it reminded me of all the situations we've all been witness to of a CGO with an agenda, of using his/her position of authority to push through a pre-determined course of action. Our industry is rife with these stories. Indeed, they sometimes seem more the rule than the exception.

But that's doesn't mean the CEO is any better positioned to facilitate discussion at the board table. When it comes to conflicts of interest, I would argue that CEOs are much more likely to have them, and that nefarious CEOs are much more skilled at steering a board towards a particular course of action. The CGO is still a volunteer, usually elected by the membership to represent their interests and keep the association focused on its mission. The CEO is an employee. A critical member of the leadership team, yes, but ultimately an employee, who should not have a controlling interest in certain issues that come before a board.

So I say it is a better practice for the CGO is serve as the board's facilitator. Not every association has a CGO with that capacity, but all would be well served by developing them.

What do you say?

Monday, February 13, 2012

A Bias for Action

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I found these words spontaneously coming out of my mouth when someone recently asked me about my leadership style. I didn't think about it carefully and I don't have a written leadership manifesto that I could've drawn from. I just reacted to the question in the moment, reflecting for just a second, asking myself what I'm consistently trying to achieve when consciously in leadership situations. Yeah, that's the ticket. A bias for action.

It's a nice sound byte, and I think I impressed the person I was speaking to. But the truth is, when it comes to having a bias for action, I fail far more often than I succeed.

It's hard, you see.

Six times out of ten, it's a crap shoot. No one, least of all me, knows what should be done and taking action in the face of such uncertainty takes courage and transparency--two attributes few of us really have in any great measure.

Three times out of ten I know what should be done but there are forces aligned against the action. Either we don't have the resources, or the people responsible for executing the action don't agree with me and have the power to derail it, or there is some other decision-maker whose blessing must be received before anything can more forward. Fighting those battles is not always difficult, but they are still battles that must be fought, delays in my quest for turning thought into action.

Only one time out of ten do the stars align. I know what needs to be done and the forces of execution are aligned with and not against the action. That's when it seems easy. That's when it seems like nothing can stand it my way. That's when people start asking me fawning questions about my leadership style.

But whatever the situation the bias for action must remain. Doing something when the way forward isn't clear, or when forces are aligned against you, is the mark of a true leader. If the only time you take action is that one chance in ten when the path makes itself clear then you're not really leading anything. You're following. And you may not even know who or what you're following.

Take action. You'll fail more often than you'll succeed, but you'll get better as time goes on, and you'll learn more than you thought possible about true leadership.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

A fascinating read. In it, Diamond sets out to answer a question asked of him 25 years ago by a native New Guinean who, reflecting on the way Europeans seemed to have much more advanced technology at their disposal than his native islanders, said:

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

In other words, and on a grander scale, over the course of human history, what has allowed some communities to develop literate industrial societies with metal tools, others to develop only nonliterate farming societies, and still others to remain seemingly frozen as hunter-gatherers with stone tools? It’s a big question, and Diamond has a big answer for it, but it is an answer that boils down to one sweeping concept.

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.

It is an answer that avoids most of the racial bigotry that has clouded the same question for hundreds of years. When human cultures that had been separated for millenia began clashing with one another—as when Europeans first came to what they called the New World—who conquered who was not biologically determined (i.e., white Europeans were not racially superior to Native Americans). Rather, each human society developed according to the advantages of their respective environments, and because the environments were different, the advantages developed by each were different.

For the bulk of his book, Diamond compares the advantages of the world’s different environments, chasing proximate causes back to what he believes is the ultimate one—the one advantage that set all the others in motion, and allowed the “Old World” to develop technologically literate societies before the “New World.” It is, quite simply, that the Old World is wide and the New World is tall.

On the surface this seems crazy, but let’s follow the logic. Eleven thousand years ago, after humans had spread out of Africa to nearly every corner of the globe, they lived universally in hunter-gatherer communities—tribes of no more than a few dozen individuals, moving across the landscape in the near-constant search for wild plants and animals for food. What we now think of as civilization began when some of those communities transitioned from this hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more agrarian existence, after the domestication of plants and animals. That transition didn’t happen overnight, and it happened in different places at different times, and it seems clear that it began first in what we now call the Fertile Crescent, the area in Southwest Asia roughly between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. And why did it begin there?

One advantage of the Fertile Crescent is that it lies within a zone of so-called Mediterranean climate, a climate characterized by mild, wet winters and long, hot, dry summers. That climate selects for plant species able to survive the long dry season and to resume growth rapidly upon the return of the rains. Many Fertile Crescent plants, especially species of cereals and pulses, have adapted in a way that renders them useful to humans: They are annuals, meaning that the plant itself dries up and dies in the dry season.

Within their mere one year of life, annual plants inevitably remain small herbs. Many of them instead put much of their energy into producing big seeds, which remain dormant during the dry season and are then ready to sprout when the rains come. Annual plants therefore waste little energy on making inedible wood or fibrous stems, like the body of trees and bushes. But many of the big seeds, notably those of the annual cereals and pulses, are edible by humans. They constitute 6 of the modern world’s 12 major crops. In contrast, if you live near a forest and look out your window, the plant species that you see will tend to be trees and shrubs, most of whose body you cannot eat and which put much less of their energy into edible seeds. Of course, some forest trees in areas of wet climate do produce big edible seeds, but these seeds are not adapted to surviving a long dry season and hence to long storage by humans.

I find this fascinating. Hunter-gatherer humans in the Fertile Crescent were able to domesticate plants and become farmers because the wild plants in their region had been adapted by their environment to produce the kind of seeds that human could eat, store for long periods of time, and, eventually, plant and grow under their own control. It makes me wonder that if there had not been a place like this on earth, with plants naturally adapted in this way, would human civilization have ever arisen at all? Diamond would probably say yes, but, consistent with the overall theme of his book, it would have similarly been driven by natural selection and not by any human ingenuity.

In all this discussion of the Fertile Crescent’s advantages for the early rise of food production, we have not had to invoke any supposed advantages of Fertile Crescent peoples themselves. Indeed, I am unaware of anyone’s even seriously suggesting any supposed distinctive biological features of the region’s peoples that might have contributed to the potency of its food production package. Instead, we have seen that the many distinctive features of the Fertile Crescent’s climate, environment, wild plants, and animals together provide a convincing explanation.

There were, in fact, a few other places where food production arose independently like this—places like New Guinea and the eastern United States—but none of these places had the other environmental and climactic advantages Diamond attributes to the Fertile Crescent and, as a result, he says, the people of the Fertile Crescent “entered the modern world with more advanced technology, more complex political organization, and more epidemic diseases with which to infect other peoples.” One of those extra advantages that led directly to this future dominance was the domestication of animals, especially the domestication of large mammals to help in the labor associated with food production.

Diamond tells us that prior to the 20th century, only fourteen species of such animals had been domesticated by the world’s populations—sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, Arabian and Bactrian camels, llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, bali cattle and mithan—and of these, the wild ancestors of thirteen of them (all but the reindeer) were domesticated in Eurasia (including North Africa, which is biogeographically more similar to Eurasia than to the rest of Africa).

This very unequal distribution of wild ancestral species among the continents became an important reason why Eurasians, rather than peoples of other continents, were the ones to end up with guns, germs and steel.

Why? The germs part is maybe the easiest to understand. All of the communicable diseases that would later decimate the native populations of the New World had their genesis first in these domesticated animals living in close proximity to one another. Like the more recent examples of the AIDS and SARS viruses, diseases like measles, rubella, mumps, pertussis and smallpox were all animal illnesses that made the leap to humans. They killed thousands if not millions of Eurasians when each first broke out—think of the Black Death in the late 1340s—but Eurasians had hundreds of years to evolve immunities to these diseases. The Native Americans did not. And because the Native Americans never domesticated animals and keep them penned together in the way the Eurasians did, they never developed their own deadly diseases that could have decimated the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in their ships. The chapter in which Diamond describes this process is called the “Lethal Gift of Livestock,” and with good reason.

And once these factors are in place—an agrarian lifestyle assisted by domesticated animals—the next major step in societal development can take place: human specialization. As hunter-gatherers, a population of humans has to spend almost all of their time in the acquisition and preparation of food. But as farmers with livestock, food production can easily reach surplus levels, and far fewer people need to be involved with it to feed a much larger community. This allows individuals to specialize into a new variety of “careers,” before unheard of in human history. And the two most influential for shaping the growing society are those of politician and priest.

Centralized political organization, including religion, is the major factor driving the clash of cultures that began with Columbus’ journey in 1492, and which still persists to this day. Indeed, it is only through institutions such as these, and the fervor that is built up around them, that members of one population are made willing to sacrifice their own lives for the subjugation of another. This willingness, Diamond says, is…

…so strongly programmed into us citizens of modern states, by our schools and churches and governments, that we forget what a radical break it marks with previous human history. Every state has its slogan urging its citizens to be prepared to die if necessary for the state: Britian’s “For King and Country,” Spain’s “Por Dios y Espana,” and so on. Similar sentiments motivated 16th-century Aztec warriors: “There is nothing like death in war, nothing like the flowery death so precious to Him [the Aztec national god Huitzilopochtli] who gives life: far off I see it, my heart yearns for it!”

The last reference to the Aztecs is especially curious, given the words of Spanish conquistador Pizzaro upon the capture of the Inca emperor Atahuallpa.

Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the Christians who come with me, though so few in number, I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours, and have defeated other more powerful lords than you, imposing upon them the dominion of the Emperor, whose vassal I am, and who is King of Spain and of the universal world. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host. When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you by coming to your land by order of his Majesty the King of Spain. Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian.

Incas are not Aztecs, I know, but how easily could this speech have been given by a conquering Aztec warrior, or the conquering warrior of any state whose citizens pledge themselves to their god and country? All it takes is the swapping of a few proper names and the text is instantly understandable by nearly any culture.

And this ubiquity of experience seems to be the central thesis of the book, a synopsis of human history that is still being played out today. People once spread across this globe given the pressures of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As populations grew they had to expand because they had to find more food for more and more individuals. And then, based on environmental factors, not on human ingenuity, some small pockets of those hunter-gatherers developed practices for better food production, leading apparently inevitably to animal husbandry, technology, religion and empire. And then the expansion began again, empires needing to conquer in order to sustain themselves, and clashes began between one group of humans with better technological advancements and another with less.

One of those technological advancements developed by some and not others is literacy. To hear Diamond tell it, written language only came into existence because of the surpluses of food created by plant domestication, and one of its first uses was to keep track of the extra food and who was entitled to it.

Early writing served the needs of those political institutions (such as record keeping and royal propaganda), and the users were full-time bureaucrats nourished by stored food surpluses grown by food-producing peasants. Writing was never developed or even adopted by hunter-gatherer societies, because they lacked both the institutional uses of early writing and the social and agricultural mechanisms for generating the food surpluses required to feed scribes.

When it comes to the centralized political structures that these new literate societies could support, Diamond describes a multitude, based primarily on the size of the available population, and the different factors and attributes that can define them. He classifies them, in ascending order, as either bands, tribes, chiefdoms or states, and describes these classifications as stages a single culture could conceivably move through, starting with one of various forms of egalitarian leadership and moving eventually to outright kleptocracies. In his study of these human societies, it’s worth nothing that he does an excellent job of describing the essential challenge of the kleptocrat.

For any ranked society, whether a chiefdom or a state, one thus has to ask: why do the commoners tolerate the transfer of the fruits of their hard labor to kleptocrats? This question, raised by political theorists from Plato to Marx, is raised anew by voters in every modern election. Kleptocracies with little public support run the risk of being overthrown, either by downtrodden commoners or by upstart would-be replacement kleptocrats seeking public support by promising a higher ratio of services rendered to fruits stolen. For example, Hawaiian history was repeatedly punctuated by revolts against repressive chiefs, usually led by younger brothers promising less oppression. This may sound funny to us in the context of old Hawaii, until we reflect on all the misery still being caused by such struggles in the modern world.

Indeed. What I like best about this section is how applicable it is to our modern societies. This is fascinating because Diamond’s book is so much a study of the past. It goes to show how little new there is under the sun. In seeking solutions to this dilemma, Diamond says, kleptocrats throughout history have resorted to a mixture of just four solutions.

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite.
2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways.
3. Use the monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence.
4. Construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.

Sound familiar? If not, just listen for the rhetorical themes that dominate America’s typical presidential election cycle and you’ll hear them in spades.

But what does all of this have to do with the Old World being wide and the New World being tall? Well, as Diamond explains, all these developments begin with food production, with the move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one where humans stay in one place to tend domesticated crops, building up much larger surpluses of food than ever before. At the very earliest stages of this process, there is very little difference between the harvesting of wild plants and the intentional planting and harvesting of crops. The idea needed to spread fluidly and easily from place to place in order to take hold, and the same plants that worked in one area had to work in another.

And there was more room for this kind of expansion in Eurasia than there was in the Americas, because so much land in Eurasia extends to the east and to the west along similar lines of latitude. Look at a map. The plants that grew well in what is now Turkey also grew well in Greece, Italy and Spain to the west and in Iran, Afghanistan and China to the east. Side to side, Eurasia spans about 6,000 miles, and the discovery of food production could be easily communicated and successfully adopted by neighboring societies all across that length.

Meanwhile, in the Americas, no such wide stretches of latitude can be found where a similar climate prevails over many thousands of miles. What grows well in Mississippi won’t grow so well in Alberta, even though those two present day places are much closer to each other than many dozens of places in Eurasia that were able to share the same food production techniques. With today’s modern technologies we can surmount these obstacles, but to the aboriginal Americans, just making the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, it was just too difficult. The Incas did it in Peru. So did the Mayans in Latin America, and the Mississippian culture in the southeast United States. But none of them could share their discoveries with the others. They didn’t even know these other cultures existed. The geographic and climactic barriers of their north/south continent prevented it.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Finally, there are a few interesting and seemingly unrelated tidbits that are just too good to pass up. The first is about the power of vested interests.

This book, like probably every other typed document you have ever read, was typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named for the left-most six letters in its upper row. Unbelievable as it may now sound, that keyboard layout was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvements in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves towards keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.

The second is about China, and why, although it clearly “developed” more quickly than Europe, it eventually lost its technological lead.

Why didn’t Chinese ships proceed around Africa’s southern cape westward and colonize Europe, before Vasco de Gama’s own three puny ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope eastward and launched Europe’s colonization of East Asia? Why didn’t Chinese ships cross the Pacific to colonize the Americas’ west coast?

The answer, much like the idea that Eurasia being wide gave it the lead over the Americas being tall, is that China is smooth and Europe is jagged. That refers specially to coastlines, but it can be thought of in the context of political unification as well.

China’s frequent unity and Europe’s perpetual disunity both have a long history. The most productive areas of modern China were politically joined for the first time in 221 B.C. and have remained so for most of the time since then. China has had only a single writing system from the beginnings of literacy, a single dominant language for a long time, and substantial cultural unity for two thousand years. In contrast, Europe has never come remotely close to political unification: it was still splintered into 1,000 independent statelets in the 14th century, into 500 statelets in A.D. 1500, got down to a minimum of 25 states in the 1980s, and is now up again to nearly 40 at the moment that I write this sentence. Europe still has 45 languages, each with its own modified alphabet, and even greater cultural diversity. The disagreements that continue today to frustrate even modest attempts at European unification through the European Economic Community (EEC) are symptomatic of Europe’s ingrained commitment to disunity.

And this disunity, initiated by the numerous islands and peninsulas that dominate Europe’s landmass, as culturally distinct societies grew in power and in isolation from one another, is what gave Europe the technological edge over China when all those societies started coming in conflict with one another.

Europe’s geographic balkanization resulted in dozens or hundreds of independent, competing statelets and centers of innovation. If one state did not pursue some particular innovation, another did, forcing neighboring states to do likewise or else be conquered or left economically behind. Europe’s barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China.

And finally, there are these wonderfully juxtaposing quotes, the first by Thomas Carlyle:

“Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.”

And the second by Otto von Bismarck:

“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try to catch on to His coattails and He marches past.”

Seems to me Diamond is much more in Bismarck’s camp than Carlyle’s. Great men, if they exist at all, are the result, not the cause, of history.

Monday, February 6, 2012

No One Knows How to Make a Computer Mouse

Here's a great TED talk from a few years back: In it, Matt Ridley makes the case that innovation and progress depend on the accelerating exchange of ideas and information. Going back to our earliest ancestors, he shows how societies whose members were able to specialize and trade (I'm good at making spears and you're good at making axes, so I'll make you a spear if you make me an axe) were able to progress to higher and higher levels of productivity and output, compared to societies whose members remained ruggedly individual (I'll make all my own spears and axes, thank you). Extrapolating this concept into the modern age, he argues that it--more than individual intelligence or creativity--is what is responsible for the highly specialized and technologically advanced culture we all live in. If you can't view the video in this post, go here. The title of this post comes from his point that we have reached such a level of specialization that now literally no single individual really knows how to make the things so many of us depend on (like computer mouses). And that made me think about associations and the ways we pursue the creation of member value. The parallels between Ridley's societies based on specialization and the exchange of ideas and an association's community of members and staff should be apparent to anyone who is a regular reader of this blog. As the association leader, you should clearly want to foster and facilitate that same style of exchange to help your organization innovate and develop on-going generations of breakthrough products and ideas. But what may be less apparent is the perspective that, like making computer mouses, there is no single individual in your community who currently knows or will ever know what that next innovative product will be, how to bring the idea behind it about, and how to build and deliver it once it is. And if Ridley is right, nor should you want there to be. If the best ideas comes from specialization and the exchange of ideas, then your job as the association leader isn't to come up with those ideas on your own, but to bring as much diversity together as you can and to support the ideas that grow out of those collaborations. Now, I'll bet you understand that. That seems obvious enough that it may not even be worth bringing to your attention. But here's the real question: Okay, fine. You know that. But does your staff? Does your board? Are there individuals in your community who are either looking to you to build their next computer mouse or, perhaps worse, trying to build it all by themselves? If so, what does Ridley's perspective indicate you should do?