The Missing of the ‘How’

 

Brigadier General Julius Easton Slack at the crossing of Moselle River in November 1944.

This isn’t my usual fare, but I need to get this off my chest… I used to work as a consultant to government. To be specific, I was an implementation consultant. Under contract, I was responsible for developing an overarching implementation strategy, defining the phases for the overall effort, developing informed and detailed tactical plans for each phase, and managing the execution of the effort. I was able to do this because, over time, I had developed enough hands-on experience to see ahead and work backward, keeping uppermost in my mind the most important “critical success factors” of the effort as I developed the strategy.

To develop the best plans, I tracked down the most knowledgeable people with the strongest track records in each functional discipline, and then leveraged their expertise in preparing the approach for each phase. They were also usually the ones who led the discipline during the execution; putting experts in charge of each team.

Given the implementation work pertained to large-scale systems projects of a statewide nature, we were dealing with thousands of users, hundreds of primary agency staff, dozens of external stakeholders, and millions of public consumers. Every single phase was defined ahead of time, broken down into key functions, with critical tasks defined, and dependencies determined. A big picture roadmap showing the work of each team over time was prepared, one with real meat behind it and a drill-down tracking system that allowed the management team to burrow down to the gnat’s ass in determining root cause of deviations from plan, providing detailed and focused information for quick decisions and corrective actions.

The key was to keep the project visible, both where we were and where we were going. At the frequently scheduled status meetings, we drilled down to get updates, answers, and recommendations … and then held team members publicly accountable, including myself and the other members of the project exec team.

This is basic stuff. If you can sidestep the bureaucratic BS, this kind of “get your hands dirty” approach works.

The government hired me (and people like me) for four reasons:

  1. Government organizations are siloed, which means very few staff ever develop an understanding of the big picture (which is also one of the reasons Jen Psaki loves to say, “I’ll have to refer you to the what’s-its-name department for that issue” at least three times per daily WH briefing;
  2. Because of their narrow perspective, they don’t know how to approach implementing anything that crosses organizational lines, like a huge system (or a military withdrawal);
  3. Individual initiative and candor is rarely encouraged. Most fear catching hell from their leadership and being sent to Project Siberia; and, best of all for me …
  4. They needed an outsider to blame if things didn’t go as planned.

That is all.

Except this … (yes, I’m boasting, but you would too. Plus I’m feeling how ticked off my warrior ancestors are right now).

My great uncle, Brigadier General Julius Easton Slack, receiving the Silver Star, presented by General Walton Walker, for the liberation of Metz, France.

Julius was the commanding general of XX Corps Artillery in Patton’s Third Army. He graduated from West Point, teased in his yearbook for his theoretical approach to solving problems. After graduating, he added to his expertise … over many years … and learned real-world stuff.

There is no substitute for experience, I don’t care what your IQ might be or how many letters you insist on displaying after your name.

Now, here’s a weird random thing … Jen Psaki and I share the same birthdate, but I have exactly twenty years on her.

“Hey Jen, you can call me anytime! You might learn something.”

Okay. Now … that is all.

P.S. I know I sound like a pompous know-it-all. You’re right. In some ways I am, but in some areas I’ve earned it.

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  1. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    God-LovingWoman:

    P.S. I know I sound like a pompous know-it-all. You’re right. In some ways I am, but in some areas I’ve earned it.

    This is just my opinion.

    You sound not at all pompous and not at all like a know-it-all.

    You sound like someone with knowledge of important things that you have because of your experience and because of your ability to see the big picture, which requires experience plus intelligence plus wisdom.

    I hope I can slowly bring you around to my opinion.

    • #1
  2. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    “Jen Psaki loves to say, “I’ll have to refer you to the what’s-its-name department for that issue” at least three times per daily WH briefing”….I have also noticed various officials of State and DoD making similar statements.

    The reason we have a President is to act as an overall executive leader who can coordinate *across* all the various departments. Psaki’s failure just reflects Biden’s failure.  Which was pretty much inevitable owing to his total lack of any kind of management experience.

    • #2
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    God-LovingWoman: There is no substitute for experience, I don’t care what your IQ might be or how many letters you insist on displaying after your name.

    Amen to that.

    • #3
  4. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill
    @CarolJoy

    Quite an interesting story of your career path.

    A long time ago, before computers took over so much of the corporate and governmental landscape, companies and agencies hired “system analysts” who came in and examined every facet of the company’s or the agency’s operation.

    In that era, the analysts did indeed become informed of how the main frame computer operated. But they also looked to see if the receptionists were good at their job, so someone might pretend to need to go through the main reception desk to reach the sales department, technical support or consumer affairs. Did they get connected or did the call drop off?

    Was there a lag time between ordering components and getting them and if the lag time was not satisfactory, how could that be changed?

    An examination of the company’s overall plans for the future was part of the analysis as well.

    Beginning in the early 1980’s, companies stopped examining their operations in such minute detail. I mean, why would any Silicon Valley enterprise, one  that had captured the top marketing shares of the home game market, even need to look at its projections?

    The arrogance in the decision to not examine operations was evident quite often. So Atari reigned supreme, issued company stock instead of full paychecks, because after all, its executives had decided that if it had captured X amount of the gaming market in 1983, then  it certainly would be capturing 2X in 1984 and 3X by 1985 etc.

    (History proved how Atari was very wrong in relying on those projections.)

    God-Loving Woman, it takes humility to ask questions and then find holes in the explanation and then ask some more questions. But that is what intelligent people do.  I am glad you found your niche and were able to keep the agencies you worked for operating in a sensible and competent fashion.

    Someone else here has been posting about how it was that 1941 to 1945, commanders in the military were relieved of duty, and that philosophy was part of why we won the War against the Axis Powers.  The decision to relieve highly ranked commanders  who were part of the war only because of their rank and status even  during the war itself  was important – as it is obvious what happens when that does not occur. (Since August 1945, despite all the decades of wars we have fought, America has  won only the tiny little war against the nation of Grenada. And I suspect if Biden or any of his ilk had been in charge of that skirmish, we would still be fighting that nation island!)

    • #4
  5. Ole Summers Member
    Ole Summers
    @OleSummers

    It is a rare thing when I would dispute the wisdom of @markcamp, which I have deep respect for. But as a fellow pompous know-it-all (or at least one able to create that perception) I have found it to occasionally be good protection against pompous know-nothings (which we seem to have to good supply), especially the cowardly ones (which most are) – one can always admit the truth to yourself in private lol 

    • #5
  6. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    God-LovingWoman:

    P.S. I know I sound like a pompous know-it-all. You’re right. In some ways I am, but in some areas I’ve earned it.

    This is just my opinion.

    You sound not at all pompous and not at all like a know-it-all.

    You sound like someone with knowledge of important things that you have because of your experience and because of your ability to see the big picture, which requires experience plus intelligence plus wisdom.

    I hope I can slowly bring you around to my opinion.

    Lol! So cool…

    Thank  you for that. 

    • #6
  7. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    David Foster (View Comment):

    “Jen Psaki loves to say, “I’ll have to refer you to the what’s-its-name department for that issue” at least three times per daily WH briefing”….I have also noticed various officials of State and DoD making similar statements.

    The reason we have a President is to act as an overall executive leader who can coordinate *across* all the various departments. Psaki’s failure just reflects Biden’s failure. Which was pretty much inevitable owing to his total lack of any kind of management experience.

    Exactly!

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):
    (Since August 1945, despite all the decades of wars we have fought, America has  won only the tiny little war against the nation of Grenada. And I suspect if Biden or any of his ilk had been in charge of that skirmish, we would still be fighting that nation island!)

    The politicians have lost the wars, not the generals.

    • #8
  9. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):

    Quite an interesting story of your career path.

    A long time ago, before computers took over so much of the corporate and governmental landscape, companies and agencies hired “system analysts” who came in and examined every facet of the company’s or the agency’s operation.

    In that era, the analysts did indeed become informed of how the main frame computer operated. But they also looked to see if the receptionists were good at their job, so someone might pretend to need to go through the main reception desk to reach the sales department, technical support or consumer affairs. Did they get connected or did the call drop off?

     

    You just described how I got my start … ops analyst in insurance industry and one of the first to touch a Macintosh computer and use SuperCalc on a huge IBM PC, Quality Circles, engineering time standards, etc. which prepared me well for the next gig in the utility industry … and then big firm consulting and so on. I am grateful for the opportunities I fell into and the key people who mentored me. 

    As for the commanders in the 1941-1945 timeframe, yes. Patton would not have anything but clarity of purpose and speed of attack. I have a great story about the attack on Metz that I’ll share another time, but basically, the XX Corps (nicknamed The Ghost Corps) moved so quickly toward Northern France that they had to stop and wait for supplies to catch up … and then there were heavy rains and the swelling of the Moselle River, one of the obstacles slowing access to Metz. While they were forced to wait, they did their homework, learning that the Germans had defense positions that included some of the 17th SS Panzer Division.  They adjusted their tactical approach and took Metz, a fortress that had never before been breached. A little homework can go a long way!

    • #9
  10. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Ole Summers (View Comment):

    It is a rare thing when I would dispute the wisdom of @ markcamp, which I have deep respect for. But as a fellow pompous know-it-all (or at least one able to create that perception) I have found it to occasionally be good protection against pompous know-nothings (which we seem to have to good supply), especially the cowardly ones (which most are) – one can always admit the truth to yourself in private lol

    Hah!  Too late!

    • #10
  11. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Arahant (View Comment):

    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill (View Comment):
    (Since August 1945, despite all the decades of wars we have fought, America has won only the tiny little war against the nation of Grenada. And I suspect if Biden or any of his ilk had been in charge of that skirmish, we would still be fighting that nation island!)

    The politicians have lost the wars, not the generals.

    Yes, I mostly agree with that.

    • #11
  12. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Awesome work, GLW! I wish we had a few of you in the government right now! 

    • #12
  13. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Susan Quinn (View Comment):

    Awesome work, GLW! I wish we had a few of you in the government right now!

    Hah!  Thank you, but no thank you.

    It’s only fun to get stuff done when people are excited and committed to getting things done…

    … rather than padding the meaningless numbers in their status reports to get the promotion and qualify for the next higher civil service classification and its associated higher pension, and then set themselves up to for post-retirement job with one of the big firms they hired (while still in public service) just to get that fat six figure salary without having to actually do anything because they don’t know how to do anything, etc. etc. etc. They usually get titles like “business development.” The cronyism is breathtaking … in some states.

     

    • #13
  14. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    God-Loving Woman, 

    What would the questions be that you would you ask about how and why this withdrawal process was done the way it was done to determine if it could have been done with less loss of life, fewer people left behind, less functioning equipment left for the enemy ?

    • #14
  15. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    God-Loving Woman,

    What would the questions be that you would you ask about how and why this withdrawal process was done the way it was done to determine if it could have been done with less loss of life, fewer people left behind, less functioning equipment left for the enemy ?

    Ah! I love a challenge. I will respond in the am when the house is quiet and I can craft a solid list. 

    • #15
  16. Ansonia Member
    Ansonia
    @Ansonia

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):

    Ansonia (View Comment):

    God-Loving Woman,

    What would the questions be that you would you ask about how and why this withdrawal process was done the way it was done to determine if it could have been done with less loss of life, fewer people left behind, less functioning equipment left for the enemy ?

    Ah! I love a challenge. I will respond in the am when the house is quiet and I can craft a solid list.

    Thank you.

    • #16
  17. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    The credentialism one sees in the project management sphere is analogous to the Ivy League credentialism one sees in Washington.  Getting a PMP certification by showing you can memorize the Project Management Book of Knowledge and worship at the shrine of Rita Mulcahy does not make you a good project manager.  Being a Yalie doesn’t mean you will exhibit common sense in Foggy Bottom.

    The best manager I ever saw was an ex-Army finance manager when I started my IT career. He also oversaw us noobs in EDS’s development program on the account (GM defense contractor). As he moved onto other things he excelled at them all.  He simply knew what questions to ask, show quiet competence, discipline, how to delegate and do it so well he always left the office on time.  Certainly his military training had something to do with it, but I’m sure much of it was innate to his character.

    • #17
  18. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Ansonia (View Comment):
    What would the questions be that you would you ask about how and why this withdrawal process was done the way it was done to determine if it could have been done with less loss of life, fewer people left behind, less functioning equipment left for the enemy ?

    To answer the specific questions you posed, I put together a high-level list of what I would look for relative to any large-scale effort involving multiple teams and organizations.

    Caveat: I’m not a military person, and I don’t know anything about military withdrawals from a country increasingly falling to the control of a hostile population, so please don’t beat me up too badly for giving this a shot.

    That said, in my opinion, the Afghanistan withdrawal suffered from a lack of adequate time and space to do the job right, and lacked a commitment to clear and unchanging end-state objectives (a conditions based picture of achievement, rather than a date-certain based picture). The choice between conditions based and date-certain based objectives has to do with severity of consequences of failure, know-how of the team, and overall degree of circumstantial uncertainty.

    End-state objectives should have been defined in terms of protecting human life during the effort; eliminating the opponents ability to disrupt the effort; evacuating all American citizens, interpreters, and others desiring to flee to the fullest extent possible given our capabilities; neutralizing the opponents access to firepower/equipment during and after the withdrawal effort, and ensuring that the final departure of troops could be done in an orderly fashion without leaving anyone behind (including K-9).

    In addition, it was a huge blunder to negotiate with a known enemy combatant “on the fly” while the effort was underway. That should never be done. Negotiating a sharp-toothed agreement should be done before the engagement begins, with swift and certain enforcement of consequences for the slightest breach. I could go on from there, but I think if you read the list, you’ll know what I believe could have been done differently.  

    Item 7 is the most important, assuming you have clear and unchanging end-state objectives, and the resources and commitment needed to succeed.

    I’ve included general explanatory comments about why each question is important. I apologize in advance for being didactic :). That said, this is really high level. I’m posting screenshots since I don’t have the word limit room to post it here.

     

     

    • #18
  19. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Cosmik Phred (View Comment):

    The credentialism one sees in the project management sphere is analogous to the Ivy League credentialism one sees in Washington. Getting a PMP certification by showing you can memorize the Project Management Book of Knowledge and worship at the shrine of Rita Mulcahy does not make you a good project manager. Being a Yalie doesn’t mean you will exhibit common sense in Foggy Bottom.

    The best manager I ever saw was an ex-Army finance manager when I started my IT career. He also oversaw us noobs in EDS’s development program on the account (GM defense contractor). As he moved onto other things he excelled at them all. He simply knew what questions to ask, show quiet competence, discipline, how to delegate and do it so well he always left the office on time. Certainly his military training had something to do with it, but I’m sure much of it was innate to his character.

    Yes!!! You are preaching to the choir. I have a book out since early least year on Project Leadership and it has nothing to do with PMP crap. I would tell you the title, but then I’d be divulging my identity. I kind of like being free to share my true opinions here without alienating some of my book readers. :) But yes, absolutely. I’m in complete agreement with you on the PMP front, and am glad you had the opportunity to work with a really competent manager. 

    PMP is like a religion these days … it’s really too bad.

    • #19
  20. Cosmik Phred Member
    Cosmik Phred
    @CosmikPhred

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):

    Cosmik Phred (View Comment):

    The credentialism one sees in the project management sphere is analogous to the Ivy League credentialism one sees in Washington. Getting a PMP certification by showing you can memorize the Project Management Book of Knowledge and worship at the shrine of Rita Mulcahy does not make you a good project manager. Being a Yalie doesn’t mean you will exhibit common sense in Foggy Bottom.

    The best manager I ever saw was an ex-Army finance manager when I started my IT career. He also oversaw us noobs in EDS’s development program on the account (GM defense contractor). As he moved onto other things he excelled at them all. He simply knew what questions to ask, show quiet competence, discipline, how to delegate and do it so well he always left the office on time. Certainly his military training had something to do with it, but I’m sure much of it was innate to his character.

    Yes!!! You are preaching to the choir. I have a book out since early least year on Project Leadership and it has nothing to do with PMP crap. I would tell you the title, but then I’d be divulging my identity. I kind of like being free to share my true opinions here without alienating some of my book readers. :) But yes, absolutely. I’m in complete agreement with you on the PMP front, and am glad you had the opportunity to work with a really competent manager.

    PMP is like a religion these days … it’s really too bad.

    The IT project methodology I saw on display when I consulted a couple of years at Pacific Gas and Electric was mind blowing.  The credentialism was seeping into Change Management as well.  All this governance put in place to prevent bad decisions did no such thing.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum my experience at a non-profit showed a need for light IT governance.  The business acted like they wanted it, but repeatedly ignored it when they had a problem to solve.  Liberal arts majors make lousy IT partners.

    • #20
  21. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):
    I would tell you the title, but then I’d be divulging my identity.

    You have to learn to recommend “a friend’s” book on the subject.

    • #21
  22. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Arahant (View Comment):

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):
    I would tell you the title, but then I’d be divulging my identity.

    You have to learn to recommend “a friend’s” book on the subject.

    Hah! Got it. Wish I’d  thought of that. :)

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):
    I would tell you the title, but then I’d be divulging my identity.

    You have to learn to recommend “a friend’s” book on the subject.

    Hah! Got it. Wish I’d thought of that. :)

    I think I have a friend who wrote a book like that. I’ll have to dig through and see if I can find the information. Was it sent to me through a private message, maybe? I don’t remember.

    • #23
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Ah, I found it, it’s: Project Leadership: The Ten Most Important Things You Need to Believe

    Good stuff.

    • #24
  25. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Ah, I found it, it’s: Project Leadership: The Ten Most Important Things You Need to Believe

    Good stuff.

    Cool! I’m curious to see how it compares to mine!

    • #25
  26. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Maybe someday I’ll finish the book on corporate governance I’m supposedly writing.

    • #26
  27. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Maybe someday I’ll finish the book on corporate governance I’m supposedly writing.

    Yes! You definitely should. 

    • #27
  28. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Maybe someday I’ll finish the book on corporate governance I’m supposedly writing.

    Yes! You definitely should.

    Just brought it up to look at it. It’s currently at 155 pages. It’s complete up to page 84, and most of the rest is the outline. Should be at least 300 pages when done. Would I rather do that? Or would I rather write fiction? Such a difficult choice.

    • #28
  29. God-LovingWoman Coolidge
    God-LovingWoman
    @GodLovingWoman

    Arahant (View Comment):

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Maybe someday I’ll finish the book on corporate governance I’m supposedly writing.

    Yes! You definitely should.

    Just brought it up to look at it. It’s currently at 155 pages. It’s complete up to page 84, and most of the rest is the outline. Should be at least 300 pages when done. Would I rather do that? Or would I rather write fiction? Such a difficult choice.

    I hear you. I have written and published  fiction as it was fabulous fun. But … it didn’t feel like I was doing what I was meant to do.  

    • #29
  30. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    God-LovingWoman (View Comment):
    But … it didn’t feel like I was doing what I was meant to do.

    I suspect that I was meant to serve as an example for others of what not to do. 😈

    • #30