Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Why isn't the upperclass serving in the military?

There is no shortage of people pointing out that today's upperclass are not serving in the military. Ben Stein just ran another piece about this in Sunday's NYT. And you consistently hear about how only a couple members of congress have children in the military. Why is this? There is a tendency to answer by pointing to a sense of declining national responsibility that hasn't been strong since Brokaw's "greatest generation". But this answer really doesn't hold up to scrutiny and we are past a period where national responsibility was defined by serving in the military.

So what are the structural reasons for declining upperclass representation in the military? The all encompassing, obvious answer is that the military isn't attractive to many upperclass youth when stacked up against other options. Although the leadership, management and crisis response lessons learned as a Junior Officer are second to none, the military often doesn't give people that same amount of entrepreneurial freedom found in the civilian world.

Should the nation be concerned? No. The military is going to function well no matter its makeup; it doesn't need upperclass representation to work better, an argument that in fact smacks of elitism. The one argument often used is the "I care about my own" argument which states that if more members of Congress had children serving, the debate around going to war would be more considered. However, war's cost and its impact on the balance of power are probably already enough to hold Congressional attention.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

You thought your last product launch was complicated ...

A US operation netted Mexico's most powerful drug cartel leader about 15 miles off the Baja coast today. He was a particular favorite of the US in the mid to late 90's when there were rumors he put a blanket bounty out for the death of US law enforcement officers.

I question the strategy behind our US drug policy, but that said, this operation was flawlessly executed. I don't have hard facts on success rates, but I estimate that maybe 1 in 20 operations are successful, let alone netting a target this high profile. The news report doesn't fully capture the coordination, planning, execution and luck that all had to fall in place to drive a win.

Planning & Coordination

  • The right intelligence sources had to be identified
  • The intelligence sources had to be able to collect the information ... probably a mix of human intelligence, signals intelligence and other things
  • The intelligence had to be analyzed and disseminated to the right operators
  • The inter-agency planners had to come up with a plan to execute & get multiple agencies to agree

Dumb Luck

  • The bad guys had to be outside of Mexican territorial seas (12 miles) for the US to be able to act under international law. It's likely the US couldn't have coordinated with Mexican officials quickly enough if he had stayed within Mexican waters


  • There had to be a US asset, in this case the Coast Guard Cutter Monsoon (picture below), within striking distance
  • The Coast Guard had to find these guys ... made significantly easier with technology, but its a big Ocean
  • The boarding teams had to be on their game to successfully bring them in
  • Prosecution ... we will see how this goes

Many military officers making the transition to a civilian business career are put on the hot seat about how their experiences apply to the business world. This operation would be a textbook answer to that question; the ability to drive complicated plans from development to completion, with all the facets that entails. There have been enough botched product launches, failed integrations and ineffective re-orgs to know this skill should be in high demand.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Function follows form in the command center

I've posted in the past that the command center of reality is different from that of fiction. I'd be as motivated as Jack Bauer in "24" if I could work in that sweet command center he had.

Well, turns out I'm wrong. There are cool command centers. Check out this picture from the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Va (source: Evan Vucci/Associated Press).

The place has a cool look to it, at least from this camera angle. Although my experience was in a regional versus national command center, this one has everything we dreamt about:
  • The requisite two levels. If you are in charge, you can survey activity from the second level and run down the stairs in an emergency to get involved in the action ... (we had only one level and it was less dramatic to be called over when something was happening)
  • Large LCD map hanging on the walls to monitor activity ... (we had a 19 inch TV set which my Chief Petty Officer used to watch "Real TV")
  • Glassed in conference rooms ... (we had the typical corporate conference room)
  • Cool architecture ... (we had something that resembled a 70's classroom)
  • Three monitor work stations ... (we had two)
  • Some kind of flashing red status lights (we didn't have any although once a reporter mistook our flashing red phones for some kind of status light; I didn't correct her)

Seriously speaking, this is great. There is a bit of function following form when it comes to performance. Architecture and design has a huge impact on how one can feel about his/her job and can even improve focus and intensity. Who knows if they solved the age-old command center problem of field communications, but I'd want to work there.

Dell: What could have been learned from the 1982 Tylenol Recall

One of business school's most touted leadership case studies is about J&J's 1982 Tylenol recall. J&J acted immediately and at a cost of over $100 million to pursue action in the best interest of the consumer. In the end, it was in the best interest of the Tylenol brand, which to this day remains a top global seller.

Dell could learn something from J&J's action. Although its battery problem has yet to completely play out, the defects and more importantly the response could further erode its customer service reputation. The take aways from J&J's crisis management actions were:

  • Declare a crisis to defuse a crisis: Doesn't matter whether the company believes something is a crisis or not ... if the customer believes it, it's true
  • Act immediately: Lead time between first report and action should be less than 72 hours
  • Act transparently: Tell everyone what you are doing
  • Take responsibility
  • Make it easy for the customer

It took awhile for Dell to respond as pictures of exploding batteries circulated virally. No doubt, Dell was examining the battery to determine if there actually was a problem. But that goes against the first rule "Declare a crisis to defuse a crisis". Action was slow. Time will tell whether customers find it easy to work with the recall.

Appropriate crisis management is not only responsible, it's also a sound business decision. Recalling 4.1 million batteries will likely cost Dell and Sony more than $100 million. However, with a slow response, Dell allowed negative publicity to steamroll. This actually could be costlier in the long run.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Debate Tactics Around The War

There is a science to debating in which it's less about being right and more about outfoxing your opponents, painting them into a corner and forcing them to use their time to argue irrelevant points. Just watch "Meet The Press" on Sunday and you will see what I'm talking about. It's an effective tactic, but also infuriating to those who just want to drive a decision based on facts.

The "support our troops" line of conversation can often be used as such a debate tactic. Most in the military like moral support, but what they really care about is good equipment, equitable pay and clear mission parameters. When most people say they "support our troops" they back it up with the same level of sacrifice they give when supporting the Red Sox or Yankees. There are obviously exceptions.; if you are one of them, this doesn't apply to you.

So, if most people don't actually make any substantial sacrifices, why do most debates about the Iraq War include a self conscious "support our troops" component? It actually sidetracks both war opponents and war proponents. War opponents have to craft troop support into their arguments. War proponents have to explain how the latest military scandal doesn't negate any value from the overall effort.

The current Middle East crisis, most directly involving Israel & Lebanon, has really driven this point home. Most there don't seem preoccupied with a military self-consciousness that side-tracks discussion, but are instead focused on debating whether or not a war should be pursued. This is likely because most of their citizens are personally impacted by the decision and can't afford to be distracted by debate tactics ... amazing how real sacrifice focuses a discussion. I hope future decisions in the US are as focused on the salient issues.

note: this post isn't a "for or against" post. It is a "how" post. At this point what matters is how we make the national decision regarding our next conflict.