How to persuade anyone to tell you the truth

gentle interrogation technique

James, my stepson, came home last night. Violet, his dog, jumped with joy and squealed with delight. True love, make no mistake. James’s biological dad died in a car accident. He was the UK’s youngest-ever Stockman of the Year. James has his dad’s gentle way with animals.

A book on how to persuade anyone to tell you the truth has just been published. I have ordered my copy. Former CIA officers Philip Houston, Michael Floyd and Susan Carnicero’s Get the Truth says torture is ineffective, the best way of extracting a confession is to make it safe to talk. No surprise there.

Only rank amateurs would ever try to extract confessions and information by upping the voltage or giving the thumbscrews another turn.

The only approach that has any chance of success, state the authors, is exactly the opposite.

Professionals who really know what they’re doing try to take all traces of violence or confrontation out of an interrogation, turning it instead into an interview based on chummy sympathy and understanding.

Good interrogators will lower their voice, talk slowly, claim empathy with their suspects and then — well, and then just keep on talking lowly and slowly seems to be the gist.

Because what appears to work best is an interrogator who chats on and on, quietly, reassuringly, understandingly, often repetitively.

‘We all make mistakes, Brian. Nobody’s saying we don’t make mistakes because, you know, Brian, we all make mistakes,’ and so on and on and on.

The comforting drone of the interrogator’s monologue may sound mindless, but it is carefully created and should contain five key features.

These are:

  1. rationalising the action (you needed the money);
  2. projecting the blame (it was their fault for not paying you enough);
  3. minimising the seriousness (we’ve all nicked Post-it notes);
  4. socialising the situation (this kind of thing happens a lot, it’s nothing we haven’t seen a million times);
  5. and emphasising the truth (if you could explain what happened when you took the money, that would be great and would help us all move on).

Acts of terrible violence, gross betrayals, fraud, theft, murder — the skilled interrogator will mimic thorough understanding of the worst crimes to keep up the pretence of being on the suspect’s side.

At the same time, the interrogator will be intent on keeping that suspect locked into a mode of short-term thinking — keeping the focus on particulars and specifics, trying like crazy to stop the suspect considering the long-term consequences of telling an implicating truth and being found guilty.

That’s how mum and dad got me to tell the truth, not with beating.

The book declares that it is not a position paper on the CIA’s so-called “advanced interrogation techniques”. Nevertheless, it is an overdue counter to the US’s brutal reputation. It won’t be released in the UK until early April. I can’t wait.

How to embrace the unknown and challenge the known

I picked up my car this morning. The garage fixed it for two-thirds their estimate. Great. I came in my son’s car which had a misfire. The mechanic opened the bonnet (aka hood) and said “Yes. Such and such are the problems. I can smell it.” – a beautiful demonstration of brains in the fingertips.

These are the skills of Qiang Xue, a brilliant Chinese engineer who in the late 1980s added millions of £s to the profits of BOC Gases in the UK. I revive that story to explain my  “reframing tool”.

Paul Watzlawick, in his book Change: Principals of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution describes two kinds of change:

  • First-order change, within a frame of reference – like hitting the brake or accelerator of a car; and,
  • Second-order change, to a frame of reference – like changing gear.

Get it wrong and we crunch the gearbox and squeal the tyres:

  • Reframing when we shouldn’t – for example, squandering the cash generated in geographies where we are profitable on Utopian initiatives to enter markets where we can never make money (like changing up a gear too soon so the engine labors).
  • Not reframing when we should – for example, endlessly reorganizing until “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (like over-revving an engine and not changing up).

If we desire smooth and powerful organizational change, we will need both the imagination to embrace the unknown (touch the void)  and the courage to  challenge the known (discuss the undiscussable). Ioan Tenner calls this n ± 1.

To embrace the unknown

  • Find the boundaries
  • Describe the unknown
  • Cross the border
  • Seek a new place to stand

To challenge the known

  • List the assumptions
  • Probe the paradoxes
  • Consider the consequences
  • Test the feasibility

Time to flesh out my list.


To embrace the unknown, we need to raise the level at which a problem is addressed and managed. Expand the scope from a departmental perspective to the perspective of the whole firm, from local to global, from tactical to strategic, from short term to long term, from inside the company to the market and the industry, from static to evolutionary, from the details to the whole and, not least, from interface to complex relationship.

To embrace the unknown, we must look for the boundaries, describe what we don’t know and then step across these barriers to find a new place to stand.

Find the Boundaries

To establish the boundaries of what we know and can do about a problem, we first need to describe the present state.

What is the problem called, how is it defined, how does it work? In the industrial gas example, the problem was framed as an issue of plant utilization and unit cost.

Then we need to look at the time frames. We have to think about: when must change occur, what are the deadlines, how long are the durations, how frequent are the cycles? In the industrial gas example, Qiang noted two time frames – split by the time it would take a competitor to build a new plant.

Next, we need to consider the spatial boundaries: what are the volumes, what are the quantities, where are the geographic constraints? Geography is a key element in the profitability of an industrial gas plant. It is relatively cheap to produce industrial gases (raw materials are air, which is free, and power). However, it is expensive to transport industrial gas and plants rapidly become uneconomic when trying to service distant locations.

Finally, we must describe the issues: what are the problems, what are the threats, what are the needs, what are the challenges, what is the opportunity or vision?

Describe the Unknown

Having found the boundaries of the known, we should describe the unknown.

Explain why actions we would like to take are impossible. Explore what we need and want to do, determine what we can plan, and what we cannot predict. In the gas company example, it was thought impossible to quantify the price elasticity of nitrogen – an element many saw as a commodity “because it is impossible to differentiate a molecule”.

In describing the unknown, we need to try to consider what would be seen if the possible changes took place, and then consider what would be seen if the impossible happened. In the gas company example, Qiang did not know whether competitors would follow suit in raising prices.

Finally, we must consider the non-observable and intangible changes that would take place if either the possible or impossible were to happen.

Cross the Border

Having located the bounds of the known and described the unknown, we must probe and attempt to trespass across the boundaries into the unknown. we should reconsider each aspect of the boundaries: what might be bigger or smaller, what geographical limits could be widened, what time frame could be lengthened, what decision makers or constituencies could be changed, and so on. We must ask what improbable scenarios, what unlikely or unknown factors would radically change the situation?

In the industrial gas company example, Qiang refused to accept the conventional wisdom that nitrogen price-elasticity is unknowable. He found it was well known when he used a set of carefully structured questions to draw out the knowledge of the company’s own people.

Seek a New Place to Stand

Once we have crossed the borders, we must establish a new point of view with new boundaries, and act from that base.

Qiang widened our horizons by taking a higher-level perspective, by looking at the nitrogen pricing conundrum as an issue of maximizing profits, not reducing costs or increasing sales. This new place to stand, this unexpected perspective, gave him the power to open our eyes. What thrilled us was the happy reaffirmation that our business wasn’t so mediocre. This was a false impression gained by looking at it solely through the lens of accounting numbers.

If locating the boundaries, describing the unknown, crossing the borders and seeking a new place to stand are insufficient to help us clarify our aims, then we must go ahead and describe our desired future, detailing the actions or broader means necessary to close the gap between the present state and the future we desire.

George Bernard Shaw summed up the task of finding a new place to stand in these famous words:

You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?’

If widening the scope to include the unknown is still not enough to redefine what it means to win then it is time to challenge the known.


While embracing the unknown is a matter of stepping up a level, challenging the known proceeds in the opposite direction by drilling down into the details.

Challenging the known puts more weight on fresh perspectives than on data gathering or analysis. In the industrial gas company example, the difference between our view of the business and Qiang’s did not lie in numbers but in the way of looking at them. Appreciating the value of raising prices did not preclude an interest in reducing costs, but failing to raise prices exposed the limits of our understanding of our basic profit economics.

Why would a company fail to seek a profit-maximizing balance between supply and demand? At one level, the question was superfluous. Increasing utilization to reduce costs seemed obvious. There was no conscious thought or decision behind this. The company simply knew that cost reduction was right.

What did Qiang put into his questions that a less-capable agent of change might leave out? Surprisingly little. Qiang did some more fact gathering and analysis but mostly paid greater attention to those infinitesimal but critical details that create understanding rather than provide mere information.

To systematically challenge the known, we must first draw up a list of assumptions, then look for paradoxes, next consider the consequence of temporarily abolishing any axiom and, finally, explore the feasibility of doing so.

List the Assumptions

We have to describe what it is about the present situation that is taken for granted and considered un-moveable; to explain why a necessary action is considered possible or impossible. In the industrial gas case, it was deemed impossible to quantify price elasticity because there was a dearth of data on prices.

Next we will need to pinpoint the main certainties and describe the obvious assumptions about what makes the present state what it is and certain to persist. State clearly the obvious root causes, the axioms, on which the assumptions are founded. Spell out the laws, basic regularities, truth, and facts beyond discussion. Probe what makes the impossibilities (or possibilities) persist. Define how impossibilities stem from such assumptions. Determine what fuels the continuation of something we want to stop (but can’t), and what keeps preventing the things we need to happen from happening.

In the industrial gas case, the experience of sales and marketing people were too readily dismissed as opinions not facts.

Probe the Paradoxes

Having listed assumptions, we must probe the paradoxes: those contradictions that irritate us, stick in our mind, persuade us to be more critical of the obvious.

Some organizational paradoxes stem from the self-fulfilling prophecies of their founding fathers. Seeming correct for a long time, they are eventually exposed as Utopian. Other paradoxes are “ways to hell paved with good intentions”, “group-think” and the perverse effects of cultural bias.

A whole political system, like Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, can become one big paradox in which contradictions between thought, speech and action are carefully cultivated. In such worlds good is bad, truth is a lie, ugly is beautiful and everyone is born a sinner and a suspect doomed to prove their innocence forever. George Orwell (in Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four) and Franz Kafka (in The Trial) describe such tyrannies, seen at their extreme in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia.

We need to become “Organizational Ghostbusters”, specialists in the dangerous activity of exposing sick visions, institutional blindness, fanatical optimism, lethal alliances, corrupt moneymaking, shallow strategies and corporate schizophrenia of various kinds.

As change makers, we must use paradox as a weapon to help reason break free of its chains. Such puzzlement, carefully administered, lets us to detect possibility beyond anything we may yet conceive.

Proclus Diadochus (412-485 AD), the Greek philosopher and mathematician who became head of Plato’s Academy, put it this way:

Just as sight recognizes darkness by the experience of not seeing, so imagination recognizes the infinite by not understanding it.

This isn’t mysticism. On the contrary, paradox motivates a more rational approach to those inner limits caused by pre-judged ideas, stubborn beliefs about insoluble issues, unshakeable values and other convictions too deep or too obvious to be a likely subject of critical discussion.

The exasperation of paradox challenges people to grow and gives them a hint of where to go. According to Socratic traditions in education, paradox creates the sensation of being helplessly ignorant where previously we had no doubt. This opens our minds to new things.

Paradox points to a frontier, a limit of the unknown and impossible. It is an instrument for creating change, newness and surprise. It destroys the barriers in our minds and multiplies our choices.

The paradox that spurred the industrial gas people to clarify their aims was the irritating thought that they were venting gases that, if sold, would lower their unit costs. This was the key detail that Qiang seized upon.

One must be at ease with the unfamiliar and the contradictory to navigate change and create newness. As change agents, we must learn to live with the unknown, untamed, for a while. Those mentally accustomed to vagueness, complexity and ambiguity are better prepared to produce original ideas and cope with newness. Familiarity with paradox is simply a necessity to survive the never-ending surprises of our rapidly changing world.

In particular, we must beware oversimplification. Simplification is deceptively appealing in its apparent lack of ambiguity. The breakthrough with the industrial gas people lay in realizing that there is more to maximizing profit than simply asking Production to reduce costs and Marketing to increase sales. In the industrial gas case, the company had not been looking at profit. They managed operations with a narrow focus on cost to block out complexities that might make it harder to hold a plant manager to account.

Consider the Consequences

The next step is to consider the consequence of temporarily abolishing each axiom – the upsides and downsides. Abandon realism and imagine what would happen if we alter each axiom. Determine the advantages and the disadvantages.

Why didn’t the industrial gas people look at pricing more holistically? It was not inattention or laziness but insufficient exposure to basic economics.

BlinkersNothing more surely discourages deep thought than less-helpful notions like management accounting. With no sinister intentions and often with great rigor, this can nevertheless have the effect of suggesting that there is a disheartening gap between a business and its potential for higher profitability. Making profit-maximization the aim means rethinking the ways Production and Marketing are managed.

Explore the Feasibility

Finally, we must establish what it will take to alter the situation, break down dysfunctional axioms or avoid their consequences. Explore the conditions of feasibility: what would it take to abolish the assumptions or move the issue out of its current context?

More concretely, we have to determine what means, what power, and what support is necessary and what cost would be incurred to make the ‘impossible’ possible and to implement the impossible? The only investment for BOC was the cost of reprinting its price lists!

* * *

Qiang joined BOC after he left MIT. His work is a reminder that, much as we yearn for strategic insight, common sense can add more value. His genius improved the discourse between Production and Marketing in such a way that all felt they discovered the answer by themselves. He got little recognition: the competent but ungrateful client is the mark of a great intervention.

So a wise leader may say:
“I practice inaction, and the people look after themselves.”
From the Sage it is so hard at any price to get a single word
That when his task is accomplished, his work done,
Throughout the country every one says:
“It happened of its own accord.”

Laoze, Daodejing, Verse 17

First and foremost

Air separation plantDistillation column of a cryogenic air separation plant

Perhaps the most common failures of individuals and organizations that need to change but can’t are either that they don’t seek the broader view that offers new choices, or that they don’t explore the deeper roots (unquestioned beliefs) that perpetuate past and present dysfunctions.

My last post (Brains in the fingertips) told how Qiang Xue – a brilliant Chinese student – came to work as a summer intern at BOC. He was with us for four weeks, and I asked my colleagues in the UK industrial gas business for the thorniest problem they faced. “How to determine the nitrogen price”, they replied. The way Qiang solved this problem was not simply a nifty application of microeconomics but an object lesson in “transcendent eloquence”.

First I need to say a bit about the industrial gas business and then remind you of some accounting ideas.

Air is about one percent argon, 21 per cent oxygen and 78 per cent nitrogen. Thus argon, oxygen and nitrogen are the joint products of an industrial air separation process.

600px-Atmosphere3.svgMake-up of air

The most common method for air separation is cryogenic distillation. For those with a taste for the technical, here is a diagram of the process. It is explained in Wikipedia.

41-Oxygen_05Air separation process

Industrial Gas Companies can sell all the argon and oxygen they produce, but only some of the nitrogen. They vent their unsold nitrogen back into the atmosphere.

BOC’s plant managers focused on running their plant as cost effectively as possible and knew higher utilization meant lower unit costs. So the price of nitrogen was reduced to increase demand. Their question was “how much further should we lower the nitrogen price to fully load our plant?”

Transcendent discourse, you may recall, reconstructs the context of conflicts by changing the meaning of winning.

Thus a family therapist successfully treated my daughter’s anorexia by skilfully posing the question: “do you see yourself as first and foremost a teenager or first and foremost an anorexic?”

Likewise, Qiang Xue reframed BOC’s problem by asking: “are you aiming – first and foremost – to reduce costs or to increase profits?”

“Increase profits,” we replied.

Qiang was gently reminding us of the microeconomic notion of profit maximization. Economists define profit maximization as “the short run or long run process by which a firm determines the price and output level that returns the greatest profit. And they draw (to me) rather complicated charts to explain it.

Profit Maximization

Nowadays we can go straight to Wikipedia for a textbook explanation or Khan Academy for a gentler introduction to the topic. As a mathematician I prefer to simply say that if you plot profit against price you find that there is a point of maximum profit, where increasing or decreasing price will only reduce your profit.

Feeling confused? Part of Qiang’s genius lay in the ability to make complex things simple.

Qiang reminded us that “unconsciously, if not consciously, every time we made a pricing decision we were making a trade-off between two factors: the break-even of the plant and the price sensitivity of the marketplace.”

“That’s just fine in theory”, our people protested, “but neither of your variables is easy to quantify. Whatever you take as the plant break-even of nitrogen production depends on the slippery accounting notion of co-product costing. And the price-elasticity of demand is another one of those fancy, theoretical, economic concepts that are quite impossible to apply in the real world when you have to deal with a commodity like nitrogen which has so many diverse uses in so many different markets.”

The plant break-even is not obvious in a co-product situation because it depends what you view as your primary products. Product costs are, therefore, far from purely objective.

Qiang went quietly through the numbers, confirming our understanding at every step. Joint products are not separately identifiable until a certain stage is reached in the processing operations. This stage is the ‘split-off point’. Had we treated costs incurred prior to this point correctly, as common costs? There are two main methods of apportioning the common process costs at the split-off point: physical measurement (weight or volume) of output, and market value (sales or net realisable value) of output. The apportionment of common process costs between joint products is arbitrary whichever method is used.

Frankly, I no longer remember which approach we took. My guess is that we went with physical measurement because this is the most straightforward and we were so befuddled in our pricing. The weighting of the physical output of each joint product is then applied to the common costs. Each of the joint products will have the same cost per unit.

Then Qiang asked two further questions “if we cut price, how much extra volume will we need to break-even again?” and, “if we cut price, how much extra volume will we get?”

The first we could now answer with some confidence, but there was insufficient marketing information for any statistically-reliable assessment of price elasticity. Nevertheless, Qiang pointed out, pricing decisions were being made all the time. The best available data, he argued, was the knowledge and experience of the company’s own sales and marketing people.

Nitrogen, a simple molecule, has many uses: from treating warts, to freezing strawberries and prawns, to blanketing inflammable liquids held in tanks. For each application, Qiang invited those people dealing daily in the market to estimate what would happen to sales volumes with various levels of price increase or decrease (plus five per cent, plus ten percent, minus five per cent, minus ten per cent, and so on). And he asked them to do this under four scenarios – whether competitors followed or not, over the short term or the long term (where the long term was defined as the three years it would take competitors to bring new capacity on line).

Combining these estimates, the UK Company found that it could make more money by putting up prices under all scenarios. So the company raised its nitrogen prices and its profits increased. Competitors followed the prices up and the company made even more money – even though it was now venting more nitrogen than ever before, its plant utilization was lower and consequently its unit production costs were higher!

Looking back, I am somewhat amazed that we could have been so stupid. Each function, manufacturing and sales, had been set different objectives: reduce costs or increase revenues. Nobody, at the interface of production and sales, was looking at the overall profit. The blinkers of accounting numbers and the dogma of cost cutting blinded us to unrealised profit potential. This is a further example of the self-harm I dubbed Corporate anorexia in an earlier post, and found surprisingly common in business.

At one level, Qiang brought nothing more to his solution than the basic notions of supply and demand, micro-economics 1.01. At another level, his approach was a model of rethinking what it means to win.

My next post will use this example to bring to life a “reframing tool”.

Brains in the fingertips

Alex SalmondAlex Salmond

News today: Alex Salmond ex-leader of the SNP (Scottish National Party) has succeeded in simultaneously winding up the leaders of both Conservative and Labour Parties, the major contenders in the forthcoming UK General Election.

Salmond said if the SNP held the post-election balance of power it would block a minority Conservative government by voting down its Queen’s Speech. The move could bring down the government if Labour joined in, with David Cameron “locked out”. The Conservatives accused the ex-SNP leader of “trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people”. And Labour called his balance of power prediction “bluster and bluff”.

Way to go, Alex. Socrates would be proud of you!

peugeot-405-sr-estate-02Peugeot 405 Estate

Also today, but on a more personal front, my aging Peugeot 405 Estate (diesel-engined, Executive model mind you) has failed its MOT (UK Ministry of Transport annual check). It needs new brake pads, discs and cylinders to make it through. Each year it is a toss-up whether to spend money on the car or scrap it. But it’s a great workhorse: one careful owner who only drove it to supermarket and synagogue… naturally. Actually, it was previously owned by my father-in-law, who is only half Jewish (on his father’s side so that doesn’t count) and never goes to Church or synagogue – but does live by the sea, so the bodywork is rusty.

It is going to cost us £450 to fix. Blast! But I am taking it to a backstreet garage, run by father and son, who I am sure won’t rip me off. Dad sports a pony tail. Son is a “banger racer”.

Banger_RacingBanger racing

Early morning (8.00 am, anyway) when I took the car in, they were chilling out with coffee and a large tin of cream crackers, the whiff of marihuana in the air. They said they hadn’t worked on one of these Peugeot’s for ten years. I said I didn’t want to insult them but I did have a workshop manual, if that was any help. They said no thanks but it might come in handy to light a bonfire on Guy Fawkes night. These are people who don’t need books to tell them what they see in front of them. These are people with brains in their fingertips.

There is an episode in Ewan McGregor’s documentary film Long Way Round where one of their sophisticated and heavy German motorbikes breaks down in Mongolia. In the middle of nowhere, they find a Mongolian engineer who strips the bike apart, diagnoses the problem and improvises a solution. Someone else with brains in his fingertips.

carl_jung-glassesCarl Jung

Now, to return to my main narrative: it is especially unsafe to talk at those points (interfaces) where social worlds collide, where intellectual disagreement turns into moral conflict. Think loggers and environmentalists, gays and homophobes, pro-lifers and those pro-choice, Muslim and Christian, Catholic and Protestant, haves and have-nots (Poldark’s gentry and vulgar). Here traditional approaches to conflict resolution are only likely to compound the problems. Instead we need to elevate our thinking to Kegan’s post-modern level of consciousness, and bring to the discourse the type of eloquence Pearce and Littlejohn call transcendent – that is philosophical, comparative, dialogic, critical and transformative.

Transcendent discourse reconstructs the context of conflicts, in large measures by changing the meaning of winning. This brings us to reframing, a notion that I illustrated with an account of the successful treatment of my daughter’s anorexia. This experience taught me the power and prerequisites of such rethinking at the level of individual psychology and family-therapy. An experience as Group Manager of Corporate Strategy for the BOC Group showed me how reframing can work in business, as a tool of applied social psychology.

First I want to introduce you to the person of Qiang Xue (pronounced Chang Shwe), quite the smartest people I have ever met. I will use a Learning Styles Framework to explain Qiang’s extraordinary genius. This was developed by Ioan Tenner (pronounced Yo-Anne Tenner) another of the smartest people I have met. Ioan describes his model as a revised Jungian matrix.

Ioan argues that we learn in different ways. We learn from thinking, and from doing. We learn from studying and from intuition/gut-feel. He depicts these ways of learning as perpendicular axes on a two-by-two chart:

Ways of learning
What’s revised and Jungian about this? Ioan’s horizontal axis corresponds roughly  to Jung’s extrovert-introvert categorisation.

Ioan plots four different types of learners on this chart:

  1. Those who mostly learn through study and thought, like scientists or finance people.
  2. Those who learn through thought and intuition/gut-feel, like philosophers. Carl Jung would fall into this quadrant. He spent a year sitting on a rock just thinking.
  3. Those who trust their gut and prefer action to contemplation, and therefore occupy the bottom right corner of this framework. The entrepreneurs.
  4. And, finally, pragmatists whose particular smarts lie in doing and study. Like Qiang Xue. These are the people with brains in their fingertips. (My Uncle Willie was one of these wonderful people. He’d fix anything you gave him. Give him a broken toaster and he’d not buy a new part but rewind the element with wire he’d taken from a 2-kilowatt bar fire. Thereafter your toast would be ready in seconds!)

Learning Styles

Research into learning styles is inconclusive, and extravagant claims are made for them. Nevertheless the commentary usually goes like this:

  • they remind us that there are many kinds of smarts;
  • while we all tend to have a preferred learning style, there is no one learning style that is innately superior to any other; and,
  • the most intelligent learn in every way, adapting their learning style to the requirements of the situation.

BOC gas plantBOC industrial gas plant

I met Qiang when I was visiting MIT to recruit for BOC’s Corporate Planning function. He waited to the end of the session to approach me with an observation that had never occurred to me.

“Most of the companies that come here,” he said, “have offices round the world. But yours is the only one that is global.”

“How so?” I had to ask.

“Because for nearly all the others, those national offices are merely sales offices that employ just a few people”, he explained. “Your business doesn’t have  its employees clustered in one or two big centres. Your people spread evenly across the world wherever you have a presence. That’s why I would like to work for you.”

He was right. A features of the industrial gas business is that transportation is such a large proportion of the costs that it has to be manufactured close to where it sells.  BOC were a truly global operator against that criterion.

I was intrigued by his thoughtful remark. So I spoke to Qiang’s referees. They told me an interesting story.

Cultural_Revolution_posterCultural Revolution propaganda poster. The caption says, “The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is the great school of Mao Zedong Thought.”

Qiang’s parents were Chinese intellectuals forced to work in the fields as part of Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Qiang grew up in the countryside. He demonstrated remarkable technical ability from his earliest years. He could fix anything you put in front of him. This was a valuable gift in a country with inadequate repair and maintenance facilities. He had over three hundred people working for him by his late teens, leveraging his talent.

Chinese officialdom didn’t know what to do with Qiang. By now the Cultural revolution had come to an end. So they decided to send him to their top university. There he came top in mechanical engineering in the whole of China. Not knowing quite what to do with this talent in their midst, the Chinese sent him to MIT to learn what he could in the West.

His MIT professors said he was the best student they ever had. At the time we met he was doing research while picking up a few degrees in various subjects – as you do when you are that bright. One of those fields was Management, hence his interest in BOC.

His research was into human bone implants. His freezer was full of hip joints, lopped from cadavers. When your brains are in your fingertips you need to touch things. To design better implants, he wanted to know how biological lubrication works. Such lubricant films are incredibly thin. So Qiang devised a new approach to measure their thickness in vivo. This used ultrasound and ground breaking software. This was the late 1980s. Hip replacement has come a long way since then. It’s not unlikely that the success of my wife’s recent hip replacements owes something to him.

Qiang joined BOC as a summer intern to spend four weeks in our New Jersey offices and four weeks in England. To find him a worthy challenge, I asked our UK gas company what was the toughest problem they faced. The pricing of nitrogen, they replied.

I will describe what happened when the genius of Qiang Xue met a thorny business problem in my next post.

This old Chinese story (Fung Yu-lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, Macmillan, NY, 1960, p. 330) illustrates what I took away from Qiang:

An immortal hovering along a deserted road met a miserable half-starved beggar. In pity, the benevolent ghost touched a pebble with his finger and miraculously, the stone turned to gold. But the beggar did not look content.

Amazed, the spirit chose a bigger stone, laid his finger on it and Lo! it became gold too. The mendicant was still not satisfied.

Puzzled, the celestial being tapped a big rock into gold; the beggar was still visibly discontent. Exasperated, the immortal asked:

“What more do you want?”

“Your finger!”

I will explain what Qiang’s approach teaches us about transcendent eloquence in the post after next .

Kierkegaard, Socrates, Jesus Christ, Manning, Assange, Snowden, the unexamined life and the crisis of modernity

Professor Jon StewartProfessor Jon Stewart

It’s week three of my philosophy MOOC. Our doughty professor (Jon Stewart, PhD, Dr theol & phil) is so shy and so nervous recording his pieces to camera that he can scarcely breathe. His videos are shot in the streets of Copenhagen and the rooms and libraries where Kierkegaard lived and worked. We see people walk or cycle past. I wonder what they make of this earnest academic trying to explain his enthusiasm for a long-dead Danish philosopher’s criticism of the views of German philosophers on Plato’s account of Socrates?

At the end of lecture three, our professor asks the question: what has this to do with us today? Like Slingerland pitching for his Chinese thinkers, Stewart’s answer is that the ancient notions of Irony and Subjectivity are immensely relevant to our present Crisis of Modernity. Let me try to bring these inter-galactic ruminations back to earth, and to the issue of making it safe to talk.

Lucas_Cranach_the_Elder_-_Adam_und_EvaAdam and Eve by Lucas Cranach the Elder

First, here’s Stewart’s explanation:

After reading the text and watching this lesson, some of you might think that Kierkegaard’s understanding of Socrates is mildly interesting or that his satire of Martinson is a little bit funny, but you might be asking yourself, how any of this is relevant for you in your lives today. Who cares if Kierkegaard agreed with Hegel that the Athenians were justified in prosecuting Socrates? Who cares that Kierkegaard mocked a lecture at the University of Copenhagen in the late 1830s? Aren’t these just issues for professional philosophers or historians of ideas?

I would like to suggest that there’s something very important about this set of issues that, in fact, is highly relevant for our world today. We’ve been talking about knowledge, doubt, and traditional values, and what many of these issues boil down to is a fundamental question about the nature and status of knowledge, and its role in human life.

This is one of the oldest questions in all of human history. Indeed, one can see it in one of the most ancient stories that has come down to us, the story of the Fall, in Genesis, in the Old Testament. What does that story say? We are told that the first human beings, Adam and Eve, lived in a wonderful garden, which provided them with everything they required to satisfy their needs. They’re at home in the universe. They’re at harmony with nature and with the world around them. But there’s one thing they don’t have: knowledge. They live in a kind of ignorant bliss. God tells them that they can enjoy everything that they like in the garden, but they may not eat from the tree of knowledge.

As we know, according to the story, Adam and Eve, seduced by the snake, defy this prohibition, eat from the tree, and thus gain knowledge. Suddenly everything changes. They see the world with different eyes, and for the first time they realize they’re naked. For the first time, they feel shame. They’re no longer in harmony with the world. Instead of being at home in the garden, they’re alienated from it. God punishes them for breaking this command, sends them out from the garden, into the wild world, as it is written, East of Eden.

What the story tells us is that knowledge is a dangerous thing. God knew this all along. For this reason he told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree. God knew that knowledge ends in shame, fear, and alienation. Once human beings have taken this step, they can never go back. The moral of this story is that human beings are not meant to have knowledge. They’re happiest without it.

This famous story is played out again in any account of individuals who, by means of doubt, call into question the truths and values of their own culture. At first, when we’re children, we lived in immediate harmony with the family, culture and society that surrounded us. But then as we grew up, we reach a point where we naturally begin to question certain things that were taught when we were young. When we come to realize that our parents and our leaders are in fact fallible, this knowledge begins to alienate us from the world around us. Figures like Socrates, Faust, and Johannes Climacus doubted the fundamental things about their culture in the name of the search for knowledge. But this search alienated them from the world. Knowledge is a dangerous thing, and the defenders of traditional values and institutions fear it.

But, there is another perspective on this issue that comes from the Enlightenment. According to this view, human beings, as Aristotle says, by nature desire to know. Knowledge is what separates us from the animals. It’s what makes human beings what they are. Our very humanity lies in our ability to think rationally and to examine our beliefs critically. As Socrates himself says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Due to the acquisition of knowledge, human beings have the ability to reshape their natural environment in order to make it more conducive to human life. Throughout all of history, human beings have struggled to improve things by means of their ability to acquire new knowledge. There have been great social advances when people realized that certain institutions were oppressive. For example, slavery was abolished, basic human rights were enshrined in the constitutions and laws of different countries. There have also been great advances in many different fields of sciences. These advances have concretely improved the lives of people. For example, the elimination of diseases, such as smallpox and polio, the advances in dentistry and anaesthesiology, and one could go on and on with examples.

The advocate of this view claims it would be completely absurd to try deny these advances, and that the entire weight of human history supports the famous adage that knowledge is power. According to this, anyone who wishes to try to suppress knowledge is blinded by a backward superstition. Who would want to repeal the idea of human rights? Who would want to go back to a day when there was no defence against disease or infection? Today, I suppose that most of us would probably side with the person representing this Enlightenment view.

For this class, for example, we have thousands of online students from around the world. All of you have decided to take this course because you wanted to learn something about Søren Kierkegaard. You wanted new knowledge that you didn’t have before. You value knowledge and you believe that it’s somehow important to have. Moreover, the very idea of these kinds of open online courses says that knowledge should be free and open to everyone, and should not be the private domain of specific individuals, for example, in government or elite universities. Everyone should have the opportunity to learn and to acquire new knowledge.

While this seems on the face of it to be very straightforward, our modern world renders this picture very problematic. It raises difficult questions that need careful consideration. While it’s true that knowledge has brought us many things that have improved the lives of people around the globe, it’s been a double-edged sword. It’s also brought us terrible things.

Knowledge and science has given us, for example, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons that could potentially destroy all human life on the planet. World War I and World War II were fought with advanced weapons that cost the lives of millions. The Holocaust could never have taken place if it were not for the development of new technologies, based on new knowledge.

Today, we have major environmental problems such as global warming, and the destruction of the ozone layer that are caused by the by products of human technology. While it’s true that knowledge and technology have helped us improve our environment, they are also equally effective at destroying it. Even the question of the open access to knowledge, the fundamental premise behind our online course, it’s not unproblematic. What does it mean to share knowledge? I can stand here and share with you some knowledge of the thought of Soren Kierkegaard and this seems not to be any kind of a problem. But you can go onto the Internet and you can find people sharing knowledge about, for example, how to build a bomb. This kind of knowledge makes us all a little uneasy. Should this be freely accessible to everyone? Should all countries in the world have the knowledge to produce nuclear weapons?

Once human beings start out on this road to reason, science and technology, there’s no way back. It’s a one-way street. Once people discover how to make a nuclear weapon, the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be put back. As Kierkegaard says of his character Johannes Climacus, once he begins to doubt, and once he starts this process and becomes alienated from the world around him, then he can’t return to his previous state of innocence. With considerations of this kind, we can begin to see the point behind the story of the Fall in Genesis. The world east of Eden is a dangerous and uncomfortable one. Likewise, the stories of Socrates, Faust and Johannes Climacus are not just tales from a distant past. On the contrary, they’re the story of our perilous world in the 21st century.

This resonates with my own experience. Even when I was in a formal audit role like Quality Control or Project Planning, even where “responsibility to dissent” was part of the espoused value system, if I thought for myself and dared to disagree I got into trouble. In earlier posts, I have described how this befell me in South Africa, the Middle East, the UK, Australia and Europe.

On a simpler level, as sailor, I have seen how independent behaviour tends to marginalise and alienate us. As a traveller experiencing many cultures, neither as tourist or resident, you are both a part and apart. Returning, you find yourself distanced from friends and family. As much as they say that they want to hear your adventures, very soon you disturb them. For central to a decision to “sell up and sail away” is the thought that whereas money can be put in a bank and most of it be there tomorrow, days of your life cannot. This confronts those who stay behind with compromises they make in their daily grind, pursuing wealth, status, academic tenure, whatever. Likewise, it is impossible to go home, enriched with new knowledge of the world, without being reminded of your former parochialism… and the ignorance of those that didn’t come with you.

As T.S. Eliot says:

We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

This is the double-edged sword of knowledge. If Socrates marks a turning point in human thought, and was sentenced to death for it, soon we will begin to draw parallels with Jesus Christ – another whistleblower who paid the ultimate price. The question arises: would Socrates and Christ have been treated so differently today? The treatment of Manning, Assange and Snowden suggests not.

Our present-day reliance on lack of transparency, and on secrecy of the highest order, constitutes a form of mystification long characteristic of religion and of the military-industrial complex of which President Eisenhower so famously warned.

The question must necessarily be asked whether failure to disclose information enabling more informed democratic decision-making endangers more lives than restriction of access to information. How is this to be determined – and by whom – given the constraints on democratic oversight.

Classic examples might include:

  • effect of pesticides on the environment, as first described in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962)
  • impact of nuclear power
  • consequences of structural defects in buildings, bridges and dams
  • potential hazards of earthquakes
  • implications of unconstrained population increase

Such issues are central to the ongoing debate regarding the role of whistleblowers and how that is to be enabled, protected and restrained. A whistleblower is a person who exposes misconduct, alleged dishonest or illegal activity occurring in an organization. In performing this role Manning-Assange-Snowden currently face reprisal at the hands of those responsible.

Whistleblowing protection in the USA and UK is affected by a complex patchwork of contradictory laws – raising numerous questions regarding the justice of any trial.

I begin to see how Kierkegaard relates to our present day. Although we might be able to ignore or deny many of the adverse effects of modernity, there is one problem we will not be able to ignore. In a finite world, infinite growth is not possible: this is the crisis of sustainability people everywhere must now face.

The cannon fodder and the aristocracy

My wife has had two hip transplants in the last few years. So we’ve been forced to spend more time in marinas than we’d like. “I’ve brought her in for a refit”, I tell people.

A “silver lining” is that connection to shore power gives us unlimited computer time, and sometimes we use that to play computer games. She likes games that demand quick thinking and fast reactions, not “first-person shooters” but games like Zuma and Candy Crush Saga. I like strategy games, and the grand-daddy of these is Rome Total War.

I don’t know if we will ever pay video games the respect that we now bestow on great works of literature, painting or sculpture. If we were to, the original Rome Total War* would get my vote. It’s graphics have long since been superseded but its playability has not. Strategy games are played against computer or human opponents. They usually work on two levels: a Campaign Map where you manage the economics and politics of your faction, and a Battlefield Map where you seek to outmanoeuvre and defeat your enemies.

You are advised to keep your general behind the troops, ready to retreat if the fight turns against you. That way, even if you lose a battle, your general lives to fight another day. The computer tots up the “butcher’s bill” of dead and injured soldiers for you and your enemies to declare the winner. Thus the distinction between cannon fodder** and aristocracy is fundamental to this simulation, just as the difference between worker and boss is essential to our present-day notion of management.

I certainly didn’t want to be treated like cannon fodder, manipulated by carrot and stick – up or out. When you treat people like donkeys, they behave like donkeys.

Yet, when I gravitated to manager, I didn’t want that either if it meant dangling a carrot or cracking a whip. I hoped I was better than that.

This is not an original aspiration. Much of the drama of the BBC’s remake of Poldark [Episode 3 aired tonight] arises out of the friction between wealthy upper classes and working poor, characterised as the gentry versus the vulgar, and Ross Poldark’s ability to rise above this moral conflict.

A full critique of managerialism is too much for this post, so I will link to Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth.

Stewart’s bottom line?

Remember Plato: it’s all about dialogue!

Meanwhile, here’s a taste of Rome Total War. [Note: the player does better  sending a diplomat to Carthage than by declaring war.]

* Rome Total War 2 is not recommended, a pale shadow of the original
** OK, there were no cannons in Roman times, but you know what I mean. For real cannons, I can recommend Medieval Total War 2.

Hardly the way to bring out the best out in people

saupload_jack_welchJack Welch

Most professional service firms employ the profoundly inhumane practice of forced ranking. This is a process, usually once a year, of ranking their people from top performer down to lowest performer, and then firing a fixed percent (usually the bottom ten to twenty percent). Those fired need not be non-performers, merely “the worst of the best”.

Stated so baldly, the egregious nature of such up-or-out policies might seem obvious. Yet they are the norm in accounting, law and consulting firms, and even characterise the tenure track in universities. Such “socialization” processes are not only commonplace in professional service firms, but also in banks and corporations that copy them (GE, Ford Motor, Conoco, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems and many others including Enron and EDS in their day).

The practice is sold to new recruits as their guarantee that they will always be surrounded by top quality colleagues, because the organisation routinely sheds its dead wood. In my case, I felt that if I wasn’t being continuously promoted, I wouldn’t want to stick around. I understood it was the way such firms kept their pyramid of Directors, Partners, Principals, Managers and Associates in proportion, and so was essential to their economics. I knew that I exchanged prime years of my career for a ticket in a lottery to become an exceedingly well-paid officer of the firm. And I bought the line I would learn much, and  that adding McKinsey & Company to my CV was as valuable as another degree.

In some way – like anorexia – the process works. It engenders great intensity and dedication, but it also destroys flexible and creative thinking. It’s hard to tap the effortless effectiveness of Wu-wei and De with a “Sword of Damocles” dangling over your head. The mental blinkers we put on to cope with this, enabled us to thoughtlessly downsize or drastically reorganize client organizations, oblivious to the devastation we left in our wake (see David Craig and Richard Brooks’s Plundering the Public Sector, 2006). In his 2001 memoir Jack: Straight from the Gut, Jack Welch (GE’s former CEO) strongly endorses the practice. By the third year of forced firings, “it’s war” he boasts.

The idea of team work is recognition that nobody is perfect but a team can be. At any moment one or other member may be struggling – for health, financial or family reasons, perhaps. At such times the team closes ranks to support them, each individual knowing that they may be next to hit a personal rough spot.

Ultimately, the search for weakness is destructive. Firing underachievers is not the same thing as creating a high-performance organization. And what kind of a manager wants to face having to identify his or her lowest-ranking subordinates every year and chose which to fire?

422px-Henri_ChristopheHenri Christoph

Perhaps someone like Henri Christoph, the self-appointed “King of Haiti”, who used twenty thousand slaves to build a replica of Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles at Milot. When work didn’t proceed at the pace he wanted, he followed the Roman decimation technique, butchering every tenth man in a long line. After which construction would pick up, and now with only ninety percent of the workforce to feed.

Jeff Skilling, Enron’s President (a former McKinsey consultant now in jail), described their Performance Review Committee (nicknamed “rank and yank”) as the “most important process that we conduct as a company”. It may be “motivational” in the Henri Christoph sense, but it is hardly the way to bring out the best out in people.

The wide spread of such deeply-flawed practices explains why I believe it is high time to confront “the ubiquity of administrative evil” that threatens to plunge us into another Great Depression, impoverishing taxpayers and retired alike, spawning the Occupy movement, and engulfing whole countries like Greece and Italy in a sovereign debt crisis.