I know I’ve been scarce around here lately, but I’ve been busy helping plan DEF2013… an innovation conference put on by the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.  I’m also getting ready for my PCS to SAASS.

I have a new post up on the DEF blog, about how military members can work for change within their organizations.  Check it out… then register for DEF, and head on over to the DEF Idea Forum, where you’ll find some great discussion about proposals for defense innovation.

 

(2/5 stars) I don’t finish very many lousy books; I’m selective about what I read in the first place, and if I don’t like a book, I’ll put it down. The 4-Hour Workweek was an exception. Despite having serious issues with the book, I hung on because I hear about it on nearly a daily basis, and because there were occasional jewels. It is those jewels that get the book a second star, but make no mistake: this book is mostly a fraud.

With a title like “The 4-Hour Work Week”, you know Ferriss is selling snake oil. Just picking the book up off the shelf requires saying to yourself, “I know I’m about to be defrauded, but what the hell.” We want so badly to believe what the author is promising, we pick it up anyway. If the problem was just a punchy title, the book might be tolerable, but there are hundreds of these moments throughout. You’ll be part of the “New Rich”; with a couple weeks of setup, you’ll have a business that turns high profits with zero work; you’ll quickly and easily outsource your entire life to a virtual private assistant in India; you’ll improve your productivity X% by following this one simple tip; you’ll keep a good job and live like a king, while never needing to attend another meeting or talk to another human being again. If you’re a reasonably intelligent person, an inner voice should be telling you “it can’t be that easy”, but you have to squelch that voice in order to keep reading.

Although Ferriss goes to great lengths to insist he is ethical, his is a strange brand of ethics and values. He advocates all manner of deception to shirk work. He advocates advertising and selling products that don’t actually exist yet, to test a market. That’s great for the reader–sitting on a lawn chair on a beach in Rio de Janeiro, saving himself time–but not so great for deceived customers who waste their own precious time placing product orders that the company will, regrettably, be unable to fulfill. Ferriss tells his readers how to become recognized “experts” on anything in a few weeks, by reading one or two books on a given subject and then gathering worthless but impressive-sounding credentials and landing mutually reinforcing interviews as a subject-matter expert. But don’t worry–he explains how this is not actually deceptive. As for the products Ferriss sells and advocates, they reflect a similar concern for quality. Ferriss made his first fortune on an unscientific sports supplement he called a “neural accelerator, marketed infomercial-style by experts… probably of the same pedigree just discussed. Oh, and if you dig around on the net, you’ll find plenty of discussion suggesting that Tim is outright lying to his readers about the business’ profitability. And if you’re still not convinced that the promise of a “four hour work week” is snake oil, check out the bitter reviews written by people who carefully followed his formula to get a “four hour body.”

Ferriss also seems to have a deep disdain for most people, and his entire model is built around minimizing or eliminating human contact in the workplace. If you actually like the people you work with, or feel that taking genuine interest in your coworkers’ lives is a human responsibility and virtue, this book isn’t for you.

What makes all this so unfortunate is that Ferriss really does have something to offer: passion and vision for living a wonderful and unconventional life. Most of us are capable of achieving far more than we dream of, and Tim is an excellent coach for pursuing dreams and overcoming fears. These sections of the book were excellent. He’s also really onto something, when laying out the math of how affordable foreign travel can be. Finally, the book has some genuinely good suggestions for increased productivity.

It’s too bad that to find these jewels, the reader has to slog through hundreds of pages of oversold promises about easy riches. I won’t tell you not to read this book, but before you fall under Ferriss’ spell, go pick up an issue of “Entrepreneur” magazine and a couple biographies of business leaders. You’ll find inspiring stories about people who took control of their lives, but you’ll also find sweat, tears, and a hell of a lot of work.

Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

Writing and publishing Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service was a rewarding experience for me.  I was honored to join the conversation about “Disruptive Thinking” and innovation, and my message was well-received (mostly) by all ranks. But the best was yet to come.  Not long after publication, Ben Kohlmann reached out to me.  He and a team of devoted young officers from across all four services were putting together a conference that would move beyond disruptive thinking into the realm of constructive action.  When he invited me to join the board, I leapt at the chance.

I’m thrilled to announce today’s launch of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum.  Our weekend conference will be unlike anything the military has ever seen, because it is BY and FOR emerging military leaders who care about innovation.

Intrigued?  Here are four easy things you can do right now, which will help spread the word.

– Read the launch essay on Small Wars Journal

– Visit the DEF2013 website and sign up for our email list

– Follow @DefConference on Twitter and engage in discussion

– Like DefConference on Facebook

I’ve always been a geek at heart, and I also try to keep one eye on cyber issues because they’re so important to national security.  So lately I’ve been reading numerous books about networking, computer hacking, and hacktivism.

One of the most intriguing books in this collection is We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency by Parmy Olson.  Despite a string of 1-star reviews on Amazon by disgruntled Anonymous members (all curiously posted within a two-day spread shortly after the book’s publication), I thought the book was absolutely riveting.  It is a tour through the digital underground: the IRC chat rooms where attacks are planned and botnets are controlled, message boards where virtual flash mobs are born, and the dark basements where socially alienated teenagers become world-famous hackers.  The exploits themselves are fascinating: social engineering and exploitation, network penetration, data theft, d0xing, denial of service attacks, and many more.  For a nonfiction book, it has plenty of suspense.  I was constantly looking forward to learning what the next attack would be, and enjoyed the progressive revelation of the identities of Anonymous and LulzSec leaders–a subject about which I knew nothing.

The book is also fascinating from a national security and defense standpoint.  It forced me to do some deep thinking about how networks and headless organizations conduct themselves, and how to fight them.  Here are a few of my observations, with the caveat that they are based mostly on this one book.

The author challenges the idea that Anonymous has a powerful hive mind.  In the author’s view, the spread of this belief is one of Anonymous’ greatest feats of social engineering.  In actuality, Anonymous is a brand under which almost anyone can rally, and which has been subject to bitter infighting, splits, and even FBI informing by key members.  Any apparent hive intelligence is less the result of the crowds, and more a result of key leaders or teams within Anonymous.  For example, although hundreds of people participated in some key DDoS attacks, nearly all the computing firepower came from one or two botnet owners.

Following from this, even decentralized networks need leaders.  It’s hard to get anything done otherwise.  It’s interesting that after a period of creative anarchy, some key members of Anonymous broke off to form their own hacking group, LulzSec, which was smaller, more structured, and more disciplined.  Without this kind of centralized structure, groups are mostly limited to lone wolf or one-off attacks.

The very atmosphere of paranoia and anonymity is easy to exploit.  In a virtual environment where nobody knows your real identity, it’s easy for white hat hackers and government officials to roam freely.  The hackers know this, so groups are constantly jumping between communication networks and methods and new, tighter circles of trust are constantly being established and re-established.  As circles slowly expand and trust erodes, new circles form again.  It isn’t easy for groups to function like this.

The author highlights the extent to which core Anonymous hackers manipulated eager wannabes.  During large DDoS attacks, for example, core members encouraged Anons to use free, downloadable software that would allow them to participate in the attacks.  However, they downplayed the legal dangers and didn’t do much to help these less technologically adept recruits mask their identities.  The fun and games were over when the FBI knocked down their doors with arrest warrants.

I had no idea how banal and sordid Anonymous’ beginnings were.  The media plays up the “hacktivist” and libertarian spirit of Anonymous, so I was surprised to hear about the organization’s beginnings on 4chan–within subcommunities that essentially celebrated depravity as a means of escaping boredom.  That included everything from taunting pedophiles, to exploiting and blackmailing young women into sending nude pictures, to swapping photos of appalling violence.  When a new generation of members wanted to steer the hive efforts towards moral or civic goals, they were treated with disdain.  When LulzSec was born, it deliberately rejected crusading and focused on hacking/exploiting for the mere thrill of it.

It’s hard for decentralized organizations to have a coherent vision and mission.  Different individuals and subcommunities came to anonymous with different goals, and these subcommunities could fight bitterly over what they were trying to achieve.  As stated above, libertarian hacktivists collided with those who just hacked to lift themselves out of despair and boredom.

We should be careful when we claim, “it takes a network to fight a network.”  That’s true, but in the defense world, we should only go so far in trying to emulate decentralized networks.  They are fluid and responsive, but they also have severe handicaps.  We should seek hybrid models that allow rapid information sharing and decision-making, but still have strong executive “deciders” who can steer the organization towards a common purpose.

It only takes one mistake to blow your cover.  The Internet is designed in such a way that masking your identity is relatively easy, and a savvy hacker can count on anonymity.  For these reasons, attribution of attacks can be extremely difficult.  However, virtually everything on the net is logged and stored somewhere for future reference, and it only takes the tiniest slip to permanently expose your identity.  In the case of Sabu, one of the core members of LulzSec, a single logon to IRC without his anonymizing software momentarily exposed his IP address. That’s all it took.  So for persistent hackers, it seems like it’s just a matter of time.  Everybody is going to screw up sooner or later.

What you’d expect: many Anons are socially alienated young males living in their mother’s house.  Not all of them, but enough that we can make some hypotheses about why people join groups like Anonymous.  For some it’s really about libertarian ideals and the commitment to the free flow of information, but for others it’s probably not.

Finally, I constantly found myself comparing Anonymous to al-Qa’ida and other jihadi groups.  Not because they pose the same level of threat, but because so many of the organizational dynamics appear to be similar.

Doing disruption right

March 29, 2013 — 5 Comments

IR326 SampleIn my previous post, I told a story about doing disruption the wrong way.  I violated the principles that make disruptive thinking effective, with disastrous consequences.  In this post I’d like to share one time when I really got it right.

When I was a C-17 copilot, Google Earth was still relatively new and pilots in my squadron were trying to put it to work.  It was a great tool for visualizing 3D terrain, especially for airdrop run-ins in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t easy to use; there was no way to link it to the DOD’s mission planning software (PFPS/FalconView), so pilots had to manually enter coordinates for each point.  I thought there had to be a better way.

I spent the next year developing a powerful software program that would convert PFPS data into a format readable by Google Earth.  By the time I was done, it could map routes, plot threats, and manage large collections of colorful 3D airspace.  I was extremely proud of the finished product, and released it through a slick website that included a PowerPoint briefing and capabilities demonstration.

The PFPS Google Earth Tool met a legitimate need, and spread quickly among the crew force.  Still, there were obstacles.  Google Earth wasn’t authorized on Air Force computers.  Most of us got around this by running GE from thumb drives, back when that was allowed (sort of), but it wasn’t an optimum solution.  It also wasn’t certified; I couldn’t guarantee the output was 100% accurate.  This was a rough tool to assist pilots, but nothing more.

As the tool caught on, I started getting phone calls.  A C-130 pilot had used GE to create orientation videos of the drop zone run-ins used by his unit.  He sent me a disk.  A Pentagon staff officer in charge of procuring geospatial tools wanted to use my work to build his case for procuring Google Earth.  A network administrator offered to migrate the tool to SIPRNET, so it could be used for classified missions.  The most important call came from a Major at a USAFA think tank known as the Institute for Information Technology Applications.  They were developing a suite of mission planning tools called Warfighter’s Edge (WEdge) and were intrigued by my work.  They paid for a TDY out ot USAFA, where I hung out with their coders and briefed the retired 4-star who ran the Institute.

Until this point, the software had been my baby.  I’d developed it singlehandedly, and was excited to see it take hold around the Air Force.  But I also knew that I was hitting the ceiling of my capabilities.  The WEdge team offered resources I didn’t have access to: a budget, an entire team of engineers and programmers, access to higher Air Force leadership, and the ability to get software products certified for Air Force use.  I made the painful decision to give them all my code, and transfer full responsibility for the product to their office.  In the year’s since, WEdge has integrated my work into a tool called WEdge Viewer.  It is now Air Force-sanctioned, certified for flight, and in use throughout the Air Force.

This was a success story, and it was a success because I obeyed the principles laid out in my essay.  I found allies (or rather, they found me).  We were able to persuade higher leaders in the Air Force, because we had an excellent product to “sell” and it was packaged well.  We offered something positive and constructive, that could meet legitimate needs.  My allies were able to work through difficult challenges, like flight certification and authorization for installation on government computers.

Most importantly (and most painfully) I was willing to share credit.  I let others run with my idea, and they made it into something great.  I’ll admit this hasn’t been easy.  The tool is in use across the Air Force now, but even my own peers now don’t know that I designed the initial application.  But hey, I changed something, and that’s pretty awesome.  Change in a large institution is always a team sport.

 

If you want to be a successful disruptive thinker, I’ll give you a little hint: if you humiliate your supervisors in front of their own bosses, make people cry, and get called behind closed doors for a dressing down, you’ve probably failed.

Yes, it really was that bad.

Let me give some background first.  First, I am a hard INTJ in the world of Meyers-Brigs personality types, meaning that I have a compulsive need to improve everything I come in contact with.  As you can probably imagine, that is a double-edged sword.  Second, before I began Arabic studies at the Defense Language Institute, I had been working as a Flying Safety Officer at my C-17 base.  That meant my entire job was dedicated to continual improvement.  My colleagues and I were constantly tweaking base processes to ensure maximum safety for aircraft operations.  If a mishap occurred, we ran investigations, identified causal findings, and made specific recommendations to reduce the chances of a similar mishap ever occurring again.  My entire job consisted of identifying areas for improvement, then making constructive recommendations.  Nothing about that, I thought, would be controversial in an organization that valued its own improvement.

When I began at DLI, the Arabic program was a work-in-progress.  The school had tripled in size since September 11th, and it had growing pains.  My classmates and I were appalled to discover that the pass rate at graduation was only 14%–so low that the DOD had to re-evaluate its Arabic DLPT.  Because teachers received merit pay linked to student DLPT scores, the entire school–from the lowest students to the highest administrators–was in a state of constant panic.  Methodology seemed to change every week or two.  Students were failing out left and right because they couldn’t handle the stress.  As for our curriculum, it was an experimental monstrosity of more than ten volumes that had just come out of production and had cost more than a million dollars.  It was terrible.

I though the administration might value some feedback, so I did exactly what I’d done as a flying safety officer: typed up a lengthy list of detailed concerns.  For each of them I listed specific, actionable recommendations that would mitigate the concern.  Nothing about this seemed controversial to me, and I ran it by my classmates before sending it up.  We focused our comments specifically on the curriculum, not on particular teachers or administrators.  I provided my feedback to our Military Training Leader, an NCO embedded within the mostly Arab, civilian faculty.  We all felt pretty good about ourselves for trying to make the organization better.

A few days later, I was stunned when I was called into our head teacher’s office–a wonderful mother-bear of a woman who loved us like her own children, but was as vicious and demanding as a drill sergeant.  She was crying.  “Yacoub,” she choked, using my Arabic name.  “What’s this?”  Then she held up a copy of my paper.  “I thought you liked us, Yacoub.”

Oops.

We suffered through a horrible day, as each of our hurt, confused teachers interrogated us about our “complaint.”  Later that afternoon, the administrator who supervised our teachers paid his first-ever visit to our class… to berate us for violating our chain of command, and complaining to the higher administration without coming to him first.

Here’s what had happened: the NCO had taken our feedback directly to the Dean, the head of the entire Arabic school.  The Dean had then called up his subordinate administrators, wanting to know what this was all about, and they were completely blindsided.  The NCO had also left a copy somewhere on the shared drive where, by complete coincidence, my teachers had stumbled across it. Even as the administration was exploding, the teachers were passing around copies of our “secret” complaint.  Everybody felt betrayed.  Even though our critique was focused on the curriculum, our teachers felt that we were complaining about them.  Both they and the junior administrators were humiliated in front of their bosses.  Even though we had intended our feedback as an impersonal means of organizational improvement, few of the civilians understood that.  This was also my first exposure to how complicated cross-cultural relationships can be.  These were teachers from cultural backgrounds in which personal honor was everything, and shame was an unbearable fate.

Damage control took weeks, and some relationships never recovered.  None of our recommendations were put into effect, although to her credit, our lead teacher tossed out the curriculum and began working late every night to create her own.

Epic, disruptive failure.

This was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life.  The INTJ profile says that we “do not readily grasp… social rituals”, which is extremely harsh but also–just maybe–a little bit true.  At the time I dwelled in a world of ideas, and naively thought that good ideas would stand on their own merit.  The inevitable response to our constructive critique, I thought, would be gratitude and implementation of our ideas.  Not so much.  We weren’t dealing with neutral ideas, I realized; we were dealing with people and feelings and careers and pride and shame.

In my SWJ article, the #1 principle for disruptive thinkers is this: “The goal is persuasion.”  That flows directly from this experience.  My classmates and I were in no position to implement our own recommendations.  We needed buy-in from teachers and administrators, so our goal should have been to persuade them.  That meant presenting them with good ideas, but it also meant constructing positive, trusting relationships in which we could sell our ideas as win-win opportunities.  Our failure to do that (which was largely my failure) led to one of the most awkward situations in my career.

I wish I could tell you I changed forever after that, but I’m not always the fastest learner.  In my next post in this series, I’ll share one more story.  Then, right around the time I’ve convinced you that I’m a hopeless idiot, I’ll share some of my positive experiences with creating change.

To complement my article Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service, I will be writing a series of posts about my own personal efforts at “disruptive thinking” within the military.

I wish I could tell you that all my advice for disruptive junior officers is born of my own innate wisdom.  Alas, that’s not the case.  I learned most of these lessons the hard way.  In the coming posts, I’ll tell it all.

Only a few minutes after I commented sympathetically on Last Wishes of a Dying General, I read Crispin Burke’s devastating takedown.  The subsequent online discussion about both these pieces has given me a lot to think about.  Although Carr’s essay was received quite well among his readers and colleagues, Crispin’s critique resonated with many other officers, who see Carr’s piece as an arrogant, angry rant.

Because I know Carr and what he stands for, I didn’t read his piece that way.  I think a lot of his frustrations are legitimate, and believe he speaks for a lot of Air Force officers.

But as the discussion has continued, and I’ve had more time to reflect on it, it looks to me like Carr’s piece–and the reaction to it–exactly fits the unproductive cycle that I described in Finding Common Ground.

The essay violates several of the principles I suggest for disruptive officers who want to make a difference.  Its biggest fault is that it’s too personal, severely undermining its legitimate points.  It focuses on problems without proposing specific, actionable solutions.  Finally, it is written in a tone and manner that is not likely to persuade senior leaders.

On the other hand, I haven’t been impressed by some of the reactions from older, more senior officers.  I have seen little engagement with Carr’s concerns, or acknowledgement that these concerns are widespread in the Air Force.  Instead, I’ve seen assaults on Carr’s character, statements of good riddance, and dismissals of his critique on the basis that the private sector is worse.

All of this is quite disappointing, so once again, I point to the suggestions for both junior and senior officers in my essay.  These debates need to move forward in positive, constructive ways and I see responsibilities on both sides.

My friend and former Air Force colleague Tony Carr has written a thought-provoking new piece about dysfunctional Air Force culture, titled Last Wishes of a Dying General.  Tony was a Major when I was a young captain and one of the fastest burners I’ve ever seen in the Air Force.  Air Force Intern program, weapons school, SAASS, you name it… he’d done it all, and anyone who knew him would tell you that he was going to be a general, probably with more than one star.  Then, after completing his squadron command, this would-be general stunned everybody who knew him by separating.  This article explains why, and it has everything to do with the ongoing “disruptive thinking” and “bleeding talent” discussion.

In my recent essay Finding Common Ground, I wrote that it’s not especially helpful to talk about the “best and the brightest” leaving in frustration.  However, this really is an example of the best and brightest leaving in frustration.

I won’t repeat Tony’s points here–you should read his essay for yourself–but I want to hit on a couple tangential issues.

First: most of these frustration/disillusionment discussions have focused on the U.S. Army.  I thought it was obvious that these issues are common to the services, so I was shocked to hear a recently retired Air Force general tell me that this was an Army-only issue.  When I pressed him and offered up numerous stories from my own experience, he told me that I was guilty of projecting my own narrow perspective, then finally suggested that perhaps Air Mobility Command was this way, but we’re oddballs because we have such good career prospects on the outside with the airlines.  I couldn’t believe he actually thought that.  The Air Force is boiling with frustration, and Tony’s essay–and the extensive commentary on it–gives us a glimpse of what personnel are talking about across the Air Force on their lunch breaks or at Flight Level 350.

Second, senior leader response.  Shortly after its publication, this article appeared on an e-mail discussion list that I participate in, one which has many senior military leaders.  Only one senior leader (retired) responded, with a disparaging comment about how if Tony really cared about the Air Force, he would have stayed in to make a difference.  On the one hand, I was once again dismayed by how many senior leaders are content to blow off the exodus of talent–one of the primary reasons I wrote my essay.  On the other hand, I recognize the importance of this point.

Somebody raised this same point in the comments section of Tony’s blog: why don’t you stay in so you can be part of the solution?  Tony’s response is one of the best I’ve seen.  I’ll post it in its entirety:

The reason I ran a 9-yard route is pretty simple. I took a look at what my boss was doing and realized I had zero desire to do it. Then I looked at what his boss was doing and realized I had even less than zero. The problems outlined in this post (and many more not in this post) were so intractable, and the authority to address them at my level and 1-2 echelons above so limited, that I could see very little prospect for “difference making” in the next 5-10 years. My career was always driven by making a difference, which most successful careers are. Thus, it was simple to me … if I can’t make a difference for the next decade in this system, it’s too broken to ask my family to endure what that decade would mean. Most people willing to stay under such conditions are the type who don’t think they can do anything else with their lives … hence the dynamic you describe.

The notion of unfinished business will always haunt me. But I concluded I could probably make a bigger difference from the outside than from within. Many others have felt the same and acted accordingly. I’ll tell you what might make me different … had I been free to write an article this vocal (or speak these words in a boardroom this clearly) without being either professionally ostracized or cast aside as a malcontent … I would have been much more likely to stay. Behind all of this dysfunction is a drive for mental conformity that prevents us from talking openly about, let alone solving, our problems.

At the risk of being labeled a malcontent myself, these paragraphs literally make me ache because they ring so true.  I am driven by that same impulse to make a positive impact on the world, but when I look ahead, I feel despair at the prospects of making a difference within the existing system.  Tony is exactly right: the argument that “you should stay in to make a difference” breaks down, if the system is so rigid that it can’t be changed except from the very top.

As for me, I’m still young and plan to stay in for a while.  I owe the Air Force a lot, especially because it’s entrusted me with a spectacular education.  But the Air Force isn’t making it easy for me, and I earnestly hope that senior leaders somewhere are reading essays like Tony’s and paying attention.

My new article is now available on Small Wars Journal, Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service.  It is about how disruptive junior officers and their senior leaders can work together for the continual improvement of their organizations.

If you are visiting Building Peace for the first time from SWJ, welcome!  I began this website to chronicle my time as an Olmsted scholar, and multiply the impact of my education.  Although Olmsted is now behind me, this site continues to follow my ongoing education as a student of war and peace… and whatever else catches my interest.