Freely Sharing Information

I’m three quarters of my way through a book called Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal, a book on leadership, organisational structure, and a way of thinking that’s so insightful I can’t wait to finish reading just so I can start from the beginning again. Other than the Nassim Taleb books I don’t think there’s been another book that’s had as much of an impact on my thinking.

There are tons of interesting insights in the book, many of which I’m sure will crop up in some form or another on this blog in the near future. But there’s one that really stood out and gave me plenty of pause, because it reminded me of a way of thinking that I’d parked because I felt my organisation wasn’t ready for it: that we should seriously consider freely sharing information, across hierarchies, and across teams. But maybe I can change that.

An excerpt from the book, setting the scene for just this need:

The problem is that the logic of “need to know” depends on the assumption that somebody—some manager or algorithm or bureaucracy—actually knows who does and does not need to know which material. In order to say definitively that a SEAL ground force does not need awareness of a particular intelligence source, or that an intel analyst does not need to know precisely what happened on any given mission, the commander must be able to say with confidence that those pieces of knowledge have no bearing on what those teams are attempting to do, nor on the situations the analyst may encounter. Our experience showed us this was never the case. More than once in Iraq we were close to mounting capture/kill operations only to learn at the last hour that the targets were working undercover for another coalition entity. The organizational structures we had developed in the name of secrecy and efficiency actively prevented us from talking to each other and assembling a full picture.

A poor workman blames his tools

There is this idiom that goes something like this: a poor workman always blames his tools (a Google search reveals this might be better known as a bad workman always blames his tools, but I digress).

Having grown up with the idiom oft-repeated to me by my mom, its grown to be such an innate part of me that I never quite questioned it — it was just true  and any evidence to the contrary was simply a cop-out, an easy way to push the blame away from one’s lack of skill.

But today the meaning of that idiom changed for me somewhat. Because today, after almost three years of hopelessly chasing a typing speed record on typeracer, I finally came to within a whisker of breaking it. And with so much ease!

It all started when, on a whim, I decided to take a break from work and quite absentmindedly pointed my browser to the typeracer website. It was a game I loved (because I was good at it and because typing is a beautiful skill to be great at) but started to despise due to worsening scores.

(A little aside: the worsening scores started about a year ago after switching to an ASUS Zenbook, a beautiful laptop with an awful keyboard; I’d migrated after my MacBook Pro 2010 conked out and being a little crash-strapped I couldn’t bring myself to splurge on another MacBook (which, by the way, was both beautiful and had an excellent keyboard). I felt the ZenBook’s keyboard was worse, but thought that it was all a matter of “getting used to it” – being a strong believer of the “a poor workman always blames his tools” I just blamed myself for my worsening typing scores: I’m getting old, I thought).

So, as I was saying, I was working on my office computer, a Dell Inspiron E6230 (a seriously serious laptop that looks a tad too pragmatic, like a North Korean computer), when I decided to take a break on typeracer.com.

Within the first few games I played I noticed something different – with relatively ease, I found myself typing above all-out efforts on my Zenbook. My accuracy was up, and so was my raw typing speed. Boom! and boom! Accuracy and raw speed? No way!

Within 10 races I was up to my old MacBook speeds. And within 20, I was above my old MacBook speeds. The keyboard made a huge difference.

And then it dawned on me. It might be true that a poor workman always blames his tools. But that doesn’t mean a great workman cannot blame his tools when it’s called for!