There are mirrors everywhere…even in The Navy

Last night, I had the good fortune to speak to a group of Navy captains as part of their continuous learning program sponsored by the Naval Postgratuate School in Monterey, CA. (See for more information about their mission and programs.)

The simplicity of our metaphor (we reflect ourselves in the systems that we build; as such, to transform our information systems, we must transform the organizations that design, build, and maintain them) was immediately embraced by this engaging and articulate group of Navy leaders.  Though many at the dinner seemed to believe that their particular difficulties with institutional technology were more complicated than could be addressed by such a “catch phrase,” they asked challenging questions in order to better understand these principles and how they might be applied in specific circumstances.

I’m inclined to share two of the many conversations I had with these Navy captains and admirals, not to over-simplify their very complicated technology environments, but to serve as examples as we strive to apply what we know to what we don’t yet know.

Example 1: Trying to explain complex security algorithms to business executives (for funding)…

Executives “glaze over” when asked to understand the technologies of two-factor authentication or deep packet intrusion protection. However, they understand in great detail the risks of illness, and our various tools that can be used to address them.  A thermometer costs $9.98 and effectively identifies a fever that can be addressed by ibuprofen.  Magnetic Resonance Imagery (MRI) is much more expensive yet effectively identifies a mass in an organ that would require even more expensive oncological treatments. There is a risk-reward ratio that tells us it is ineffective to treat brain cancer simply with ibuprofen, and similarly ineffective to treat the common cold with radiation.  As parents, we make such decisions every day.  By asking the executives to understand the risks inherent in underfunding intrusion protection, and the consequences of providing the funds only for ibuprofen, they will be able to better understand the nature of the challenge and its proposed response.

Example 2:  We are convinced that a broader data search will yield more valuable results than the simple search being recommended, yet our executives don’t understand the complexity of tiered/virtualized storage.

Imagine that you are organizing a yard sale to yield some profits from your attic that is filled with no-longer-needed posessions.  You could simply provide your own used items for sale, or you could spend the time coordinating a neighborhood-wide yard sale on the assumption that there may be even more valuable items forgotten in the basement of the people who live down the block. How do you convince them to allow you to look through their basement, possibly discovering an old (inherited) painting that they didn’t remember, but could bring a substantial profit at your yard sale?  It is delicate diplomacy, requiring trust and an additional amount of administrative trivia, but the larger value to the entire neighborhood is compelling.

As I explained at our dinner last night, I do not mean to diminish the urgency or complexity of current technology initiatives.  On the contrary, applying this metaphor and understanding its human-centric components may add many complications we’d rather not confront.  There is no right or wrong – businesses have many constraints.  However, the application of the metaphor (and its resulting change in behavior) reduces the risk of miscommunication, and helps everyone understand the objectives in a more participatory way.  This becomes more complex, over time.  Yet there are fewer surprises (setting expectations) and less blame when projects exceed their initial timelines or cost structures.

Explore posts in the same categories: About the Book, Examples

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