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Monday, February 29, 2016

Perils of One-Way Thinking


Napoleon's Disastrous 1812 Russian Campaign

                                                   Click to Enlarge                                                       

Each semester, my friend, who teaches business statistics, brings a framed copy of this illustration*-- devoted to Napoleon's disastrous 1812 Moscow campaign--to class. He uses it to demonstrate how in a single graphic, you can elegantly and intuitively illustrate a narrative’s multiple streams of information.  I value the graphic above all for its depiction of an error in judgment that, I think, holds its own with such cognitive and social biases as excessive anchoring, overweighing data because of their availability, and Groupthink. 

That would be our more than occasional tendency—like Napoleon and his armies in Russia—to become so fixated on a goal that we fail to plan adequately for the return to our starting point. Or, in a variant, neglecting our home base while we’re en route to such a goal.  Both are examples of tunnel vision--a rendez-vous with obsessive one-way linearity.

Dogs of War. In the fall of 1812 Napoleon and his Grande Armée failed to achieve his strategic goal of taking Moscow and much of Russia. Perhaps worse, his strategy treated the return trip in late autumn as an afterthought. His  inadequately provisioned army paid the price, with many of them dying on the vine in their slog back to Western Europe and France. (For added poignancy, listen to Mark Knopfler's "I'm Done with Bonaparte" here.)

Flash forward to 2003, in Desert Storm II when G.W. Bush and his brain trust methodically secured Baghdad but stayed mired in Iraq for years. He should have taken a page from his father’s version of  Desert Storm, with its clearly defined and executed exit strategy.

How again do I get down?

Surviving and Thriving.  In Deep Survival, Lawrence Gonzales notes how mountain climbers get into trouble by hyperfocusing on the  ascent and reaching the summit. Treating the descent as an afterthought can prove fatal. Just as critical, warns Gonzales,  hikers need to  have alternative strategies on tap when poor visibility, adverse weather, and other natural forces scramble their mental maps.

In the business school where I work, alumni visitors to the classroom frequently sell students on the value of temporary overseas job placements. By and large, they are touted as sacrosanct. But in a recent installment of the Economist’s Schumpeter column, Adrian Wooldridge cautioned that many managers who excel in overseas postings ultimately lose ground to managers who stay home, sowing oats of corporate upward mobility. Managers who accept overseas assignments, then, need strong mentor/advocates and guaranteed opportunities waiting for them when they return.

Leaving Breadcrumbs.  In planning and execution, then, strategists and project managers should plan systematically for happy endings. Due diligence is a must; breadcrumbs won't do. 

*from Edward Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

On Crime's Great Enablers: Darkness, Fog, Isolation

The emergence of public electric lighting near the end of the 19th century has to rank among crime's  greatest deterrents.  At the dawn of the 1800s, all-enveloping darkness (punctuated by candlelight) ruled the night. During the following decades, lighting's nonlinear evolution hurtled through whale oil, kerosene, coal gas, arc lighting, and incandescence--the last, which dealt a game-changing blow to street-based crime.

.   .   . lighting companies marketed their product as nothing less than a police force on a pole, notes Ernest Freeberg in his  2013 book, The Age of Edison. After nightfall, urban parks became notorious danger zones, a haven for the city’s dregs and an infernal playground of indecency. Now all that could end, not by converting sinners or reforming criminals, but by harnessing light’s power of exposure. As the mayor of Baltimore put it, ‘an electric light is a nocturnal joy to an honest man, but a scarecrow to a thief.'

The Fog of Crime

Fog aided and abetted criminals as well, adds Christine Corton in her rich sociocultural study, London Fog: The Biography (2015).

[Fog] allowed the criminal, the deviant, and the transgressive to roam the streets unhindered and unobserved. And it placed them in a position to impose their authority on the respectable.
In 19th and early 20th century London, fog became a dreaded smoke screen for pickpockets, muggers, and murderers, playing an enabling role in Bleak House,  The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sherlock Holmes mysteries, and The Lodger, which proved grist for one of Alfred Hitchcock’s earliest films. (Ironically, in real life, Jack the Ripper, writes Corton, did his iconic work on clear nights.)

In the 19th century, fogs would roll in, making outdoor gas lights useless. Carrying ignited tar-dipped sticks, link-lighters—most of them teenage boys—would guide patrons through the mists. More than a few of the lads doubled as pickpockets or led clients into traps in cahoots with confederates.

Much more than an account of crime, London Fog views its namesake literally and figuratively as a toxic consequence of  the coal-fired Industrial Revolution and London’s breakneck urban development. And it explores fog’s disorienting power to obscure societal boundaries as well. 

Fog [writes Corton] became a symbol for the threat to the clear outlines of a hierarchical social order as it dissolved moral boundaries and reassuring certainties with obscurity and doubt.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Darkness and fog camouflage misdeeds. Put rural isolation on the criminal's list of smokescreens as well, advises Conan Doyle via Sherlock Holmes in The Copper Beeches:
You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty, [Holmes tells Watson.]  I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there.
   Good heavens!” [Watson] cried. Who would associate crime with these dear old homesteads.       
They always fill me with a certain horror, [retorted Holmes]. It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.