From HAL’s Breakdown to Competitive Success

In the classic sci-fi movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on the story by “Golden Age of Science Fiction” giant Arthur C. Clarke, the sentient computer HAL apparently goes insane and kills virtually the entire human crew of the ship.

In the second film, 2010, we learn that HAL had been ordered to lie to the crew, in direct contradiction of his stated purpose: “… the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment.”  HAL reasoned that with the crew dead, he would no longer need to lie to them, thus killing the crew made logical, albeit amoral, sense.  An environment of lies directly led to the failure of the mission and multiple deaths.

Having worked <mumble> years in my professional career, I have seen the lengths to which people will go to spin information to put themselves into a better light and to weaken or even conceal bad news, up to and including blatant lying.  I once found a humorous progression of information transmitted upward to the CEO – it started out with a person saying “It’s a crock of sh*t and it stinks”, and by the time it gets to the CEO it became (going from memory) “Surprisingly small but will powerfully promote growth.”  Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news, especially if it is of one’s own making. 

There are, among many different management philosophies I’ve read about, two elements that I believe are necessary for a organization to truly successfully compete and succeed.  The first fundamental trait, as outlined in the essay Why Honesty Is the Secret Ingredient of Successful Organizations, is the freedom to speak candidly.  Sweeping inconvenient facts about internal or external realities under the rug solves nothing; the truth will out.  And better that your boss learns of these facts from you than from someone else.

In the sci-fi TV series Babylon 5, which I absolutely loved by the way, there is a scene in which the Minister of Intelligence is speaking to the new Prime Minister, Londo Mollari, a regular character in the series.  The Minister is telling Londo about something he was asked to investigate, a subject whose wracking truth causes Londo great pain, and – during the conversation – comments to the effect “… if you cannot say what you mean, you cannot mean what you say.”  Being able to say what you mean, in order to mean what you say, is absolutely priceless, and absolutely critical to an organization desiring long-term success.

To circle back to HAL and my own profession: As an engineer, it is my job to accurately process the data available and filter it through my education, experience, and even my gut instinct to provide recommendations and solutions I believe best.  Sometimes this means telling management what they need to hear, not necessarily what they want to hear.  But only by saying what one means, in order to truly mean what one says, can the accurate situation-on-the-ground be communicated.  This ties to Integrity, one of the two characteristics I argued elsewhere are truly intrinsic properties of a person’s character. 

Part-and-parcel to speaking candidly is the freedom from fear at making honest mistakes.  In the book Corps Business: The 30 Management Principles of the U.S Marines one of the central features is the making of mistakes, and learning from them.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that mistakes are without consequences, particularly given the business the Marines are in, with their opponents being in the same business.  A mistake can, literally, be life-or-death.  But the liberty to make mistakes, so as to try unexpected things (with the corollary that one learns from them), is central to the Marines’ philosophy of fluid tactics and strategy.

Only an organization where individuals have the liberty to speak openly and honestly, and can make mistakes while trying new things, can survive in today’s global competition.  Why?  These two characteristics are foundations of another characteristic of successful companies: agility.

The book When Lean Enterprises Collide, by Robin Cooper, was a book I reviewed for my Management course at Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) when I was pursuing a Masters of Manufacturing Management (completed in 2003).  I took away two core lessons; the first will actually be the subject of an essay at some point.  My second observation was that lean companies that compete in exactly the same way that normal companies do.  It is the pace of competition that differs, and the agility of the company to shift and pivot quickly in response to the market that drives success.

Unlike the good old days when companies could build a dominant lead in a core technology or service, lean enterprises clash, develop competitive advantages that last a few years at best, and then must continually reinvent themselves and their products in a desperate race to outpace the competition.

This ties in well with the Marines.  Warring parties clash, and each side learns from the other: In the book The Children’s Hour, a science fiction novel set in the universe created by author Larry Niven during the period of the Man-Kzin wars, one Kzin (imagine an intelligent tiger) reflects that they and humanity are locked in the “best of schools” – war – where nothing teaches you about the true nature of your opposition quite like fighting it.

“Business is war!” said a character in the movie Rising Sun.  And so it is.  Which means companies that can outpace and seize the initiative usually win.  Key to this rapid-engagement between businesses is the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) first developed by Air Force pilot Colonel John Boyd.  (Side note: He is famous for having a steak-dinner-and-bragging-rights bet.  You and he would meet up in the air, with you being in perfect firing position, right behind him.  Shouting “Fight’s on!”, if he wasn’t behind you within forty seconds of the start of the dogfight, you won.  He never lost.  Why?  Because the pace of his decision-making was so fast you would be starting to react to his move, and he’d already be on his next one, making the decision you just made obsolete in the time it took you to make it.)

Only a company where people can speak candidly to accurately describe internal and external realities, and where there is a freedom to make mistakes while churning out new ideas, can truly succeed in today’s frenzied engagements as companies compete.

Not for nothing are the war manuals of Japan, The Book of Five Rings by Miamoto Musashi, and of China, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, intensely studied by virtually every Asian businessmen.  American businesses would do well to learn from these great military men, in essence reading the playbook of the competition, as well as from the lessons of our own great military minds, minds like Boyd, to outpace our global competition.


© 2013, David Hunt, PE

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