Musings on decisions and factors that drive them.

Rubric, purpose, context

Can we at least agree on what we are trying to achieve?

Thomas Friedman writes of the need for Obama to define a "a clear, simple, repeatable narrative to explain his politics." Friedman refers to this needed statement as a "rubric" (a statement of purpose or function).  It is this latter label that reveals the true value of such a statement.

A context or purpose is essential to a plan or strategy.  As a framework for suggested actions, it allows one to see clearly the actions' relative value in terms of achieving higher level objectives. It is more than just a means for "spinning" messages, or of preventing the possibility that actions will be "easily obstructed, picked off or delegitimized by opponents and lobbyists."  Although these may be some side benefits of having a clear purpose to frame one's actions, they should not be the primary intent.

Friedman has actually roughed out a good starting point for organizing the thinking in Obama's national plan.  Its purpose (depicted on the left in the illustration), the broad brush strokes of fairly high level objectives (in the mid section), and a general reference to tactical actions suggested to achieve the objectives (depicted on the right).

This outline should be taken a step further.  The key would be to weight the objectives (those in the middle).  Many people would argue that "All are needed.  They are all important."  This is not disputed. All objectives are on the list because of this very truth...they are all needed.  Health care, energy independence, education, infrastructure, national competitiveness.  However, there is still a relative priority, a relative importance to undertaking improvements to them.  Determination of this relative importance comes by comparative analysis of each against all others, in terms of the context and additionally considering in that comparison the current known status of each as well as the time frame of the plan.

Once relative priority of the objectives is defined, the next step is to assess the more tactical actions being suggested against all objectives.  Typically, one action will have been developed in terms of one objective. However, an action could serve multiple objectives. The critical nature of any action is determined by its influence upon supporting the achievement of more than one objective, factoring in the relative importance of each of those objectives.  It is the cumulative merit that makes some actions those that are the "king pins" of one's plan.

Most persons might think that this type of prioritization work would take days.  It doesn't.  It can be done in hours. Others will argue that politics will never allow this to work.  One can understand the frustration of Senator Evan Bayh leading to his recent resignation.  The key is of course, to have a willingness by a group to commit that time (hours), to be open for reasonable discussion, and to be respectful of others' thoughts.  We have seen the most divided groups find common ground, and elevate their work because of their ability to serve a greater purpose. Agreement on purpose is the beginning of the execution of a plan in which everyone is functioning as a team, which is why having such a statement is vital.

Political Polls and Popularity

Chasing the numbers vs. doing the job

My hat is off to David Axelrod for stating that the current administration won't be worrying about polls re Obama's popularity. Many cable news pundits are saying ignoring the numbers shows "lack of political savvy." Consider, however, how many Americans would say they admire "politicians?" Most people would prefer seeing some positive tangible results after an election. They want to see a job get done. It is annoying to elect someone who then cares more about focusing on re-election than on the job they were elected to do. Take heed, Congress.

The desire to prove worth through attaining position, as opposed to having our deeds create value (even if at some personal expense) permeates our culture. How often do persons in business seem more worried about advancement to a subsequent job (on a upwardly mobile "career path"), than in accomplishing positive substantive change in the job that they are in? What is the typical description of these types?  "Political." This word has evolved to become anything but a positive adjective.

Numbers do have value, in their place.  They can reflect the relative merit of choices under consideration.  They can assess the results of actions, and allow one to steer a better course.  Yet, to chase numbers in and of themselves is not wise.  The key is to know when and which numbers will help you toward a goal, and which will distract you from that purpose. One's purpose, of course, must be more than something self-serving.  Thank you, Mr. President!  And you, too, Mr. Axelrod.

Purpose for War

Years ago a friend was telling a group about an episode in his life in which he countered an aggressive person pushing him with, "Hey, your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins." A lawyer present said, "Actually, swinging the arm is 'assault.' 'Battery' is when it connects with the nose. " Another person said, "Aren't you describing the difference between 'diplomacy' and 'military action?'"

Perceptions have been that the U.S., as a nation, has acted as a bully, attempting to inflict a value system (one which we may love) onto others who may or may not desire it. We have not only "swung our arms," we've "connected with noses." In an absurd twist, the very act of forcing others to adopt "freedom" is counter to its meaning.

Originally, the Afghan war's purpose was defensive, i.e. to prevent further terrorist attacks. No one disputes that terrorist training camps existed in Afghanistan, and that they were tolerated by the then-government. Military actions were taken to remove these training camps and those who ran or supported them. One could say, validly, since the U.S. had been attacked by those who had been trained in these camps, that these actions were taken "in defense."

When a purpose changes, however, actions being taken may not align with or best serve the new purpose. Additionally, actions other than those underway, and which might better serve the new purpose, are overlooked. When the purpose of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq shifted during the Bush administration to being a "cause" for "spreading democracy worldwide," a critical change occurred.

"Promotion" is an aggressive word, in that it is acting outwardly. It describes the act of pushing for something. The perception of once-defensive military actions clearly shifted to a view of our taking actions to force the adoption of a new value system. Yet, the "push," the aggression, continued to be veiled by the word "defense," and it is this that has caused both anger and confusion. Learning from our mistakes is a must.

Agreement must be attained on whatever is the purpose of these wars, as Obama has indicated. Once this overarching reason for taking actions is defined and agreed upon, all potential actions should be assessed in terms of it.

If we wish "to promote democracy," if that is the agreed-upon purpose, is war the best mechanism to do so? Are there not peaceful means to do so? If the agreed upon purpose is other than the promotion of democracy, a different set of actions may be put forth. In either case, actions should be assessed in terms of the purpose. It is then that they will be understood for what they are, and, at least, the aura of deceit will abate.
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