In Defense Of Obama

The Republicans are making a big fuss over President Obama staying in Cuba and going to a baseball game, instead of “immediately hopping on a plane” back to the USA to call together a grand meeting of his advisers and demand a plan to defeat ISIS. I think that is a bit ignorant as a position.


It reflects a point of view on the way things get done that is rooted firmly in the 1950s. Top down person to person command and control with no pre-work / speculative prep.

The Meeting Fallacy

I’ve been The Manager called into just such a meeting of the Lord High Mucky Mucks. I’ve been The Manager calling just such a meeting of my direct reports. I learned things. First off, most of the time I was listening to The Lord telling me to do my job when I had been doing it prior to being pulled into the meeting. In the meeting I was actually thinking about how I’d really rather be back at my desk actually doing my job and how it was very inefficient to suck and hour or two out of my day to have me sit idle while I was told to do what I already knew to do. As Manager In Charge, I learned to see that same look in the eyes of my people.

The result? When I was Manager In Charge during the aftermath of the Loma Prieta Quake, I had a “2 minute huddle” (outside on the grass ;-) with my direct reports and basically said “I want {this} end goal. Do you need anything from me? If you need me, you have my cell number. I’ll be around. Go take care of things.” That is all it takes. We had a very successful response from assessment to final repair.

The “huddle” is far more effective than the “meeting”.

The Tell Them To Plan Fallacy

Furthermore, we had already created a “Disaster Recovery Plan”. It was on the shelf. Guess what, the U.S. Military has a very large “war gaming” department that has plans already written and on the shelf for how to invade, take down, recover, restore, bomb, not-bomb, etc. etc. for just about every country in the world and for any / all “terrorist organizations”. Now I doubt we have a plan for the invasion of Canada… but I’d not be surprised if we did. (Pardon, might I drive on up to Alaska with my chums? Oh, thank you. Mind the treads on the tanks, please…) The point being that there is zero need for The Prez to “tell them to draw up a plan” to take down ISIS. I’d expect there are 3 or 4 alternatives already on the shelf.

While it is still the case that many companies do not have such speculative pre-planning operations, it is also the case that having a Disaster Recovery Plan is obligatory for many companies (due to some arcane laws I won’t go into here) and many Marketing operations have several “plans” available. Furthermore, most Engineering groups have several plans on offer. At Apple, it was common to have 2 or 3 different groups working on spec products and then toss away all but one prior to final build decision. Not just a plan, an entire active development group. That is part of why Apple can keep making the cool stuff. Internal competitive plans and projects. “Single Threaded” planning is soooo 1950s…

Now it’s about ‘pre-plan’ and even ‘pre-work’ and ‘speculative planning’. No, I don’t know if anyone else does that, really. I do know the Military does it, and I do know that Apple did it when I was there. I didn’t see it in the text books of the MBA program I was in, but then again that was a long time ago and I did the teaching credential thing instead of finishing the MBA. So maybe it is an “Apple thing”… but then again a LOT of ex-Apple folks are all over The Valley here.

Look at Google, and you will see many alumni. Golly, what does Google do? Lots of “wild and crazy speculative projects”. They get widely criticized for it in the Financial Press. The Financial Press is firmly rooted in a 1950s ideation about how an ‘efficient’ company ought to work. Full of Calvinist ideas about being driven and narrow focused and tightly controlled. Completely missing that that drives all joy and with it all creativity out of an organization. But I digress… Google has made huge buckets of money, and will continue to do so, just as long as they have a big basket of “time and money wasting crazy projects” going on internally. A few of them will make $Billions in future years. Best not to murder them in the cradle… That is the power of pre-plan, pre-work speculative projects. Better that you find the “disruptive tech” that is going to obsolete your present business model, rather than that someone else do it.

The Military already knows this. That’s what war games are all about. They already know “how to defeat ISIS” and “how to invade and destroy ISIS in Syria and Iran”. All they need is the “2 minute huddle” that says “YES, I want that done. Go do it.”

The Physicality Fallacy

Hop on a plane to fly to D.C. in order to have a meeting to ask for a plan to be developed to do something in a year? Really? Never heard of FaceTime? Email? Heck, even radio?

Air Force One is the White House. It is a complete mobile command, control, and communications center, Presidential Palace, and Board Room. It is NOT just a transportation device.

Don’t these folks ever watch NCIS and see the MTAC?
Don’t they think Air Force One has such ability? Sheesh…

IF Obama wanted a “meeting” with the set of strategic thinkers that were to make a ‘take down’ of ISIS happen, he can do that between lunch and desert on Air Force One. They might all be in different countries, or even on different continents. So?

In reality, all Obama really needs to do is take out the Presidential Secure Blackberry and send a short text: “Select the best plan to take down and destroy ISIS. Have it ready for implementation soonest. Advise on best start date. The Prez.” Yes, that would be enough. It would have the advantage of not wasting 4 or 5 hours of flying to D.C., an hour of helicopter time, shower, shave, etc. etc. Hauling other folks all over the world into a meeting the next day, then a few hours of meeting, then they could get back to work and start on things 2 or 3 days late…

During that Loma Prieta Quake, I contacted my Boss via cell phone. He was off somewhere else, I don’t even know where. I gave a “2 minute status” of what things were like, what I’d done, and what was in progress. He said, in essence, “Sounds like you have it all under control. Keep doing it. Let me know if you need anything. Thanks.” All up maybe 3 minutes. THAT is “command and control” in the 1990s. Now we’d be doing the same thing with FaceTime or Video Chat and I’d show video of the computer room mess while talking. Maybe add a minute for “happy talk” about how much a mess it looked…

There is ZERO need for physicality presence for executive function. NONE.

While at Disney, we tested the Disaster Recovery readiness of a collection of all their core applications. This is one of THE most technically challenging things you can do. Disney has global operations and parks. Somewhere north of 60 different applications used for everything from running the hotels to running the rides to scheduling staff to letting guests keys work in their rooms to ordering food to getting bags and people from the airport to the right hotel on time (and back for their return flights… Yes, they have “an app for that”, DME Disney Magical Express was one of my applications. You land at the airport and are already “checked in” to your hotel. Bags just show up in your room and you can go straight to the park if you want, delivered by the scheduled Disney transport…) So just about all the minutia of every operation. We swapped ALL of that to running on the remote D.R. Site and tested it (with sample data, not with the actual running data, but with staff at the actual work stations doing what they normally would do.) Then we swapped it back again. The whole thing ran about 2 days. During the whole thing I never left my desk for work purposes (I did for sleep, food and coffee and…) and never saw the folks that were actually doing the work.

Now some of those folks were just upstairs, one floor above me. My “office mate” in the next cube over was of course where I’d see them. On one of the earlier tests, we’d “booked a conference room” and had the 2 folks who had run it before (contract ending so they were being rotated out) the 2 of us, and The Top D.R. Boss (who reported to Exec level) all in that one room, but everyone else not. In the later run it was just the 2 of us at our desks. The rest of The Team was either “just upstairs” at their desks, scattered around Orlando in other buildings, or in Anaheim California at their data center operations area, or at the office desks there (for the contract manager running the show there) or in India. We had one D.R. person and some of the technical staff in India. Another D.R. person (the primary coordinator manager) and some of the staff scattered around Anaheim. Two of us and The Boss in Orlando. And I think there were a few folks in other misc. places like Nevada and North Carolina. Hard to say… Oh, and some times various of us were on cell phones in our cars or at home…

This was a grand “Conference Call” call bridge with a central call in number. Team members would join when their time to act approached, and drop out when they were done. Schedule updates (and there were many as “things change”) sent via email and text messages. My team mate and I ‘split up’ who would be covering when the other needed to sleep, and coordinated between us via cell / text. I’d guess the total staff involved at somewhere around 150 people. Maybe more as there were a couple of layers of management that would “drop in” to the call from time to time but not necessarily announce, and there were some groups who connected from a conference room and just left the phone up as people entered / left the room. Any complex communications handled via email, attachments, and the occasional “shared screen”. (It can be just a bit spooky to see your mouse moving and you are not doing anything ;-) Oh, and some video chats. A grand salad of electronic communications methods. A “many to many” matrix of people and media and methods.

All of this done with a Live Park, Live Hotels, entire live operation, and no “hiccups” to production.

That is how you “manage a project” in the 2000s. Physicality is sooo 1950s…

FWIW, another friend just moved to North Carolina. He works for CISCO. He is a Project Manager for things scattered all over the continent. He works from his desk at home…

The Ball Game

So what is Obama’s “Highest and Best Use” at the moment in time where the attack had already happened? To send a text or video message to “The Team” to say “You have the ‘go ahead’ to start the {whatever he sets as the direction}. Let me know if you need anything from me. Advise when ready to proceed. The Prez.” AND then continue with his diplomatic mission.

There is essentially NOTHING to be gained by disrupting the diplomacy of both presidents watching a shared cultural event of baseball in Cuba. IF anything urgent comes up, he is surrounded by folks with communications gear. Anything that isn’t handled by underlings ought to be no more than a text approval / choice anyway. Executives set a direction and do QA on the layer below them. Actual detail work ought to never hit their desk (unless someone screwed up). There is a great deal that can be lost by a U.S. President “snubbing” another president and “bailing” on a show of cultural shared values. Snubbing the entire people of Cuba in the process. Sure there’s “a good excuse”, but that is all it is.

I’d further assert that since this did happen in a Foreign Country, all the detail work of the actual event belongs to them. ALL the U.S.A. can or ought to do is send a message: “Sorry for your loss. If there is anything you need from us, let us know. I’ve directed {staff list} to cooperate fully. Advise when ready to proceed.” Then inform that staff list that you have delegated to them the responsibility and authority to respond as they decide is best. It is VITAL for any executive to effectively delegate. You choose folks based on their ability to “run their own show”. Let them. (Train, council, or commiserate as needed, but later).

So all up, if The Prez spent more than 5 minutes on those messages, he’s wasted time. IF he canceled scheduled diplomatic events, it would be a “snub”, only the size is in question. Any such cancellation would NOT be of any actual benefit, only a “show” for the media. The President is NOT out of communications when watching a baseball game, nor beyond effectively doing “command and control” when anywhere in the world. At no time was he “out of touch” and not “doing his job”.

In Conclusion

I have no idea what orders he gave, or what direction he set. We can, and should, be critical of that if it is a “step back from leadership, do nothing” direction. But we ought not be critical of the way it was done. He’s just a 2nd Millennium Manager who understands the Fallacy of Physicality and knows there are already “plans on the shelf” for whatever he wants done to ISIS. He knows he is in effective full time contact with everyone on his team, wherever he is.

In some ways, I think he deserves a bit of admiration for deftly balancing the set of issues, seeing that “Diplomatic Figurehead” was his “highest and best use” at that moment while more data was gathered from “folks on the ground” in Belgium, and delegating the immediate actions to his staff.

Lord Knows I’ve had way too many overexcited Uber Managers wanting to micro manage things that would be best served by them getting the hell out of the way and letting folks who know what to do, do it, instead of me teaching them 1/10th of it so they might have a bit of clue why it was important for them to go have coffee and come back in an hour… I’ve done the teaching, and politely, but it was time lost to solution… even if needed for “organizational servicing”. It is the normal mode for hierarchical organizations.

Now what I think he ought to have added, is a simple announcement of a later press conference. He could have called a fast “press huddle” prior to the speech to the assembled dignitaries. A specific and separated event. In about 2 minutes he could have said:

“I have directed my staff to {goal he has set} and report to me with the best way to handle events in Brussels. I will be electronically conferencing with them throughout the day and into the night. We will be having a press conference to discuss this in more detail, sometime in the coming days, but be assured we are ‘working the issues’. Our condolences go out to the people of Brussels and they ought to know that we stand ready to provide whatever aid they need. I’ve appointed {person} as primary coordinator during this time and they will be in contact with officials in charge in Belgium. Now, if you will excuse me, I have some scheduled Diplomatic Duties to perform while I wait for my staff report of progress.”

IMHO, that would have collapsed much of the criticism he’s presently taking. Criticism that IMHO is not valid.

Frankly, I find it refreshing that we have a President who doesn’t just drop everything and run off to panic meetings every time something goes bump in the night, just for the “Optics” show. He just needs to better communicate that he is ALWAYS in communications with his staff, even on the golf course… There’s a whole lot of us out here who have carried a “duty pager” and later the “duty cell phone” and now the “personal always on” cell phone and know just how demanding it can be.

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About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
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10 Responses to In Defense Of Obama

  1. Larry Ledwick says:

    The bad news is the rumor mill has it that he is exactly the opposite, his security team is notorious for micromanaging everything all the way down to specific bombing missions. They did not learn a thing from LBJ and Vietnam. Instead they made it worse instead of one micro manager (LBJ) you have a whole team of them while the boss gives inconsistent, and unrealistic guidance which flies in the face of his qualified cabinet level folks like the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

    Obama told them that on the ISIS air campaign he wanted Zero civilian casualties, not minimized civilian casualties but he literally meant and enforced a doctrine of zero civilian casualties. That is why the campaign as been such a bollixed up mess.

    I agree in principle to what you are saying but he is totally tone deaf to that simple little gesture of command that tells the public we are working on it, my staff is on top of it. He does that sort of thing a day late and a dollar short, while his staff make it a nightmare for the grunts on the ground by doing exactly the thing you council against. They apparently are in love with long meetings and study groups and consensus building instead of delegated authority and the responsibility to take action.

  2. philjourdan says:

    A lone incident is one thing. This is a pattern with Obama. Paris, San Bernadino, Benghazi, etc.

    He is not a delegating manager. He is an absent one.

  3. Adam Gallon says:

    Had a similar thing over here, late last year. After some flooding in Cumbria, the cry went up “Why isn’t the Environment Agency chairman here?”
    The answer came back, “He’s in Barbados”
    Cue much squawking from the media.
    Now, instead of said EA chairman telling everybody, that he’s got a very capable team on the scene and to cut his holiday short just to wander around in green wellies & a raincoat, wouldn’t do anything useful & would cost the taxpayers money for a flight back and he’d be back at the end of the week he said that he was at his wife’s home in Barbados and monitoring things from there.
    Turned out, his wife didn’t have a home in Barbados, but in Jamaica.

  4. Terry Jay says:

    Your message is spot on as regards handling the crisis. I think the criticism is more around his demonstrated ‘can’t be bothered’ approach. Dead Ambassador? Off to Las Vegas. Funeral for a Supreme Court Justice? Golf Course.

  5. E.M.Smith says:

    Well I tried to find a silver lining…

    OK, you’ve beaten me into submission and my feeble attempt at some kind of “balance” and “finding the good in everyone” is inadequate. Got it…


  6. Curious George says:

    How long does it take to call someone after a major earthquake? I gave up after 45 minutes following the Loma Prieta quake.

  7. John F. Hultquist says:

    Well, E.M., I agree with you. Regardless of what he might have done, there would be no difference in Brussels given what he did. And, the process in Cuba would have been disrupted.

  8. E.M.Smith says:

    @Curious George:

    For me, it was basically no wait. He was away from the quake zone and had power, I was on a cell phone that never went down and there were not that many cell phones then. It was one of the “industrial strength” carriers of the day and it was a corporate phone… So I had no delay.

    It also depends a bit on when you place the call. IFF it is after the major news shows have broadcast the story, everyone in the world is calling family and friends in L.A. to ask them if the SFO quake killed them… but if it is just a few minutes post quake, and the “news” is still sorting out the story, very few folks are on the phone, they are all standing outside…

    @John F. Hultquist:

    Nice to have at least one vote for my “side” ;-)

    Though I do have to admit that the “other side” is correct in that He doesn’t delegate worth a damn and would never think of doing an “announcement of delegation”.

  9. David A says:

    “He doesn’t delegate worth a damn and would never think of doing an “announcement of delegation”.
    I must agree with this observation. I too was often frustrated by the ineffectiveness of many meetings. OTOH, I have seen some few very effective meetings lead by very competent planners that kept all on track, and effectively moved the group into better organized action. Your success in crisis, was clearly a result of proper planning, training and management, something I have seen little of from the man who murdered a foreign head of state, threw that small nation into chaos killing thousands and causing tens of thousands of refugees, with zero plan of what to do after taking such an action.incapacity to articulate most any argument.

    I think your criticism of the republican expression of complaint, focusing on style instead of substance, is also correct and unfortunately typical of republican media incompetence.

    Obama apparently with his hubris, “I am going to tell you right now I am a better blah blah blah then my…” (pick you expert) quote, his skipping of intelligence briefs, his absence during Benghazi, is a pure ideologue who already knows everything and has exhibited a disdain for western civilization.

    It should be noted that the Presidential position is also symbolic, and as such this must be taken into consideration.

    P.S. Thanks for the lunch meeting, and I hope you find the venture into Vedic mathematics interesting.

  10. Larry Ledwick says:

    Reference the issue of Obama micromanaging the military, this video is a good capsule of some of the problems in this administration with its intrusion into military decision making.

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