Monday, June 11, 2018

How To Talk Intel To Trump

This is not a political post.

I know, I know!  It seems almost impossible to make an apolitical statement about the current US president.  Hell, I am going to try - really try - and I am not even sure I can do it.  I have strong feelings about it and writing this post may very well do me in.

It is important to try, though, for two reasons:

  1. Intelligence professionals have long had to work for elected officials they did not like personally, professionally or politically.  It comes with the job.  Moreover, the bulk of the responsibility for figuring out how to make the relationship work falls on the intel professional, not the elected official.  That's not fair but it's true.
  2. I have something new to say about how to communicate intelligence to President Trump that might help.
OK.  Let's get to it.

For the last four years I have been running a project called Quickstarter.  Quickstarter connects students with skills with entrepreneurs without those skills in order to increase the odds of success using crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter.  I can talk all day about this project (and how - insert modest cough here - mindnumbingly successful it has been) but the key professional takeaways all have to do with intelligence support to entrepreneurs.

To build the program, I tapped into my own experience as an entrepreneur, best practices in crowdfunding and, importantly for this post, the growing body of literature in effectual reasoning.  Expert entrepreneurs, as it turns out, don't think causally (That's not a misspelling - I meant "causally").  They think "effectually."  

Dr. Saras Sarasvathy of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia did the first research on this idea and a number of other researchers have confirmed, in whole or in part, her results (the best introduction to effectual reasoning is probably her 2010 TEDx talk embedded below).  

If you don't have time to watch the video (and I do suggest you do), she sat down with a bunch of highly successful entrepreneurs and a bunch of corporate, MBA types and presented them with the same problem.  Then she watched (and coded) how they went about solving it.  It turns out the entrepreneurs attacked the problem entirely differently than the corporate guys.  She claimed that the entrepreneurs were practicing effectual reasoning.

What, then, is effectual reasoning?

Well, there is a whole website developed just to explain this (and all the research behind the concept) but it boils down to the difference between these two statements:
  • If I can predict the future, I can control the future. (Causal reasoning)
  • If I can control the future, I don't need to predict it. (Effectual reasoning)
(Note:  Some of you may think you see where this is heading and some of you may already be dismissing it.  I advise both groups to wait a bit before coming to a conclusion.)

Entrepreneurs (highly successful ones anyway) tend to focus on what they can control and how they can use that to move the ball in the general direction of where they want to go.  They don't much care for things like market forecasts or worrying about what their competitors are going to do.  

There is more to effectual reasoning than a worldview that values control more than prediction, of course.  It turns out that highly successful entrepreneurs have four additional principles that they tend to follow as they are thinking through problems:
(Note:  The definitions below are taken more or less intact from the Society for Effectual Action's website but have been lightly edited for length and relevance.)
  • Means (or the Bird-in-hand Principle).  When expert entrepreneurs seek to build a new venture, they start with their means:  Who I am—my traits, tastes, and abilities; what I know—my education, training, expertise, and experience; who I know—my social and professional networks.
  • Co-creation (or the Crazy Quilt Principle).  Since entrepreneurs tend to start the process without assuming the existence of a predetermined market for their idea, they don’t know who will challenge it and see little value in trying to figure that out. Instead, entrepreneurs generally take the idea to the nearest potential user. Some of the people they interact with make a commitment to the venture, committing time and/or money and/or resources and, thus, self-select into the new-venture creation process. 
  • Affordable Loss (or the Manage the Downside Principle).  Expert entrepreneurs think in terms of affordable loss rather than expected returns. Instead of calculating upfront how much capital they will need to launch their project and investing time, effort, and energy in building that capital, the effectual entrepreneur tries to estimate the downside and examines what he/she is willing to lose. The entrepreneur then uses the process of building the project to bring other stakeholders on board and leverage what they can afford to lose together. 
  • Leverage Contingencies (or the Lemonade Principle).  This principle is at the heart of entrepreneurial expertise—the ability to turn the unexpected into the profitable. Expert entrepreneurs learn not only to work with surprises but also to take advantage of them. In most contingency plans, surprises are bad—the worst-case scenarios - but because entrepreneurs do not tie their idea to any theorized or preconceived “market,” surprises can lead to valuable opportunities.
What does all this have to do with President Trump?  Look, we could debate whether or not Donald Trump is as successful as he says he is or as much of an entrepreneur as he claims to be but let's not.  Rather, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he would fall into the category of "highly successful entrepreneur".   

Once you take that step, and you familiarize yourself with the principles of effectual reasoning, you have an alternative interpretation of his actions.  For example, when Trump reportedly asked "Why can't the US use nukes?" many people were horrified.  Seen through an entrepreneur's eyes it could be that he was just exploring the means at his disposal.  Likewise, Trump often floats ideas via Twitter without any staffing or planning.  It could be a sign of dysfunction or it could be that he is merely looking for enough co-creators to move the yardsticks knowing that he can control the narrative with another tweet tomorrow.  He certainly seems to have a disdain for in-depth preparation and forecasts and a preference for action.  Likewise, his approach to the North Korea summit seems to be all about managing the downside risk.  All of this is consistent with someone who is an effectual instead of a causal reasoner.  

Given that virtually all of the governmental enterprise is built around causality and deliberate planning and virtually all of the intelligence enterprise is built around forecasting, it is no wonder that there is a disconnect between the president and the intelligence community.  

Other explanations have been offered, of course.  Trump has been called everything from a sociopathic narcissist to a bumbling idiot to a tool of the Russians to a genius playing n-dimensional chess.  There is certainly evidence consistent with all of these hypotheses.  I am here to suggest one more - the effectual reasoner hypothesis.  I think that there is some good evidence to support this view but, more importantly, it gives real insight into how the intel community might be able to effectively pivot in order to better support this president and this administration.  On the off chance that he is "just" an entrepreneur, here are some things that occurred to me about how the intelligence community could improve its communications with the president:
  • Spend more time talking about opportunities.  We all give lip service to "opportunity analysis" but the truth is the intel community focuses on threats far more than opportunities.  Entrepreneurs want to control the narrative, not react to others.  Look for ways to frame the analysis as an opportunity for action, not as a response to a perceived threat.
  • Teach him the downside.  If Trump is an effectual reasoner, he is highly sensitive to the downside of any deal.  If you know there is a downside, make sure he knows it too.  If you just think there are some downside risks, expect him to ignore you, however.  The best you may be able to do is to define the field of play with bright red lines.  Don't expect him to give much credence to forecasts, no matter how well thought out and nuanced.
  • Re-think how you communicate estimates.  The IC has spent a good bit of time over the last decade thinking about and revising the estimative language it uses and what that language means.  While all this work has been good, it may be meaningless to Trump.  No matter how well we define phrases like "highly likely" and "virtually certain", it probably doesn't matter to an effectual reasoner.  There may be other formulations (eg Does "X will happen (moderate confidence)" = "X is highly likely to happen (high confidence)"?) that could satisfy both the president and the intelligence methodologists.  It would be worth exploring.
  • Talk to him the way he talks to others.  This may have been tried already but I would think the IC's classified twitter-like service, eChirp, would be a perfect way to communicate with this president.  The PDB would be more of an all day thing rather than just in the morning but "chirping" headlines with links to video or graphics that gave deeper insight would certainly take advantage of Trump's well-known preference for short form communications.  Combined with some of the other ideas on this list, it might offer an opportunity to get the president's feedback before it make the news.