Bring It On!

Open-Source Learning and Problem Solving

September 21st, 2008 | by Liberal Jarhead |

A couple of big dots connected themselves for me last night, in terms of possible solutions for some of the major problems America needs to solve, including health care, energy, and education.

I was marinating my aching back in a hot bath, reading the last chapter of a great book titled Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, by John Nagl. It’s a great book, by the way, and anyone who wants to increase their understanding of our situation in Iraq and Afghanistan would learn from it. Nagl is a battalion commander in the Army, and the co-author of the recently updated manual on counterinsurgency, and he is smart, practical, and an entertaining writer to boot. I hope he gets to be a general senior enough to make policy someday.

Anyway, Colonel Nagl’s book is a study of the reasons that the Brits steadily increased in competence and ultimately defeated a native rural communist insurgency with foreign backing in Malaya in the 1950s, while in the 1960s and 1970s the comparatively much more powerful U.S. lost a similar war in Vietnam. His main conclusion is that the British army was what management and systems types call a learning organization, while the American army was not.

He lays out a number of reasons for the difference. One of the main reasons is that the British – once they got the right leadership in place, anyway – systematically encouraged small units, and the junior officers and troops in them, to experiment with tactics instead of holding them all to a predetermined set of doctrine and “school solutions.” When anyone found something that worked, or worked better, it was passed up the chain and circulated widely.

That’s open-source thinking and problem-solving, and it applies in many areas. In the computer field, it’s the reason IBM-compatible hardware is a standard, while Wang, which made sure no one except Wang could make components for its machines, is a memory. On the software side it’s the reason Linux is evolving a lot faster than Windows.

When I was managing youth substance abuse prevention programs for the state, we drew heavily on the resources of the federal government, and in particular on their catalog of model programs. Basically, anyone who tries a new program format and finds that it works is encouraged to submit it to the feds. If it checks out, it goes into the catalog of model program designs, and from that point on the federal and state governments will provide subsidies and technical assistance for local organizations using those program models. We studied, and taught, the philosophy of the learning organization in that job.

These situations have some qualities in common:

· Decentralized control;

· Flexibility;

· The concurrent application of lots of talent, trying lots of solutions to a problem;

· Systematic sharing of lessons learned;

· A bias toward fixing the system rather than blaming and punishing people for problems;

· Realistic assessment of problems and setbacks (which is a lot easier when people aren’t afraid that being honest about the downsides will destroy their careers); and

· Leadership that’s open to ideas and feedback from all levels and sources.

In some ways, this sounds like an entrepreneurial model. The differences are in the contrast between protectionism/monopolism versus openness – after all, Bill Gates is certainly an entrepreneur – and in the bottom line, the contrast between being profit-driven and working for the public good. The ideological error too many in our government have fallen into is not knowing the difference and hence turning the powers and assets with which they had been entrusted, to serve the American people, over to managers who had other priorities.

Even when this kind of corruption and malfeasance is not going on, our country and government too often tend to take a nearly opposite approach to the open-source model. We tend, instead, toward:

· Bureaucratized centralized management;

· A “can-do, everything’s fine here, nothing to see, move on” attitude that often ignores or minimizes problems, keeps top leaders in the dark about problems, and shoots the messengers if the problem can no longer be swept under the rug;

· Rigid doctrine and reflexive resistance to innovation; and

· Top-down-only teaching and learning.

So how does this apply to solving America’s problems? Well, it only applies to goals and problems that lend themselves to piecemeal solution, that have to be done in manageable bites in many places. But that covers more ground than it might sound like at first.

A prime example is the institution of the charter school. Contrary to a lot of the noise made by people whose agenda includes undermining or subverting the public education system, charter schools are a solution and not a problem. I know education – that was my first plan for my second career after I retired from the service, and in the pursuit of that I got a graduate degree in education before I changed plans and went back to school to become a psychotherapist instead. One of my professors was a teacher and principal in a charter school, so we learned a lot about how it works. A charter school is a public school, with the same requirements to accept any or all students as any other public school. Before the school is chartered, the board has to approve an alternative curriculum and set of performance measures; the school’s results are closely monitored, and if it doesn’t do an adequate job, its charter gets yanked.

Some innovative methods are being spread through the charter school movement, such as cooperative learning, in which students are organized into groups of four or so, and given projects, which combine multiple subjects in a task as real-world-oriented as possible, to complete as teams with the teacher’s coaching. In addition to helping each other learn information and skills, the kids learn a lot about leadership and social skills.

Anyway, Colonel Nagl’s book sets out a study in how to use the open-source approach to win wars, and most of what he says about Malaya and Vietnam also applies to Iraq and Afghanistan (in fact, he successfully used some of the same methods in a recent tour commanding a combat unit in Iraq.) In fact, we can, and in some cases are, applying that kind of approach to medical and mental health care challenges ranging from finding ways to pay for services to getting those services to the people who need them; for addressing social issues like crime, gangs, and drug abuse; improving energy conservation and shifting more of our energy usage to domestic sources, preferably non-polluting.

I’d like to see our governments – federal, state, and local – doing more to support this kind of approach. How? We follow these steps:

· Seek out people with experience, and people with good ideas – those will often but not always be the same people – get them brainstorming, get their ideas;

· When they come up with things that might work, give them the resources to try them out; and

· Collect the results and share them as widely as possible, using some kind of structured and accessible lessons-learned system;

· Analyzing the key factors and principles that drive, or sabotage, success; and

· Providing other groups the resources to try the things that work, modify them, improve them, and keep reporting back.

As noted, a certain amount of this is going on already. But it’s the exception and not the norm. What we’re much more likely to see is centralized micromanagement and rejection of untried ideas. We see failures to distribute information about successes – and equally important, about the ideas that don’t pan out. Executive leadership often doesn’t listen to the worker bees at ground level. Mandatory optimism is the party line, and the people with the most power to change things often believe their own press. Finally, any innovations that do succeed are as likely as not to fade away when the individuals behind them move on.

We need to institutionalize innovation. It’s hard, but it has been done in a variety of settings. It works better if it starts at the top, and it doesn’t work at all if it isn’t supported there. It takes some courage – a lot of courage, often – for a leader to loosen the reins of micromanagement, knowing that he or she will still be held accountable for the result.

For that reason, we need to have it start at the very bottom too. For leaders to let go of a zero-defects mentality, their followers have to do the same. We, too, have to stop shooting the messengers if we want them not to lie to us.

I like to think that if the people who aspire to lead us give us credit for being adults with our hearts and heads in a decent place, and ask us to join them in turning a new page in our history, a majority of Americans will do so. Innovation and independence are built into our national character. For a few decades now we’ve gotten into some bad habits – we’ve infantilized ourselves to a degree. We’ve gotten selfish and lost a lot of the sense of community that suffused America during the heyday of the “Greatest Generation,” and we’ve come too often to focus on the ways we’re different than the things we have in common, to have an us-and-them outlook on more and more of a micro scale. In a way you could say our culture has devolved or regressed, if you agree with the basic concept that empathy is a measure of maturity. But we have greatness still in us, as all people do. We just need it called forth.

Hard times have a way of doing that – bringing out the best as well as the worst in people. And hard times are starting. Let’s demand, and support, the kind of leadership that makes it the best.

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