Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tasting the Pudding Before It's Made

Dr. Michael Watkins was my professor of advanced diplomacy at Harvard Business School, and no professor had more of an influence over improving and shaping my diplomatic skills than he did. For that, I owe him a tremendous debt. He is also a fantastic teacher, author, and human being.

But in his recent blog post on the website of his company, I think his attempt to relate the presidential transition to business transition falls very short of the mark, and is thin in its analysis. But that happens when one tries to view the world from the perspective of any single discipline, and it happens to the best of academics and accomplished elite consultants.

From Dr. Watkins' blog:
President Obama clearly understands that the moment demands heroism. He issued a ringing call-to-arms in his inaugural address: “Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.”

But does our new President have the heroism within him to force (yes force) the nation to swallow some very bitter medicine? Because he strikes me more as a steward than a hero. This is potentially a big problem because consensus-building-on-steroids simply isn’t going to cut it.
Dr. Watkins is definitely spot-on when he says "consensus-building-on-steroids simply isn't going to cut it." But where is the evidence that the actions of this administration will demand "consensus on steroids"? As an internationally accomplished diplomat, Dr. Watkins surely understands the tactical value of framing a strategy in public versus the actual strategy deployed, which can only be discerned in hindsight. It strikes me as imminently appropriate to call for unprecedented consensus in these times, but the call for consensus and the refusal to act in its absence are two very very different beasts. And while the call has now been made, the actual strategy deployed is far from clear.

Dr. Watkins' next comment, however, is a universal but not obvious truth that will surely come to bear, and that we can witness in our own lives and organizations with ease:
He and his administration can listen until the cows come home and what they will hear is a cacophony of conflicting agendas and parochial views.
Yes. Just yes. A thousand times yes. And this is precisely the nature of the beast this administration faces, just as the last administration faced it. But the ability and determination of this administration to confront this timeless beast cannot yet be discerned.

Hence the closing line of the post I offered on this blog for which I hope Dr. Watkins will cut an old student some slack(!):

"I’m not sure I find Dr. Watkins' post convincing in its analysis. By that I mean that I could chew more on the claims if they were backed by specific examples in modern turnarounds or in history - there are plenty from which to draw.

I am also struck that it is way too early even to attempt a judgment about President Obama’s abilities in this context and at this time. Certainly we have strong indications of the quality of his judgment and management skills from his career and especially his two year campaign for the presidency, which was no small feat.

But as with all managers, the proof is in the pudding, and not in the rhetoric. And we simply don’t have enough of it (the pudding) to make any consequential conclusions. But as the post implies, that does not mean we can’t know what to watch for.

Right now I am struck by his strong and effective grasp of both the necessary rhetoric and imagery needed in this moment of time to communicate the great American turnaround (a “rebirth” seems more compelling, as it is a time to remake the nation, not just change course). And that is encouraging - this is not a man with a tin ear for political dynamics as his predecessor had.

And if we’re going to consider the promise of his judgment or future actions based on the inaugural speech, I don’t think any particular lines are quite as instructive (though there are many profound ones) as his obvious choice to deliver a sober, nuts-and-bolts, clear speech. We all know this is a man who knows how to deliver a barn-burner, or inspirational, or soaring speech without parallel. But nothing at this point can be said about the inaugural speech more profound than his particular choice of tone and subject, which was not at all an obvious choice to make.

With the inaugural speech, we begin to see the early makings of the pudding. His choice of tone and subject, his clarity and specificity about this moment we face, and his very telling lines that promise a clear break from both the style and substance of the preceding administration were more telling than any of the words.

That was not the “broad stroke” thin-on-substance-but-a-great-speech-maker caricature of him that was made (always without reason) during the campaign. In the inaugural, we saw a man capable of embracing this moment, a man clearly capable not only of inspiring hope as was his trademark during the campaign, but a man capable of providing clarity, and clearly capable of the arduous and grand task of map-making.

For the rest of it, we have no choice but to keep watching - and participating - with open minds and cautious optimism."

The wonderful thing about really smart, confident, accomplished professionals and good human beings is that they can take criticism with grace and relish. I have the utmost confidence in Dr. Watkins. But at any rate, the grading has long been done, so that confidence could be a little disingenuous I guess.