Thursday, March 27, 2008


Everything I Needed to Know About Management I Learned From Satan

posted by barsoomcore

On the left is an image of Satan. Perhaps you know him better as "The Bad Guy". "The One You're Supposed To Hate". "The Not Very Nice At All And You Shouldn't Even Stop To Talk To Him On The Street Because Nobody Wants To Know Him Guy".

And yet, you gotta admire the guy. He's got confidence, give him that.

I mean, here is a guy who KNOWS his boss is OMNIPOTENT. Most people won't go up against their boss even if their boss is a feeble old guy who's so cranky everyone hates him and would cheer on anyone who takes a shot at him. But Satan, his boss is God, right? So Satan's well aware of the fact that his boss can do anything. God doesn't have to kick Satan's ass, because God can just cause Satan's ass to kick itself.

And yet, Satan goes up against him anyway. Not only that, but he convinces a whole host of angels -- generally considered to be doing okay in the brains-n-wisdom department, right? -- to do so alongside him. I'd love to have sat in on those planning sessions:

"Okay, Satan, we're with you. Now, what's your plan for overcoming God's omnipotence?"

"You're going to love this, guys..."

I mean, I would think that would be a hard sell. Me, I'd have some tough questions for the guy who's trying to sell me on going up against the guy who not only has all the cards, but owns the table and gets to decide the rules. And deals. I'd probe. I'd start probing.

What's fascinating though, about Satan (or at least Satan as Mr. Milton describes him (yeah, just read Paradise Lost. It's good)), is that he doesn't really do much convincing. He's not a salesman, nor is he a great strategist, nor, let's be honest, is he really thinking all that clearly through much of the story. What he is, however, is a fantastic leader.

Satan knows just what to do to get people excited about stuff, and to keep their spirits up. While God is up there commanding Thrones, Principalities and Virtues to gather around and sing songs about how great he is, Satan is dealing with some cranky and disappointed team members. Morale is low, down in Hell, as well it should, I guess.

But the thing is, if Satan WASN'T Satan, and if God WASN'T God, there's no question that Satan would be the one enjoying Paradisal comforts. And well-earned, too.

Okay, lessons in management from Satan:

Lesson One: Deal

Satan gets kicked out of heaven, plunged God-knows-exactly-how-far and lands, literally, in Hell. Things are, pretty much by definition, as bad as they can possibly get. If they could be worse, then you'd be thinking, "Well, this isn't really so bad," and we can't have people in Hell thinking that, now can we?

So he's in Hell, as are all the angels who signed up for this little project. What does he do? Rant and rail against his fate? Beat his breast and throw a temper tantrum? Start laying blame on his team members? No sir. Not Satan.

Instead, he looks around, and says, "Well guys, that didn't go so well. We didn't get what we wanted, and this place looks pretty crappy. Let's build a huge city and live in it."

Lesson One is "Deal." We used to play a lot of hearts in high school and if someone started to bitch about how crappy a hand they'd gotten last round, the table would mutter, "Shit happens. Deal." Last round was last round, and this round the cards are reshuffled and you might as well use them as best you can.

Think of Satan -- chucked into Hell, he immediately starts his team off on a new project. He knows they need something to give them direction and purpose, and he finds something worth doing right away. He doesn't waste any time.

Lesson Two: Risk

When things have gone wrong, that's time to throw caution to the wind and take a flyer. Not time to start looking for scapegoats and chucking blame around. And that's our Satan. No sooner is he ensconced in his shiny new city at the heart of Hell than he leaves, and not for the comforts of a four-star hotel.

No, Satan announces to his assembled crew that somewhere out in the dangerous, trackless wastes beyond Hell he's sure there's a place where they can live in prosperity. He's just got to find it.

And he doesn't pawn this task off on someone else. He knows perfectly well that his crew will fall apart if they don't see him willing to put himself on the line for their sake. So off he goes into the wild Chaos that surrounds Hell, tossed and torn by the waves of chance and darkness.

Lesson Two is "Take a Risk." You can't lead people if they don't believe you'll go out on a limb for them. You can only lead as you develop an unselfish desire to serve and care for others. Satan puts himself at risk and attempts something truly dangerous in order to find a better life for himself and his comrades. No wonder these angels followed this guy up against God. He puts himself on the front line.

You stop arguing when you see someone so ready to commit. Logic isn't what motivates and excites teams. Commitment in the face of risk is what gets that ball rolling.

Lesson Three: Trust

Satan hands power over to his cohorts readily. He finds the World, all newly created by God, and goes ahead and does his whole bit with the apple and all that, and on his way back runs into a couple of his bestest buddies, who've followed him and have been busily building a handy bridge from Hell to the World.

Does he put them down? Does he worry that they're going to steal his thunder? Not Satan! He invites them on in. He says, "Check it out; it's a whole world and it's never seen anything like us. You guys go on in there and get comfy on the sofa, you're probably pooped after building this fantastic bridge. Lovely millwork, by the way. I'm going back down to Hell (and enjoying the easy walk you've provided) to round up the rest of the gang. We're going to PARTY!"

He has faith in the people who work for him and he celebrates their contributions, and shares what he acquires freely. I was just talking with a friend last night who's had yet another brilliant idea and we laughed and promised to never hold our ideas possessively. Sometimes secrecy is required, but never for long and never for the sake of KEEPING an idea to oneself. The more I give my ideas to the world, the more ideas I seem to have.

Lesson Three is "Trust Everyone." And the more trust I lay upon the people around me, the more I get back from them. As a manager, if I don't operate from a position of total faith in my team and utter support for all the work they do, I will fail.

God doesn't have to faith in his team, of course, because he's God and so he can already do everything by himself, but for the rest of us, having (and expressing) faith in our partners is really at the heart of loving what we do.

Three lessons from an unlikely source. It was interesting reading Paradise Lost from the point of view of a management guide. I guess I read a lot of those, because what I noticed was how God did everything you're not supposed to do as a good manager, and Satan did everything you should, but of course Satan has to lose because God's, you know, God. And what really struck me was how obsessed John Milton seemed with the whole idea of obedience. Every line of Paradise Lost seems suffused with the desperate need to ensure that everyone everywhere at all times is doing what they're supposed to do, and no more. Or rather, with the overwhelming terror that somewhere, someone is NOT. That someone is decided for themselves what's best. In Milton's world that only ever leads to bad things.

The evidence that Milton is wrong about this is pretty incontrovertible. I've read a lot of management guides, let me tell you, and the data is well-established. The more you encourage people to decide for themselves, the more things start going well.

Not sure I'm about to go up against my boss (again), or anything like that. But then, my office is a long way from Hell.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008


On Our Own

posted by barsoomcore

Our guide is gone. Sir Arthur C. Clarke passed away today. After Gary's departure, this is pretty much the other pillar of my childhood. I've blogged before about Sir Arthur's tremendous impact on me and the way I view the world. and I don't know if I can expand on what I said there: Reading Arthur C. Clarke taught me two of the most important skills I ever acquired, and made me believe that one day we'd see the surface of Titan ourselves. And what do you know.

We've seen the surface of Titan (and even heard the sound of its winds); we communicate around the world with extra-terrestrial relays; we've discovered ways to talk to dolphins and our virtual realities get better every day.

But our Childhood hasn't yet Ended. We are still human beings, bound to our sun and its solar system. I just recently suggested that Childhood's End offers the only compelling future for humanity I've ever read. I don't mean that we're likely to encounter creatures like the Overlords, but that the transformation that book describes is at least metaphorically inevitable.

It was interesting reading Charles Stross' fantastic Accelerando and seeing that vision updated with modern views on technology and social organization. It wasn't quite as compelling as CE, but it's the closest I've seen anyone come.

Blasters and warp drives and space marines are all very well and good, but one of the reasons I read almost no sci-fi is because I grew up reading Sir Arthur's rigorous, deeply imaginative visions of our future. Next to his towering intellect, the rest of the field crawls on all fours.

We are infinitely reduced by this loss. And now we have to imagine our future all by ourselves.

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Monday, March 10, 2008


Good Question

posted by barsoomcore

Reading some Ashoka literature today and came across this question:

What is the most critical factor for success in any organization these days?

Traditional factors like technology and marketing are losing their ability to reliably provide long-term advantages. It's too easy to catch up, and even pull ahead.

I agree with the Ashokans when they say it has to be the number and quality of innovative thinkers in the group. How innovative are your people, and how enthusiastically does the organization support their capacity for innovation? Nothing else will keep your group successful. The degree to which you stifle creativity and energy is the degree to which you limit your organization's potential.

It seems that in 2008 I will be spending no small amount of time building organizations. It will be interesting to see what sorts of structures I come up with in order to avoid stifling the members' innovative power.


Tuesday, March 04, 2008


Forward is Backward

posted by barsoomcore

One of the lessons of Katori Shinto Ryu practice is that just because something looks like it must be one thing, it's never safe to assume that it is. And this lesson seems to go on being taught and taught again, even after you first learn it.

Beginning students often lean back in postures such as ko-gasumi or te-ura-gasumi, since they believe they are blocking an incoming strike, and reasonably decide that the further away they are from that incoming blow, the safer they will be. Even after years of practice I find myself doing that without being aware of it. It's natural, to want to shy away from danger.

The problem of course is that ko-gasumi doesn't have to be a block at all. You learn after some practice that many of the maneuvers that appear to be blocks, and are practiced as blocks, are in fact attacks, carefully disguised to look like blocks. If I step backward, the incoming attack is blocked; but if I step forward, the attack is avoided and instead of blocking I find my sword striking down my enemy at the exact moment he sought to strike me.

If I do it right. And he doesn't see it coming. And a thousand other things that might go wrong don't.

But this is one reason why when we practice our stances, we work so hard to maintain a neutral if not a forward stance. We are never really retreating, and we must never forget to maintain a forward focus. To kill the enemy is the point of entering combat; many texts talk about the necessity to forget about self-preservation and think only of cutting down the enemy, whatever the cost to yourself. These are not empty exhortations, even in the safe sort of practice we engage in. It is something I should always be keeping in my mind. Whatever stance I take, whatever response the kata seems to be asking me to take, I need to constantly consider what is happening and how I can take the initiative, even when I seem to be blocking or retreating.

At the same time, I can't just move forward every chance I get. That's too simplistic for Katori. There are times when increasing the distance between your enemy and yourself is the right choice. I have to wait, pay attention, and learn to recognize when an opportunity presents itself.

The kata of Katori Shinto Ryu are not simple patterns to be memorized. They hold secrets and demonstrate options, many of which cannot be perceived by the casual student. It takes years of practice to uncover these truths, and this journey never truly ends. I am forever discovering assumptions in my practice that only now am I realizing are unfounded, and can be cut apart effortlessly by someone who has seen through them.

And leaning back doesn't help.



RIP DM 1938-2008

posted by barsoomcore

Goodbye, Gary. It's a better world because you were in it, and I'm glad I got a chance to thank you for that. I can't imagine what I would have done with most of my life had you not been the very clever man you were. It was thirty years ago my parents brought home that mysterious box with the blue rulebook, those first adventures, and the little chits you cut up and used instead of dice. Even with the crude materials I started with, I knew this was something special.

My condolences to the Gygax family.


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