HOW TO MAKE ORDINARY PEOPLE EXTRAORDINARY

In the late 1970s, as penance for earlier sins, I signed on to help Jimmy Carter and my fellow citizens as Assistant Secretary of Commerce for International Trade.

One of the first things I learned needed to be done was to improve the substance and speed of the critical information the U.S. government collected to help American businesses see and find trade opportunities around the globe.

Because the USA is such a large single market, relatively few companies saw any need to develop overseas customers. As a result, the USA for a long time, bought more from the rest of the world than it sold and ran a big trade deficit, which over time is a very bad idea.

The information that was collected was in fact quite good and helpful, but it often took as long as 18 months to get into the hands of people who could use it.

As we sorted through the ways to address this challenge there were three basic approaches:

[1] Build a new cadre of people more attune to collecting and distributing information. Discussion of this idea lasted about 5 minutes because it is virtually impossible to eliminate and replace some 2,000 civil servants and Foreign Service officers.

[2] Contract with a private company to do the job–IBM for example. Again, the answer was “no,” because the information is classified, and no private company could be trusted.

[3]Find a way to make the 2,000 existing employees better at their jobs. Since it was our only option, the question became HOW?

I had come from Wall Street and had seen how Merrill Lynch had seriously improved the skills and productivity of its thousands of brokers by supplying them with computer terminals (this was, remember, 1977 – well before Microsoft, and Apple made such technology commonplace).
Well, we did it with help from IBM. We built what we called WITS – for Worldwide Information and Trade System. We even got the Department of Defense to provide some satellite communication time to make the system available everywhere almost immediately.

The result was the information got much better, I believe because people began to believe it could be used in a timely way. And, from collection to availability, the time shrank from about 18 months on average to just a few days.

Today, the same basic system exists, but with the Internet and Google it is much more extensive, immediate and effective.

The result of that experience taught me then that it is possible to create tools that enable ordinary folks to be extraordinary and make government more effective, less expensive and much more productive.

All we need is to be open to changes. A lot of that has been happening in the past two decades. But a lot more can and should be encouraged.

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50/50

Most people learn early in life that luck and odds play an important role in their lives. Some of those people are better at playing those odds than a lot of their brethren. There are examples and metaphors galore, some of which may surprise you.

You probably weren’t very old the first time you learned that the the odds on a coin toss, whether it had been preceded by a string of either heads or tails, are always the same – 50/50.

Similarly, a woman who already has three baby boys effectively has the same 50/50 shot at a girl on the fourth try as on the first.

There are examples at race tracks where betting on outcomes indicates varying odds based on people’s opinions and prior race results. Still, as was seen recently at the Belmont Stakes shot at a Triple Crown for California Chrome, what seemed to be a sure thing, turned out not to be. The odds of a great horse winning those three races in a row were something less than 50/50. Something similar happens in sail boat racing in identical boats. In such cases the skill of the crews, skippers and navigators, plus the fickleness of winds, make the difference. Still, most racers begin a race among a dozen boats believing they have a 50/50 shot at winning.

Then there are residual practices in certain situations that the 50/50 assumption has to be set aside in favor of one beneficiary or another. For example, there is hardly a married (or unmarried) couple of opposite sexes that has not tangled over the right way to leave a toilet seat after use. Either way, one or the other, the user has to be continuously alert to the possibility of making a mistake in how the seat is left. Most men apparently ultimately submit to female demand that the seat should always be left down, despite a compelling case that it really is, or should be, a pure 50/50 proposition.

There are many customs from the distant past under the heading of “noblesse oblige” in which women, for example, always precede men through a door. But, in today’s new world of full equality between and among the sexes in virtually all respects, has it not come to the point that the 50/50 rule should take on a broader, wider and balanced meaning and application?

Either that, or movable toilet seats should become thing of the past. Perhaps it is time for toilet makers to design toilets without movable seats. Pure habit has created stasis.

That, at least, would rid modern society of one really unnecessary irritant.

A TIDBIT FROM 1979- a lesson for today

In the summer of 1979, Jimmy Carter suffered from a political malaise and gave a speech about it. In the following days, he fired with one stroke, five cabinet officers — the type of purge that was common in the Soviet Politburo but virtually unheard of here — as if it were their fault. He then met with his White House staff and read the riot act to them, as well. Finally, for good measure, he called in his entire subcabinet for a serious talking to.

He marched alone into the East Wing room, jammed with more than 300 of the most senior people in his government. He took off his jacket and laid it carefully on the floor next to the podium. He then stood before the podium, visibly emotional and pumped.

His words were simple and brief. “You folks are my subcabinet. What I did with some of your bosses, I can do with you, too. Now, if you are not comfortable with supporting my programs, it is the time for you to leave. Any questions?”

The first question came, near where I was sitting, from Cliff Alexander, Secretary of the Army.  The substance of it has long been forgotten. It was anodyne, and Carter’s response was equally unmemorable.

The second question came from Gene Baroni, Assistant Secretary of HUD and a Catholic priest. That question was also quickly forgotten was along with Carter’s response.

Both questioners were ‘fire proof’ because of who they were.

Then, from the far side of the room, an unknown man stood and addressed the President with earnest respect.   He politely said,“Mr. President, I am afraid you do not understand the problem.”

A deep hush fell over the crowded room at such unprecedented candor and directness addressed, in public, to the leader of the free world.

He went on. “Mr. President, with deepest respect sir, we often work night and day for several months preparing a decision memo for you, and at the end of the day we certainly know more about the substance of that issue than either our bosses or you—with all respect sir.”

“We rarely hear anything more after the memo has gone to you. Then, when your decision is announced and it seems to us, with all respect Sir, that you have missed some very important factors, we feel that it is our duty to help get you and it straightened out. If that is what you mean when you suggest that we are not supporting your program, then that is why I believe, with all respect Sir, you do not understand the problem. For example, Sir, I have never been in the same room with you before. I think it would help the country if you could hear directly from more of us.”

The hush in the room became a collective gasp. Carter stepped back in astonishment and said: “How can that be possible? How many people here have never been in the same room with me before?”

Immediately, about two-thirds of all the hands went up. Carter, realizing his gaffe, said: “Well, you have now! And do not forget it!” Then he picked up his coat from the floor and left the room.

As you can see, I have not forgotten that scene and moment.

The lesson that Carter and his staff apparently never learned was the importance of a President knowing and hearing directly from his most knowledgeable appointees and making sure they know and understand from him how and why he is reaching his decisions. As our current President stumbles, the lesson of 1979 may provide guidance for regaining his footing down the stretch of his political career.

Boomerang Effects of Good Intentions

We go through life full of the best intentions in how we behave and in being helpful to friends and neighbors.

More often than seems fair, those intentions go awry and we find ourselves digging out from under misunderstandings or worse.

For example, you say to your wife, “Honey, you look great today!” She says with annoyance, “You mean I did NOT look great yesterday?” You cannot win for trying.

You report to your boss that $17 is missing from petty cash for stamps. He goes nuts trying to find the culprit, who turns out to be you, because you forgot to record a purchase for stamps. New job?

You hear from the production manager that the last month was double the previous month. You mention that to your neighbor and the next thing you know you are arrested for leaking inside information.

You see bank robbers exiting a bank. You write down the license plate of the getaway car. You tell the police. The robbers are caught. They get out of jail and beat you up badly.

In class, the professor asks for volunteers to tell him the three key things he just taught. You raise your hand and reel off two and draw a blank on the third. Another genius adds the third and you feel like an idiot.

Is there a theme in all these homely examples? Perhaps the best thing for a person to do is to say nothing, remembering that no good deed goes unpunished.

For example: A factory worker takes his lunch daily in a brown paper bag. At the lunch bell, he sits in the corner with his buddies and takes a bite from his sandwich, then spits it out saying, “Peanut butter, bah!” One of the buddies asks, “Why don’t you get your wife to make something different?” To which the worker responds “Leave my wife out of this. I make my sandwiches myself!”

Go figure!