July 20, 2011

Narrative in Complex Decision Making: an Interview with Mary Crannell

Mary Crannell is one of those people whose broad intelligence and enthusiasm are hard to contain, as I learned when we met recently through a shared acquaintance.  As the president of Idea Sciences, a decision-making support consultancy based in Alexandria, VA, Mary spends much of her  time thinking about what technologies and processes will help her customers—such as the IMF, NATO, QinetiQ, the US Army, the UK Army, Verizon and Herman Miller, to name a few—arrive at good decisions.  She is a frequent traveler to sites of conflict, as in a recent visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, where decision-making is an urgent, complex and ongoing task.

I was gratified when Mary agreed to share some of her thoughts on the role of narrative in decision-making generally, and in directing the American role in the world in productive directions, which is a concern many of her clients share.

Mary Crannell, President, Idea Sciences

AZ: How do you use narrative frameworks to help people make decisions?

MC: It is important to give people a way to define the vision of what they are trying to accomplish whether they are leading a state, a nation or an international organization. Is the system you are leading “on purpose?”  We start with a vision.  We call it working “backward from perfect.” Fast forward into the future – how will you know you are successful?  What does success look like if you achieve your vision?  Outline the story that will be told if the entity is successful.

Then, we document people’s perceptions of how ready that system is to move toward that vision.  We help them identify where the capability gaps are in their system.  Their energy, enthusiasm and passion for fulfilling their purpose generate the momentum to forge ahead.  One reason we help decision makers determine gaps in capacity or capabilities is it helps them to “see” what problems need attention and what problems, even if solved, will not assist them achieve their vision.   In a big system there are always a lot of problems, and some will go away or fall by the wayside if people in the organization focus on achieving the vision outlined. [of their own accord].

The other reason we focus on composite perceptions is to clarify purpose and to record the story, a narrative.  I agree wholeheartedly that a story includes grounding in the past, a vision of the future and actions in the present link all of these. Dr. Sara Cobb at George Mason University calls these three (past, present and future) “the braid,” which is, for me, a descriptive image. In the narrative story, you need to have all of three of these (past, present and future) threads woven together or else you don’t have the power to tap the real heart and soul of a nation, an institution, or a government.   Once the vision and the story are outlined, we walk decision makers through confrontations that need to be won in order to achieve that story – that future vision.

That’s where mapping of confrontations plays a role in supporting the narrative. What I want people to understand is that current decisions are either positioning you to achieve success or undermining your ability to achieve success.

AZ:  How do you think the United States is positioning itself right now? Are we poised for success, or undermining it?

MC:  There is a good US story to be told, but we really do seem challenged to tell it. How do we help reframe how Americans view themselves and how we play our role in the world? I think we find it difficult to understand why people don’t just embrace our brand of democracy. The basics of democracy are that everyone has a voice and majority rules. But when we talk about the American narrative we are talking about more than a republic form of government.  American democracy is more deeply grounded in individualism and opportunity: the idea that America offers opportunity to those who come to its shores is a long-standing story embedded in our narrative.  Throughout our history, America has offered individuals an opportunity to start a new life, to enjoy religious freedom, to be rewarded based on merit rather than class status or family pedigree. Mass public education served as an equalizer – in the past education has provided a gateway, a bridge to an improved way of life in this country.

And I do believe that part of our narrative is about the land of opportunity. Going into the 2012 election, I believe (hope) there will be substantive discussions on immigration. The way our system has always reinvented itself has been through the wonderful diversity that has entered [via] our shores.  We have also reaped the benefit of strife in other places—look at the German scientists who came here during World War II. These waves of immigration have fueled our innovation. As a result of 9/11 we have made it much more difficult for bright minds to visit here, to collaborate with US colleagues and to stay here.

I believe our rich American narrative “land of opportunity” is eroding. From a nation state point of view, our brain trust is eroding. Education plays the equalizer role but there are schools in the US that do not have a high percentage of high school graduates.  That’s not what we stand for; that’s not who we are at the core of our American narrative.  We want every child to have the chance to succeed.  We want every child to have an opportunity to unleash his/her potential.    Even abroad we push an education agenda.  In Afghanistan, we are encouraging Afghan girls to go to school.  A laudable goal.  Two miles from the White House, 50% of our own US students do not graduate from high school. There is a gap between what we say and what we do. We need to think carefully about the foundations of our greatness.   Our diversity has brought us a wealth of perspectives and a treasure trove of creativity.  We have fostered entrepreneurism and fueled innovation.   Education is key to our continued leadership in innovation.   Our future depends on the generation we are educating now.   How do we nourish the minds of our youth and unleash their creative potential?   Are we doing enough to fulfill our narrative or has our story of opportunity become an empty promise?

AZ: You recently returned from Afghanistan.  In the wake of your trip, and the death of Osama bin Laden, what do you think is the proper narrative of American involvement in that country?

Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, President Obama has to realize his narrative. His narrative was so much about destroying Al Qaeda and, thus capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. Our conversation is timely.   Now that we achieved the stated goal of neutralizing Osama Bin Laden how do we proceed?    The risky mission, executed flawlessly is one of most tangible goals we’ve said would be achieved in the last ten years. So now what?

What is the narrative of our involvement in Afghanistan? The speech President Obama gave at West Point said our goal is to disrupt Al Qaeda. Now that there is an updated story, we have to look at it [the situation in Afghanistan] in terms of reframing our purpose, vision. That will take time and energy and focus.  The American people are going to weigh in [in the 2012 elections] unless the story is compelling. President Obama has announced a troop draw down during his recent address on June 23, 2011.[i] This announced plan influences the confrontations we are managing in theater – with the Afghan government, with the Taliban who are willing to negotiate a peace and with the powerful states that surround Afghanistan, including Pakistan.

What is curious about the unfolding of the events in the past two months?  The US has devoted resources to capturing Osama Bin Laden for over a decade.   The US capability required to locate, monitor and eventually kill Osama Bin Laden is significant.  During this ten year focus I would have wanted a parallel process that outlined what do we do when we succeed with this goal?   If the discussions transpired, they are muffled because there appeared to be a vacuum in the narrative while the administration regrouped.   In addition to the committed resources to finding Osama Bin Laden, why wasn’t a small team working on “what next?”  in this narrative?   Rightly or wrongly it appears that some believed once Osama Bin Laden was removed from the picture then AQ would not be a formidable force.  The inspirational leader being removed from the equation would be enough.  Perhaps.  But I believe the “battle of the narrative” will continue.    I think perceiving a “win” like a showdown at high noon does not serve us well.  Showdowns resonate in our American narrative but it is not the nature of “war amongst the people.” [a term popularized by Gen. Rupert Smith in The Utility of Force].

There are multiple fronts that need attention in this “battle of the narrative.”  Our goal is to dominate the narrative and to support others who are attempting to counter the forces that would undermine our narrative.   For example, in the July 8 Washington Post , a Somali man was featured as countering radicalism in Minnesota. The US has many fronts to engage the “battle of the narratives” and not all of these fronts are overseas and not all require billions of dollars to address.   I believe we assume people living in this country “experience” the American narrative and we don’t have to have a national dialogue to articulate our values and what we are willing to do to protect those values.

AZ: Where do you think the post-bin Laden narrative should have been ‘written’?

MC: A very good question and probably the answer is open for debate.  I would like to see a small team from the National Security Council (NSC) who is tasked with advising the President on national security issues and foreign policy issues to serve as the generator of ideas.  Since Osama’s death policy makers have noted “we need a new narrative.”   It seems that most of the narrative discussion originates in the White House.  Ideally,  part of the team could step back and understand how best to reframe our message given the recent developments in the world, including the reshuffling of leadership in Al Qaeda.  The federal bureaucracy supporting the President appears to be responsive when there is a crisis but finds it difficult to address issues that are important but not urgent – i.e. on fire!    The new story line I hear now is that “we need to stay vigilant because this is not over.”

AZ: That’s not a story.

MC: No, it’s not! Throughout history, there has been an argument over whether passion or reason governs events. Without passion, or a leap of faith like what happened in Tahrir Square, or in Syria, there is no narrative. They don’t even have western reporters on the ground in Syria. Imagine the courage that it is taking to demonstrate there. Imagine the story they believe to go out on the street and to protest  in the streets when they know there is a distinct possibility their own government will fire on them.   That’s the power of a narrative.  A compelling narrative inspires people to action because they see themselves as part of the story.  The story is not about someone else – it is about them and their friends and their families.

Currently, we seem to be mired in our own bureaucratic structures and unable to articulate what we really want to achieve in these engagements  — at least articulate our goals in a way that resonates with the American people.   The alignment of policy and outcome is in question – especially with the challenges we are facing in the domestic economy.  This is not a new challenge.  Throughout history leaders are forced to balance domestic and foreign concerns.   The 2012 Presidential election creates a backdrop for every policy decision.   It is always in the decision-making frame.

We are spending over 7 billion dollars a month in Afghanistan alone, now. How are we evaluating the situation, how are we accounting for resources? It’s not that our intentions have been bad, but given our investment of blood and treasure how do we measure success?   What have we learned about these kinds of engagements and how do we intend to pass on that learning within our government institutions?   As a nation, what have we learned after ten years?

Those are tough questions and our answers will inform our current and future decision making.  How we write this narrative history will have lasting policy implications for our nation.  And not just from an intelligence perspective. How have our systems not served us well with the amount of resources we have invested? What could we have done differently? How could we have created tangible success in terms of creating a better quality of life for the people in Afghanistan?  How do the Afghan people define “a better quality of life”?

The challenge for people is that answering these questions is difficult work. The answers are complex and the people best suited to answer them are weary.  Looking at the health of a system helps people frame problems. But it takes their time and energy to be part of the process. That’s a commitment, and they know that the review processes can expose frailty, and that’s a risk.

AZ: When you ask people to review questions about their function, and how well their systems are serving them, what kinds of answers are you seeking?

When we look at the health of a system, we look at three things. One, how well people can articulate purpose, mission and vision. Two, how well connected they are, internally and externally, to this system.  How well have they set up a way to be alerted to changes? When people get stale or removed from a situation (insulated), or when things get difficult and they cocoon, they get cut off from stories being told and they get isolated. Having connections and networks outside of a few trusted advisers is critical in order to understand how things are being viewed by the stakeholders outside the “inner circle.”

Third, how does the system reinvent itself? Is it able to recreate itself? Systems can die.  A story doesn’t remain the same.  And it does get reframed depending on historical views and views at different times. If you give people processes that help highlight different cultural views and a diversity of opinion, then that diversity arises at the decision table.  The challenge for decision makers is that trusted advisors usually have similar views to their own, so how do you get diversity of opinion in front of a decision-maker at the moment when they have to make a decision?  The more you encourage diversity of opinion the more you foster hybrid solutions. We can’t be linear problem solvers anymore, the problems are too complex.  Senior decision makers need to make a concerted effort to reach beyond the trusted few to infuse diversity (divergent thinking) into the decision-making process.  The more options available to senior decision-makers the better the chances a higher quality decision will emerge when the senior decision-maker converges on an option to make a decision that aligns with the overarching narrative.



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