You, Me, and Charlie Wilson's War

Charlie Wilson's War book coverOver Christmas I read George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War, the tale of the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the subsequent implosion of the Evil Empire, our undisputed nemesis for the first half century of my life. I can state with some certainty that it was the most incredible non-fiction story I have ever (!!) read. Last night I saw the movie—it was, for me, wonderful, though a pale reproduction of the full 550-page treatment by Crile. Turning to the practicalities of your and my day-to-day professional affairs, the story was peppered with de facto analyses of how Charlie did his amazing thing. He is indeed “larger than life,” and yet his practical “can do” tactics have a lot to teach all of us. As I imagine it, 100% of the readers of this Blog are Professional Change Agents, fighting wars against the bureaucratic evil empires that impede success. So what follows is rather (!) lengthy for a Blogpost, but ridiculously short considering the importance of the subject matter:

**Make friends! And then more friends! And then more friends! “The way things normally work, if you’re not Jewish you don’t get into the Jewish caucus, but Charlie did. And if you’re not black you don’t get into the black caucus. But Charlie plays poker with the black caucus; they have a game, and he’s the only white guy in it. The House, like any human institution, is moved by friendships, and no matter what people might think about Wilson’s antics, they tend to like him and enjoy his company.” Likewise Wilson’s CIA partner, Gust Avrakotos, made friends among the black members of the CIA, becoming the first white guy to win their informal “Brown Bomber Award.” (“We want to give this award to the blackest m%^&*$f*$#@& of all.”) Bottom line: Your power is directly proportional to the breadth and depth of your Rolodex. Quantity counts almost as much as quantity—you never know from whom you will need a “little” special service. “She/he who has developed the best network of allies wins” is essentially a truism—though not acknowledged by the majority of us and the overwhelmingly useless MBA programs that spawned many of us.

**Make friends by the bushel with those several levels down and with various disenfranchised groups. Gust Avrakotos’ strategy: “He had become something of a legend with these people who manned the underbelly of the Agency [CIA].” E.g., Gust apparently knew every executive secretary by name—and had helped many of them out with personal or professional problems. You could almost say he had the “invisible 95%” of the Agency working for him, which allowed him to make incredible things happen despite furious resistance from the top of a very rigid organization. I have spoken and Blogged on this topic before, arguing among other things that the key to sales success is “wiring” the client organization 3 or 4 levels down—where the real work gets done. Most would agree perhaps—but damn few make it the obsession it must be to foster success. One added (big) benefit is that “those folks” are seldom recognized, and thence the “investment” will likely yield long-lasting, not transient, rewards.

**Carefully manage the BOF/Balance Of Favors. Practice potlatch—giving so much help to so many people on so many occasions (overkill!) that there is no issue about their supporting you when the time comes to call in the chits. “Wilson made it easy for his colleagues to come to him, always gracious, almost always helpful.” Some would argue, and I think I’d agree, that conscious management of one’s “balance of favors” (owed and due) is a very sensible thing to do in a pretty organized fashion.

**Follow the money! “Anybody with a brain can figure out that if they can get on the Defense subcommittee, that’s where they ought to be—because that’s where the money is.” Getting near the heart of fiscal processes offers innumerable opportunities to effectively take control of a system—as long as you are willing to invest in the details that lead to Absolute Mastery of the topic. From the outside looking in, this is another big argument for nurturing relationships a few levels down in the organization—in this case, the financial organization.

**Network! Network! Network! Potential links of great value will neither be possible nor obvious until the network is very dense. The odds of useful connections occurring is a pure Numbers Game. The more hyperlinks you have, the higher the odds of making the right connection.

**Seek unlikely, even unwholesome, allies, or at least don’t rule them out. Find the right path (often $$$$) and the most bitter of rivals will make common cause relative to some key link in the chain.

**Found material. Don’t re-invent the wheel. It costs too much, takes too much time, and requires too much bureaucratic hassle. Again and again, Wilson took advantage of stuff, such as materials, that was immediately available for use—rather than waiting an eternity for the “perfect” solution.

**Found material II (People). Find disrespected oddball groups that have done exciting work but are not recognized. (E.g., in Wilson’s case, a band of crazies in the Pentagon’s lightly regarded Weapons Upgrade Program.)

**Real, Visible Passion! “Authenticity” matters—especially in highly bureaucratic environments. Passion also suggests annoying “staying power”—”I might as well support him, he’s not going away and he’ll hound me ’til hell freezes over.”

**Graphic evidence of the source of your passion. Charlie Wilson had one main hurdle to his plan—a crusty old cynic. CW took him to the astounding Afghan refugee camps—and made a fast and emotional friend of the cause in the space of an afternoon. If you’ve got a cause, you usually want to fix something that is a mess—figure out a way to expose would-be converts to startling, live demos of the problem, replete with testimony from those who are on the losing end of things. Wilson subsequently did such things as creating a little program to treat horrid medical problems in the U.S.—suddenly the demo was next door! (This works for a horrid bureaucratic process that is alienating us from our customers almost as much as in the Wilson case.) Hint: The demo must be … graphic!)

**Make it personal. On every visit to the refugee camps, Wilson donated blood on the spot.

**Enthusiasm. Charlie and Gust oozed it from every pore re Afghanistan.

**Showmanship. This (any implementation) is a theatrical production, just like political campaigns—every project needs a showman obsessed with creating and moving forward the compelling “story line.”

**Visible momentum! The smell of action must be in the air. Think of it as “momentum management”—an aspect of the showmanship theme.

**Perception is … always … everything. Play head games with the bad guys. The goal was to create a Vietnam-like sense of hopelessness among the Soviets. The bark was worse than the bite—but demoralization, even in a totalitarian state, is eventually decisive. Wear the buggers out by inducing hopelessness. (“We don’t need this.”)

**Goal is clear and unequivocal and inspiring … Victory. Gust: “It wasn’t a defeatist attitude [at the CIA], it was positive—making the enemy [Soviets] hemorrhage. But I don’t play ball that way. It’s either black or white, win or lose. I don’t go for a tie.” (Mirrors one biographer’s conclusion about Lord Nelson’s #1 differentiating attribute: “[Other] admirals were more frightened of losing than anxious to win.”)

**Repeat: The goal is noble but “the work” is … Relationships & Networking & Politics. Even if the issue is deeply technical, the “implementation bit” (that all important “last 98%”) is all about … politics-relationships.

**Recruit a politics-networking maestro. Charlie Wilson had this part down, and he needed help with the doing. If you are the doer, then you must find the politician-networker. They are a special breed—and worth as much as the doer. (The legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky pointed out the difference between “organizers” and “leaders.” Leaders are the visible ones, out there giving the speeches and manning the picket lines. The largely invisible organizer worries about recruiting the folks who will be on that picket line, settling disputes about who goes where—and procuring the buses to get the picketers to the right place at the right time with the necessary signs and bullhorns. I firmly believe that Alinsky’s Rules For Radicals is the best “project management” manual ever written.)

**Think QQ/Quintessential Quartet. Passion poobah and chief storyteller. Anal doer. Financier. Networker-political master-recruiter-in-chief.

**When a project is unusual-risky, never, ever waste time or capital going “up the chain of command.” Risk aversion rises as one nears the top … everywhere. Constantly devise and try and discard and re-revise end runs that build the network, add to knowledge, and create “small wins” that start the process mushrooming. Be polite to your boss (Gust wasn’t, there are exceptions to every rule), but do not waste time on him!

**Demo! Demo! Demo! Get some little thing done no matter how grand the goal—you need visual evidence of hope.

**Demo redux. Plant a field of seeds, most will die, a few will grow—and pay special attention to the wildflowers. Fill the air with possibility, energy, action—no matter that 96.3% will come to naught.

**Take chances on unusual talent, regardless of formal rank. Mike Vickers, a junior (GS-11) officer was given enormous responsibility because of his demonstrated skills and tenacity and creativity.

**Recruit peculiar talent with no investment in conventional solutions. Most of what you do won’t work—don’t spend ages trying to stuff square pegs in round holes. Cultivate a Special Network of Weirdos, often junior, who bring no baggage to the party.

**Create a small, insanely committed “band of brothers” to act as mostly invisible orchestrators. When all was said and done, Gust Avrakotos and his tiny (never more than a half dozen) nerve center in the CIA never got even a smidgen of recognition for what was the Agency’s biggest success. But his little team did the work of hundreds—in a true revolutionary mission, the core group must number <10. I've long used the (stolen from Lockheed) term "skunkworks" to describe such small bands of insanely determined renegades.

**The “Band of Brothers”-“Skunkworks” must be physically separated from top management. In Gust’s case it was just a few floors of insulation—but even that is essential.

**Think, subconsciously … long haul. A small act of recognition toward a Major in an ally’s military pays off Big Time 15 years later when he is Chief of Staff of the Army—one never knows, but stitch enough of these events together, and the odds of one paying off go waaaaay up. That is, passion for today’s action is paramount—but always, always, always think consciously about … Network Investment. (Remember, R.O.I.R.—return On Investment in Relationships.)

**K.I.S.S. Our Afghan allies drove the Soviets crazy less with “big weapons” (oh, so difficult for an irregular program to acquire) than with an endless and ever-varying stream of “simple” (cheap, reliable, easy to train, easy to transport) weapons such as bicycle bombs (shades of our problems in Iraq).

**Plan for the “real world.” Mike Vickers was a genius at understanding the way things really were in the field—his logistics programs reflected that. No pie-in-the-sky assumptions!

**Cut red tape. “What we did in one month with Charlie would have taken us nine years to accomplish.” (Approval process in Congress, 8 days for 9-month procedure to get $$ transferred) My longtime definition: Boss = Chief hurdle remover. Which (again) means the boss must be master of the intricacies of the political process. A little known congressman, Tom DeLay, became one of the most powerful people in America by total mastery of the political rules. In a business project, this means, say, total mastery of the client’s purchasing process—including total comprehension of the power politics going on at the moment.

**Don’t document it! Charlie Wilson and Gust Avrakotos cut corners—to succeed against the powers that be, you will too. Keep documentation to a minimum—watch your emails!!

**Luck!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Never deny the reality of lucky (or unlucky) breaks; realizing that allows you to “stay in the game,” playing hand after hand until your cards come in—or the time comes to fold.

**The Game Ain’t Over Until the Fat Lady Sings. I call them the “yoiks,” which actually stands for un-intended consequences. After the Russians had withdrawn from Afghanistan, the U.S. once again returned to benign neglect—the result was, indirectly, 9/11 orchestrated from Afghanistan by some of the people we had supported a decade earlier. As to not finishing the chore, Charlie Wilson said that the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan, their first in the Cold War and a spur to the unraveling of the Evil Empire, was a “glorious accomplishment that changed the world. And then we f&*^ed up the end game.” I’m with Wilson, regardless of today’s threats; as one who lived through the entire Cold War, we are indeed now free of the not particularly low odds threat of planetary extinction. (See my Post of 1231.07 on Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov and the imminent end of the world on 26 September 1983.) But that’s not the point, either—instead, it is the more general axiom that you never know what new can of worms you are opening—which to me, of course, makes the linear, logical approach to planning and life so laughable. Well, I guess we all need our illusions, and if plans can provide such comfort, ridiculous as they are, it’s fine by me.

Concluding reminder: Any project worth doing is worth doing because in some small or large way it challenges “the way we do things around here.” Moreover, it is a given that bosses are primarily hired to be cops who make sure that we do things “the way we do things around here.” I’d guess that 98% of projects fail in terms of even near-total implementation. And 98% of the 98% failures are the results of lousy political and networking skills—not selection of the wrong project management software package. Hence “the work” of projects is the political implementation of ideas and processes, which necessarily engender emotional resistance by the powers that be. We who would change things are insurgents. Charlie and Gust were insurgents who fought, for years, an inch at a time through the corridors of power from Congress to CIA headquarters in Langley VA to the presidential palaces in Pakistan and Egypt—and even Israel.

Happy hunting!