Tao of the Zentropist

March 23, 2009

Why Integrity Matters

Last week I commented upon the importance of having a clear ethical framework from which to operate, which is essential not only from a professional standpoint but also for one’s personal conduct. In this technology obsessed age in which information can be disseminated widely in a matter of seconds, minutes or hours (forget days, weeks or years!), one’s conduct can be backtracked and analyzed rather easily by savvy parties, and “old school” differentiations and firewalls between “personal” and “business” behavior are rapidly eroding.

There have been numerous examples reported in the media about people that have damaged their credibility and hiring prospects through comments, photos or other material posted on social networks or mass communication services like Twitter. Once information is “out there,” controlling it becomes increasingly challenging, especially if it is lurid, controversial, or generally considered “inappropriate,” which naturally tends to increase its likelihood of becoming the next big Internet viral sensation!

Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines “integrity” as follows:

  1. : firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values
  2. : an unimpaired condition
  3. : the quality or state of being complete or undivided

Let’s briefly examine these definitions from the Zentropist point of view to reinforce the notion that integrity is one part of the necessary equation to live the ideals that we have previously worked to define as the Seven Primary Attributes of the Zentropist.

“Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” At its heart, the ideas which I have advanced as crucial to cultivating a Zentropist outlook in one’s personal and professional life (which quite frankly, are usually intertwined despite efforts by some to deny this) are all drawn from “universal truths” encountered in existing philosophical traditions. It is my belief that many of the problems that we face today are largely due to a lack of ethics, or the application of “moral relativism” or “situational ethics” to provide justification for self-serving or inappropriate behaviors which we pursue more often than not for short-term gain. You see, having a code of ethics is far different than actually living and abiding by these rules, and we often see the hypocrisy of those that claim to embrace such thinking in theory, but in practice continuously act in a manner which gives lie to their alleged commitment.

Having integrity means that sometimes we must set aside personal gain or convenience so that our actions reflect our purported values. There’s little point in proclaiming one set of values when one’s behavior suggests these values are not truly held. In business, this is commonly observed by the lip service that many firms and individuals will give to “transparency” or “best efforts” or other supposed competitive differentiators often found in their marketing collateral and reiterated during the sales cycle, yet when the rubber meets the road, these individuals and institutions do not act in a manner consistent with the client’s best interests, but place profits first. I’ve never quite understood why some believe that operating with integrity and living one’s values and honoring commitments in both the letter and spirit in which they are made must in due course be sacrificed on the altar of profitability. Is there some unwritten law which states that you cannot be profitable, perhaps even highly so, while still engaging in “right behavior?”

The second definition of integrity as, “An unimpaired condition” is quite revealing. As I see it, those that lack integrity actually display “impairment” in the moral sense, and perhaps even the psychological one. I have previously heard “character” defined as the, “Way in which someone behaves when they think no one else is watching” and that’s arguably a pretty compelling illustration of integrity as well. If acting with integrity carries the connotation of being “true to form,” we must accept the notion that those with integrity will reflect the values and ideals which they publicly or privately ascribe to regardless of the size or composition of the audience which may be watching. For example, some people seem to feel the need to “cheat the system” or “bend the rules” whenever they feel they can get away with it, sometimes for reasons which seem almost pathological rather than carefully considered. Now we might accept that ultimately, they are only “cheating themselves” by betraying their supposed values, but such behavior does have very real repercussions on others. These days it seems that a number of firms and individuals in the financial sector (the current whipping boy of choice for the media, although we can find examples in every conceivable sector) are routinely exhibiting an appalling lack of integrity, either due to a complete absence of values or an unwillingness to actually behave accordingly.

The third and final definition, stating that integrity is, “The quality or state of being complete or undivided” carries interesting connotations of both structure and purpose. From the Zentropist point of view, we cannot be complete or reach our full potential without integrity, for the lack of this essential ingredient renders all of our other achievements or qualities quite moot in application. If we consistently state that we believe in a certain value or set of values, yet we fail to “practice what we preach,” then the lesson is not learned and we are doing a disservice to ourselves and those whose lives we touch.

Marketing messages, mission/value statements and sales pitches are meaningless if we don’t back up our words with deeds. As the creative writing adage has it, “Action reveals character.”

It’s not enough to say that you believe in noble goals, or truths or behavior. You must set the example and light the path for others that will walk beside you or follow. This “echoes through time” far more than the material things which we may accumulate in pursuit of the Tao of the Zentropist.

Seek “completion.”

You just may find that temporal and spiritual enlightenment follows…


March 17, 2009

Why Ethics Matter

Do ethics matter? You’re damn right they do.

Given all of the press coverage of the financial sector over the past year especially, as well as the tendency for media to focus on the negativity and general “bad behavior” of many people that are in the public eye (or seek such attention), one might conclude that American society in particular is suffering from a serious lapse of ethics. Perhaps in our feverish desire to realize the “American Dream,” which in this day and age is not only the accumulation of material wealth but also the development of “celebrity capital” (i.e. the realization of Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” via our pervasive media and the belief that “being famous” somehow validates one’s existence as a human being), many people are willing to take shortcuts and act in a manner which rationalizes that any action that achieves a desired result is warranted, no matter the impact on others.

You can call it selfishness, or “looking out for number one,” but at its heart, such behavior is an outgrowth of a lack of an ethical framework and the moral fiber to live up to the challenges inherent in such a system, even as one may repeatedly fall short. Even so, it is my belief that most people do want to behave in an ethical and just manner, even if they are tempted to stray from the path from time to time. This is one of the fundamental challenges and internal battles that we all must struggle with, and how we prosecute this internal campaign reveals a great deal about who we are.

Black Elk, a Lakota Medicine Man whose wisdom has fortunately been preserved outside of his own people through John G. Heihardt’s translation of their discussions entitled Black Elk Speaks, clearly acknowledged this when he said:

“It is hard to follow one great vision in this world of darkness and of many changing shadows. Among the shadows men get lost.”

In my efforts to begin to codify the Tao of the Zentropist and cultivate what I perceive as universal truths and commonalities encoded in both Eastern and Western traditions, I have clearly discerned what I believe is a meaningful ethical framework that can be applied to both professional and personal development. I have made no claim to having discovered something new, or a body of “secret” knowledge, but rather, I am seeking to collect, distill and synthesize what I believe to be a body of knowledge and wisdom whose constant application will allow us to grow as individuals as well as collectively, and perhaps in doing so,  improve the human condition.

Whether or not others choose to embrace, or contribute to this nominal notion of Zentropism is really not the point. I can personally lay no claim to any great wisdom or “keys to success” which will unlock the fetters which bind the individual. Truthfully, it is my view that we all innately possess the necessary tools to unlock and unleash our potential, if only we are willing to embark upon the journey of discovery. It is only when we have traveled this road for some time that we discover that ultimately, it is without end (for even death is seen by many as but a transitional phase), and while it will contain moments of sheer joy and exultation, it will also have its share of pain and hardship.

For me, development of the Tao of the Zentropist seems to be part of my own journey and resonates at a deeply personal level as I seek a greater understanding of myself and the world around me.  If my writings eventually help or otherwise positively influence someone else, then this is an additional victory.

There are those who feel that we have reached a crossroads, and that the challenges that humanity is facing on a global scale are but a possible prelude to a “nasty, brutish and short” future if we do not make adjustments to our current course. While such apocalyptic statements tend to be delivered in the context of strong religious viewpoints on the matter, study of various world cultures, including many indigenous ones, seems to hint at cyclic periods of destruction, or as Zentropism would have it, failure to acknowledge and address the entropy which leaches energy and put it to constructive and positive use.

Marcus Aurelius, the wise Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher, observed in his Meditations that, “The measure of a man is the worth of the things that he cares about.”

It is a time for us to collectively examine the “things we care about” and to pay heed to the idea that how we obtain certain things in life is even more important than simply obtaining them…

March 9, 2009

The Fundamentals of Strategic Planning: Key Issues Decoded

Today we’ll examine the concept of “strategic planning,” which is (or should be) an integral part of any business operation, regardless of its current size, scope, or industry vertical. In this “flattened” and highly competitive world, a business cannot take for granted that past successes will continue to be replicated, or that its competition is limited to a particular geographic boundary. We live in a world in which businesses, and the leadership and workers that staff them, must be constantly evolving and adapting to new realities, market pressures, opportunities and the like.

Strategic planning all too often tends to either be ignored or devolves into an abstract, academic exercise in which a company (or even an individual), in a furious burst of energy and attentiveness, and often with the expenditure of not insignificant amounts of capital, generates some fine ideals and theories, but fails to follow through and actually put into practice the information gleaned from such effort. This is wasteful and yet another example of the creative entropy which the Zentropist must re-focus and put to constructive use.

Over the past few years, I have found that many clients and prospects, regardless of the stage/maturity of the business, struggle with the definition of 9 key components that are necessary to either update an existing Business or Strategic Plan (not to mention other related collateral) or to create one for the first time. I’d like to briefly explore these issues, offer some suggestions, and hopefully provide some clarity on how this process can be managed in an efficient fashion.

Although I sometimes prepare a Strategic Brief as a prelude to development of a full-blow Business Plan or Strategic Plan, I have also found this exercise to be extremely helpful and revealing as a “reality check” when working with an existing business. For example, I will assign key stakeholders in the business a worksheet which they are to fill out without consulting with their colleagues in an effort to determine if everyone’s vision or understanding of the business is aligned or not. More often than not, I find discrepancies, sometimes fairly significant ones, which signal to me that the business needs to improve its internal communication protocols and to re-align or otherwise define core fundamentals if it hopes to improve performance.

The nine (9) key issues that we focus on are:

  1. SWOT Analysis
  2. Management Vision
  3. Mission Statement
  4. Corporate Values
  5. Business Objectives
  6. Primary Goals
  7. Secondary Goals
  8. Key Strategies
  9. Strategic Action Items

In addressing the issues above, a company is forced to define and decide mission-critical, substantive concerns that directly impact its ability to coherently and efficiently operate, much less execute any sort of plan.

SWOT Analysis: This concept should be familiar to many, as it is shorthand for evaluating the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats facing a business or individual. As part of this exercise, it is useful to try to settle into as objective and non-emotional a mindset as possible, and to be completely honest in your assessment. Also remember that according to the Yin/Yang principle underlying all things, depending on perspective, a “strength” can also be exploited by another and turned into a “weakness,” and today’s “weakness” can be addressed and transformed into a strength. Furthermore, today’s “strength” may become tomorrow’s “weakness” due to its failure to change with the times or lack of dedicated practice and effort to build upon its foundation. Likewise, the window to exploit “opportunities” can fast close, and may or may not come again. And while some “threats” are obvious, some perhaps are less so, and it is a wise idea to explore how your own “strengths” and “weaknesses” might be turned against your business by a clever competitor.

Management Vision: Truthfully, companies can get hung up on differentiating between a “Vision Statement” and a “Mission Statement,” and sometimes this distracts them from the real concerns of operating the business. Still, if management cannot clearly articulate why the businesses exists and what the “big picture” dream or purpose is for putting in the blood, sweat, tears and capital, there is something fundamentally wrong with the corporate leadership.

Mission Statement: Many pundits will state that a mission statement clearly needs to articulate the following: the purpose of the organization; who its clients and other stakeholders are; the responsibilities that the organization has to clients and stakeholders; and finally, an explanation of the products and/or services offered. This isn’t bad advice by any means, but it can lead to long, rambling and unfocused statements that really do not resonate with those charged with carrying out the mission. In my opinion, the best mission statements clearly define why the business exists, what it does, and who it does it for in as concise a manner as possible.

Corporate Values: Organizations have values, even if they are never articulated, because these are expressed everyday in the actions and behaviors of both its rank and file and management. If you care about the image that your organization conveys, or truly want to stand out from competitors, it is well worth your time to not only define what your values are, but to put these into practice in all of your interactions.

Business Objectives: Generally speaking, in the for-profit world it’s understood that your business exists in theory to make a lot of money for its stakeholders (unfortunately, in this day and age this sometimes conflicts with the interests of all stakeholders, more often than not sacrificing those outside of management’s hallowed halls or even public shareholders for the benefit of management despite fiduciary duties). However, some businesses actually have more noble objectives as well, and articulating these and ensuring that they are met (while hopefully generating profits in an ethical manner) is very rewarding.

Primary and Secondary Goals: In order to measure the achievement of your stated objectives, you need to set quantifiable goals (ideally ranked in order of importance, which may change over time) against which your progress can be gauged. It is equally important to be able to differentiate between goals which are of primary concern, and those that are of lesser importance in the “grand scheme of things.”

Key Strategies: Once you have clearly stated your objectives (based on the vision, mission statement, values and SWOT analysis) and classified goals according to relative importance, you are in a position to actually determine possible strategies to achieve the desired results. Strategies cannot be developed in a vacuum, and should not be inflexible, and the tactics used in pursuit of these strategies must be carefully considered and malleable, because in my experience, if the defined strategy or strategies are legitimate and truly achievable, it is the tactics which first require adaptation before completely jettisoning the strategy as “unworkable” or no longer relevant.

Strategic Action Items: Ultimately, when you complete the Strategic Brief, you should be able to develop a list of actionable items that will enable your business to transform theory and conjecture into practice. This could range from developing certain written deliverables to reducing or increasing internal meetings or revamping internal processes to hiring an outside party to help you achieve the results that you need.

In summarizing all of the points above, we can begin to identify such jargon-laced concepts as your company’s  “unique selling proposition” (USP) which are the darlings of MBA’s everywhere (and certainly important to understand), but often neglected or painfully unclear to any but those reading the company’s internal strategic literature.

In closing, I should also point out that planning is an ongoing process and no plan should ever be viewed as “locked in stone” or otherwise rigid. Circumstances change, and plans must adapt. Trying to implement a plan today based on yesterday’s invalid assumptions is foolish, and thinking that it will be any more effective tomorrow based on outdated data or realities is disrespectful of both the human and financial capital which must be invested in its pursuit.

A Zentropist must be respectful, even as he or she is tearing down or discarding false assumptions, outmoded ways of thinking or channeling the energies that heretofore have remained unfocused.

If you would like to receive a free, no-obligation copy of Black Rock Consulting’s “Strategic Brief Worksheet,with helpful instructions for developing a Strategic Brief, please contact us via email or phone.

March 5, 2009

“The Tyranny of Dead Ideas” Reprise

Continuing on from this week’s earlier posting regarding Matt Miller’s new book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas,” I thought that I would comment upon the seven ideas that Mr. Miller advances to be “tomorrow’s destined ideas.” Again, I need to make it clear that I have not as of yet read the book in full, but have heard Mr. Miller present his thoughts to a business audience, so the opinions expressed below need to be understood to be my own musings on the validity of his thesis and may not reflect nor agree with his actual views.

Without further adieu then:

“Only Government Can Save Business” – Given the global financial crisis which has paralyzed credit markets and is continuing to cause a lot of pain and suffering in both developed and less fortunate nations, Mr. Miller seems to fall into the camp that argues that a lot of our current problems can be traced back to de-regulation and lack of oversight. In other words, if left unsupervised, capitalism behaves in a similar fashion to a teenager given a case of beer and the keys to a sports car; there’s a lot of initial enthusiasm and a good time is had by all until the car is wrapped around a tree or slams into a concrete abutment. If the government doesn’t step in and bail out business (especially those “too big to fail”), then our financial system essentially collapses as the man on the street realizes that a staggeringly large amount of financial activity is little more than phantom transactions and the appearance of building wealth, rather than the creation of something with tangible value. My problem with this approach is that I see little accountability being assigned to this capital infusion, far too little punishment of the guilty parties that knowingly engaged in fraudulent and/or unethical behaviors, and we’re still entrusting the very parties that failed in their fiduciary and oversight responsibilities to begin with to now get on the straight and narrow and perform their duties. If I’m not mistaken, Einstein once remarked something to the effect that the definition of insanity is performing the same action over and over and expecting different results each time.  Why is it that government can’t seem to get this basic premise right?

“Only Business Can Save Liberalism” – Mr. Miller did make it clear in his discussion at the Milken Institute last week that “liberalism” in this context refers to the social welfare programs, often now referred to as “entitlements” due to the mentality that is bred in many recipients of this largesse, that exist in our system. Let me be perfectly clear that I believe that any society that is just and remotely “compassionate” needs to have in place systems to help those that cannot do for themselves, or that have fallen on hard times. However, government is not always the best provider of such services for a variety of reasons, and I strongly feel we must distinguish between those that need / deserve some form of temporary help, and those that need lifetime or long-term continuing assistance. I do not think that it can be disputed that a subset of our population, again for a variety of reasons too lengthy to explore now, simply refuses to work because it is easier to reach into the public trough then to develop marketable skills or perform even unskilled manual labor as a stepping stone to other work.  Nobody is owed a living. Perhaps you shouldn’t starve to death, but you should not be able to enjoy a standard of living commensurate with or above those that do get up and go through a daily grind, perhaps performing menial or underappreciated tasks for minimal compensation, if you aren’t willing to put forth any effort yourself.

“Only Higher Taxes Can Save the Economy (and the Planet)” – This is definitely a statement that makes me personally cringe. You see, I for one am of the viewpoint that in the U.S., most of us pay a fairly significant amount of taxes as it is, and if government was held more accountable for how the existing tax revenues are spent, we’d reduce a lot of waste (including some which directly impacts the environment) and unnecessary budgetary pork. So before we penalize even more those who work hard to be productive members of society, how about we utilize technology and transparency to account for how money is spent, eliminate the corrupting influence of lobbyists in America, and stop allowing politicians to grossly misappropriate funds for projects with little or no redeeming value or that clearly go beyond the scope of what the government ought to be concerning itself with?

“Only the (Lower) Upper Class Can Save Us from Inequality” – I’m in full agreement with Mr. Miller on this one. In short, because the notion of the “middle class” is so amorphous, we’re talking about those that are reasonably educated and skilled that have grown accustomed to, or expect, a certain standard of living, to have a very real stake in fixing a system that has abruptly pulled the rug from underneath them. You see, if you reduce things to those who have and those that do not, the aspirational class with a taste of the good life (even if it has been secured to date on credit and phantom wealth) that believes in even the possibility of upward economic mobility serve as a buffer. Eliminate that buffer, and you have all of the necessary tinder for revolution, peaceful or not. The would be oligarchs and feudal lords of America need to understand that eventually, if there’s only a tiny fraction of “super-rich” that are insulated from cash flow concerns and everyone else is struggling to one degree or another, that the resentment will likely boil over into rage. This is not about re-distribution of wealth, but ensuring a level playing field in which opportunity for advancement is real and not completely illusory.

“Only Better Living Can Save Sagging Paychecks” – True. At least for the next few years, most people will need to make do with less. Rather than focus purely on material rewards, this is a time to pursue personal growth and development, to build upon our relationships with friends and family, and to seek to do what we can to the best of our ability to leave this world a better place than when we found it. And while we’re at it, we can collectively get out and exercise more, spend time in nature, and not look for quick-fix solutions to problems that in part are caused by our own poor choices or behavior. You don’t need to belong to a gym or health club to get in shape, or even to invest in expensive equipment. In virtually every environment, with a little clever thought, you can challenge yourself to improve your physical condition, which can improve your spirits, mood and even sharpen thinking.

“Only a Dose of ‘Nationalization’ Can Save Local Schools” – As discussed in this week’s earlier posting, our primary and secondary educational systems in the U.S. leave a lot to be desired, and are in dire need of improvement if we are to remain competitive in the “flat world” that Thomas Friedman has so famously described. While efforts like “No Child Left Behind” may have started with good intentions, in practice many kids are still woefully lacking the critical reasoning and fundamental thinking skills that will give them any chance of securing a future that is not dependent upon “mule work” or can be readily done by machine. Clearly we need to implement some meaningful standards that reflect the skills necessary to compete in the world of not only today, but tomorrow, and we need to ensure that kids are learning during the 12 to 15 years they typically spend in school before going to college or entering the workforce.

“Only Lessons From Abroad Can Save American Ideals” – I agree with Mr. Miller’s contention that it is rather myopic and short-sighted of us as Americans to not look to the world at large to find examples of other cultures and countries implementing solutions that are compatible with our values, and where appropriate, seek to model our own initiatives on successful efforts. Why reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to?

In closing, I again am encouraged by Mr. Miller’s willingness to engage in what I term “Zentropist” thinking, even if he and I might draw different conclusions from the process at times, or disagree on specifics in some instances. America, and the world, needs more people to embrace such a challenge, and to seek to find solutions to the most pressing problems which left unchecked, will likely lead to unnecessary human suffering, misery, and perhaps even the demise of our species, not to mention many others…

March 3, 2009

Matt Miller’s “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas”

This past Thursday, February 26th, I had the opportunity to hear Matt Miller, a former Clinton staffer, political commentator and the host of NPR’s “Left, Right, and Center” speak about his new book, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas: Letting Go of the Old Ways of Thinking to Unleash a New Prosperity” at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, California. I was certainly impressed by Mr. Miller’s approach, which is a great example of the Zentropist philosophy in action (and I doubt that Mr. Miller is yet aware of this!).  I have not yet had the chance to read the book, so I must refrain from rendering an opinion on the conclusions that Mr. Miller has drawn, although I do feel it instructive to comment on the 6 ideas that Mr. Miller opines are “dead,” as well as the 7 ideas he offers as “destined” for the paradigm shift which we are apparently undergoing.

So to be perfectly clear, the brief thoughts and comments below, aside from the quotation of the idea in question, are my own interpretation of the “dead” idea advanced by Mr. Miller.

The ideas which the book suggests are “dead” and must be discarded include:

“The Kids Will Earn More Than We Do” – Sadly, Mr. Miller is probably right about this one. The notion that upward mobility in America as all but guaranteed if you work hard is a phantasm at this point. A lot of folks will probably struggle, or work harder than their parents, to maintain some semblance of the material trappings that were assumed to be a “birthright.”

“Free Trade is ‘Good’ (No Matter How Many People Get Hurt)” – For all of the buzz about the “world being flat,” it is very apparent that now more than ever, most of us are in competition with peers internationally, rather than locally, regionally or even nationally, since in a “service based” or “knowledge” economy, a lot of work can be performed from virtually anywhere. And clearly there are both winners and losers in this global balancing act; I cannot begrudge those in other countries seeking to find a better standard of living for themselves and their families, but when this is used to justify downward pressure on wages, it has very real ramifications.  It ought to be interesting as more white collar service jobs such as law (after all, the vast majority of American lawyers practice transactional law which in theory, could be performed by anyone that is qualified to pass the bar in a particular state, no matter where they reside unless residency requirements were imposed to prevent this) get this treatment, rather than those engaged in “blue collar” occupations or less regulated service jobs.

“Your Company Should Take Care of You” – Without question this is DOA, although the manner in which the implied “social contract” has been broken is pretty damn egregious. Loyalty is a two-way street, and it’s ironic how many corporations seem to view employees as “depreciating assets” which can be discarded regardless of their utility in order to produce short-term results for shareholders or boost executive compensation. I realize that many employees simply “punch in, go through the motions, and punch out” without becoming invested in the company’s success, but many more do not. Sadly, I think one of the future financial storms on the horizon is when it is revealed that many of the pension plans (mostly applicable to Baby Boomers) have been under-funded, which will cause further pain to those seeking a secure retirement and the rest of us in the working world that will end up being expected to bail them out through government initiatives.

“Taxes Hurt the Economy (and They’re Always Too High)” – For me, this one is a bit of a red flag, as Mr. Miller clearly feels that many Americans need to pay more in taxes. The problem is, where do we draw the line? It’s easy to say that we should “tax the rich more,” but how do we define rich? What about our overly complex tax system which apparently gets gamed anyway, as we see from a slew of  President Obama’s Cabinet Nominees that conveniently made “tax errors” that most shockingly, were not in the government’s favor but rather their own. According to 2006 IRS data, the top 1 percent of wage earners, with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $388,806 or greater, paid just shy of 39.9 percent of all federal income taxes. When you include the top 10 percent (with an AGI of at least $108,904), that figure increases to nearly 71 percent, and if you include the top 25 percent (AGI of $64,702, which is still considered a respectable income in most parts of the U.S.), you are accounting for more than 86 percent of all federal income taxes collected.  It seems to me, that if we want to talk about new ways of doing things, that we need to transition our tax system to one that perhaps penalizes consumption of all but necessities, rewards savings, and perhaps applies some form of tiered flat tax which does not unduly punish those who work hard and generate income every year (rather than living off of capital gains from inherited wealth, for example, and thus “stimulating the economy” through their consistent productivity).

“Schools are a Local Matter” – Since Mr. Miller talked about this at some length during his presentation, I feel more comfortable stating that I’m largely in agreement with his position, namely that for too long we’ve left testing standards and fund-raising for public primary and secondary schools to the local level, which has resulted in wildly divergent budgets and standards, and that the more recent “No Child Left Behind” program is not necessarily improving educational standards, but rather forcing schools to teach just enough to get kids to pass the test. Although this may make me unpopular in some quarters, teacher unions must bear some culpability for making it difficult to dismiss teachers that are dismal failures in the classroom or simply biding their time until retirement, while criticizing the notion of merit or performance based pay. Yes, we understand that teachers in economically under-privileged areas face an additional obstacle to get kids to perform in the classroom, which is why we need to create incentives to get “the best and brightest” to be willing to tackle such difficult assignments. Most importantly, we must present education which is relevant and provides the capability for life-long learning; too many people in this country are functionally illiterate or incapable of critical thought and analysis, and at best can simply regurgitate whatever has stuck in their short-term memory. As Americans fail to learn the skills necessary to compete in our “flat world,” we are going to continue our “downward glide slope” or worse, enter into an unrecoverable spiral.

“Money Follows Merit” – True enough that this was a wonderful fantasy to maintain, especially when it may have been true. Working hard or pursuing higher education simply does not guarantee a certain standard of living, no matter what you’ve been told. But that being said, not continuing to pursue both formal and experiential education, expanding one’s skill set or making an effort to stand out from the crowd are surefire recipes for eventual disaster.

That concludes the “dead ideas” that Mr. Miller has highlighted in his book. In the next day or two, I’ll address Mr. Miller’s proposed “destined ideas” and weigh in on those…

February 26, 2009

Zentropism’s Applications for Homeland Security

I was recently asked by a colleague and friend that has been following my writings to devote a posting to the topic of Homeland Security, and the applications of the Zentropist approach towards law enforcement, counter-terrorism and private sector security consulting operations. This is actually a subject close to the heart, in part due to both past and current personal and professional associations that I keep, my undergraduate studies (my 2-part graduate level thesis was sadly somewhat prescient regarding today’s global political environment, developed during the autumn of 1991 and spring of 1992 with a focus on domestic counter-terrorism for Part I and counter-insurgency operations for Part II), as well as a close family member that works as a special agent for a federal agency that shall go nameless for now.

Needless to say, I firmly believe that the Seven Primary Attributes that are fundamental to the Tao of the Zentropist have direct bearing on the ability of a civilian (including sworn law enforcement personnel, who in my opinion should NOT be separated out from this grouping) or military operative/agent/officer to improve the skills necessary to effectively predict, identify, and disrupt potential terror operations.  If one thing is abundantly clear, the shocking (at least in the eyes of most Americans) events of September 11, 2001 were caused by not only a colossal failure of intelligence-gathering and information sharing among a myriad of often competing and dangerously bureaucratic civilian and military governmental agencies, but also by an inexcusable failure of imagination. Quite simply, folks that should have known better simply could not fathom the unconventional means that could be employed to sow terror and strike at the “soft underbelly” of a target, namely the United States, which in the case of the fundamental and malignant interpretations of Islam existing in certain Sunni and Shi’ite traditions, is the very manifestation of corruption and decadence.

One of the most important constructs of the Zentropist approach to life, whether as a tool used in the pursuit of one’s occupation or as a guide to self-improvement and mastery, is an appreciation for unconventional thought and the necessity of not becoming beholden to rigid interpretations of data, as well as a marked aversion to bureaucratic “group-think” and “passing the buck,” which sadly, seem to be the hallmarks of far too many institutions. Those who work in the security consulting / “personal protection” field understand that the moment one has to draw a weapon to protect a client (arguably one of the last lines of defense), there has already been a certain amount of  “failure” in the system; because if proper planning, including threat assessment and analysis and the resultant preventative measures, was performed prior to the assailant(s) breaching the “inner ring” of the protection circle, then the best efforts to circumvent the undesired action were obviously flawed.

As those who follow such things now know, the 9-11 hijackers could have been disrupted at several junctures in their ramp-up to operational status had the right people been able to put the pieces together. Occam’s Razor, which states that, “All other things being equal, the simplest explanation tends to be the correct one,” is a very useful axiom to keep in mind. It is absolutely mind-boggling, for example, that a flight school would not find it odd that students were interested in learning how to take off and fly commercial aircraft, but had little interest in landing. I’ve been around aviation long enough to hear pilots (at least those that intend to live to fly another day) remark that, “Take-off is optional but landing is mandatory.”

As much as I personally find the expression, “thinking outside of the box” to be repeated ad nauseam by those that don’t grasp its implications so as to begin to lose any meaning, it is important to acknowledge that we must never let our preconceived notions, cultural biases or ignorance and underestimation of the commitments of others deter us from seeing through their eyes so we might better understand likely behavioral patterns. We must never become so blind to the fact that when our antenna is clearly telling us that the other party is doing “X,” we fail to address this threat because in our worldview, “X” is unfathomable and therefore, we falsely conclude that the other party is surely doing “Y.”

While Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character (to our great loss, in my opinion), his creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was a keen observer that made Holmes’ deductive reasoning and ability to read his environment based on subtle clues feel so real as to border on the preternatural. Yet these skills, and more important, the attitude and discipline necessary to develop them, are well within the realm of the possible and align quite fittingly with the capabilities of the Zentropist. As the fictional Holmes commented to his fictional friend/companion/biographer John Watson, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

One of the challenges of the Zentropist is deciding where the line of “impossible” begins and accepting that even the “improbable” must be given credence when all available evidence points in that direction.

You don’t build a hypothesis, much less a theory, by manipulating the “facts” (which includes errors of omission) or observable phenomena to fit your conclusions; you must collect, parse and analyze all available data and then seek to deduce patterns which explain that which you’re witnessing.

This is made all the more important, with the stakes dangerously high, when it comes to maintaining the security for human life, whether individual or collective.  Because when you play on the “defensive,” you need to be right 100 percent of the time, while the “offense” potentially only needs to be right once…

In a future posting, if there’s sufficient interest, we can delve into Zentropism’s applications in asymmetrical warfare, a.k.a. counter-insurgency operations or low-intensity conflict, which are often related to but distinct from counter-terror operations…

February 17, 2009

The Zentropist Defined: The Seventh Attribute

Today we finally reach the last of the Zentropist’s Primary Attributes. In doing so, we travel full-circle, reflecting an observation made by the Lakota Medicine Man Black Elk who said, “The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.”

For those that choose to walk the path of the Zentropist, every day presents new challenges and new opportunities, with the possibility of uncovering fresh insights as well.

Although many in the West are more familiar with the Japanese term “Zen” in reference to a particular strain of Buddhist philosophy, its origin and roots lie somewhere to the West of Nippon, perhaps in India although it rose to prominence in China, particularly in its adaptation (along with Taoist teachings) by the monks of the now world famous Shaolin Temple order. In China, it goes by the name Ch’an Buddhism, and is spoken of as “The Middle Path,” which provides some clue to its essential nature.

Many are familiar, at least superficially, with the concepts of Yin and Yang, of opposing forces that cannot exist independently and must operate in harmony and balance each other; for one in excess of the other leads to chaos and disharmony. If the Zentropist is to realize the over-arching goal of the path, one must come to terms with the Seventh Attribute, “The understanding that amid the seeming chaos of the world lies balance and we must seek to maintain this.”

There are many who would suggest that it is the very imbalances that manifest in our world which lead to the greatest discord and suffering. Such issues are perhaps best left to another discussion, but there is an underlying truth that our world is one filled with contrasts which operate in apparent harmony regardless of our efforts to change them or otherwise impose our will or desires.

The Zentropist must remain aware at all times that when pursuing a desired outcome, there will be consequences, intentional or not, and these must be carefully monitored so the net result of our efforts is beneficial rather than harmful. If one accepts the notion that entropy is but a measure of the order and disorder existing within a system, and the premise that chaos is invariably present to one degree or another, finding constructive means to channel the available energy into productive work is paramount.

In many respects, the Zentropist is not unlike the director on a film set, providing the unifying creative vision which is influenced by the collaborative actions of many others, ideally working in harmony but upon occasion, deliberately or not operating at cross-purposes. It is the responsibility of the Zentropist to intercede in these instances so that balance is restored and that progress continues with as little interruption as possible.  The Zentropist, by virtue of working on behalf of others, does not operate in a vacuum and all actions and behavior must be governed accordingly.

The Zentropist is also wise to keep the following axiom close at hand and to diligently practice it, for the Zentropist by definition must assume the mantle (and burden) of leadership and in exercising this responsibility, may need to delegate his or her authority. However, while a leader may delegate authority, a leader can never delegate nor abdicate responsibility or accountability. As a general rule, Corporate America has shirked this philosophy for years and the results are all too apparent in the current global financial crisis. Those that pursue personal financial enrichment and material rewards at the expense of all else will inevitably suffer the consequences and reap the whirlwind which their selfish and self-serving desires have spawned.

The leader that embraces the simple yet vital principle above may very well have what it takes to walk the path of the Zentropist.

Do you?

February 13, 2009

The Zentropist Defined: The Sixth Attribute

Courage is a trait often spoken of, and perhaps as commonly misunderstood. Courage, or the lack thereof, may or may not expose one to physical harm, but its absence will almost certainly expose one to psychological harm.

John Wayne once famously remarked that, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.” Some might debate the Duke’s courage off-screen (there’s no denying that he embodied it in spades on celluloid), but that little nugget does certainly encapsulate physical courage. Yet this is but one expression of the term.

It is acknowledged by the Zentropist that one must develop, The courage, both intellectual and physical, to seize the initiative, to act in a moral and ethical manner, to inspire others, to exercise good judgment and to endure whatever is necessary to prevail.”

Far too often, we lack the courage of our convictions, and find ourselves shirking from a course of action because we perceive it to be unpopular or possibly exposing us to undue ridicule, risk or danger. The true Zentropist cannot abide such shortcomings, at least for long, and will find the inner strength necessary to rise to the occasion. In doing so, guided by a moral compass that is not swayed by the court of public opinion or the self-serving lodestones of greed and selfishness that warp the navigation of some, the Zentropist will serve as an inspiration to those who understand the value of the path taken.

Ernest Hemingway had a great deal of courage, yet ultimately, this was perhaps his undoing, for courage without good judgment becomes needless sacrifice, and this is to be avoided whenever possible.  Still, it is instrumental to look at the foreshadowing of his ultimate fate in a passage he famously composed in the classic, A Farewell to Arms:

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that it will not break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

The Zentropist seeks to bend rather than break, but understands that sometimes we must be broken to rebuild ourselves more strongly. In the practice of working on behalf of others, the Zentropist must always have the courage to do right by one’s charges, to find the solutions to the best of one’s abilities, and to produce results which deliver tangible and hopefully long-lasting value.

I’ll leave you with some final words from Mark Twain, one of my favorite authors, who said, “Always do right — this will gratify some and astonish the rest.”

So get out there and astonish the masses…

February 11, 2009

The Zentropist Defined: The Fifth Attribute

It is perhaps ironic given the times in which we live that we will speak of Character and its crucial role as the fifth of the seven Primary Attributes of the Zentropist. It should come as no surprise to those reading these postings that the world has been in an economic crisis for some time, arising from both individual and collective failings of character, arising from those who seek only to take more than they contribute, and who lack the fortitude to “do the right thing” simply because it is, well, the right thing.

From the Zentropist standpoint, one must seek to develop, The character to remain humble while maintaining the confidence, bearing and integrity to transmit the wisdom gained from experience.” It’s a tall order, I realize, and only a liar will tell you that he or she has never fallen short of the mark. As has been observed, we often learn more from our failures than we do from our successes; perhaps this is simply hardwired into the human psyche, some feature set of our genetic programming, whether you view this as a product of some larger Creation guided by a “Great Architect of the Universe (to borrow a Freemasonry expression) or simply the result of random mutations and natural selection over time.

Humility and humbleness are traits that some interpret as weakness, and this is a terrible mistake. The moment we start believing in our own infallibility is the moment that we architect the beginning of our personal disaster. No one has all the answers, and the true Zentropist will accept this without reservation. It is not about faith, or lack thereof. The Zentropist must pursue Truth as guided by his or her conscience, fully aware that the path one walks is seldom as straight as one might initially believe. For that path will intersect with others, and by different routes the same destination may very well be reached, although the journeys will by definition be different for all.

What is most critical at this juncture for the budding Zentropist is that as the journey progresses, in spite of mistakes made (and some may be whoppers), and for whatever successes both great and small are celebrated, one must draw confidence in his or her ability to make a difference. The Zentropist does not aspire to be some “Superman” as defined by Nietzsche, but rather, seeks to set an example of persistence and perseverance by overcoming shortcomings, by turning former weaknesses into strengths, by leveraging strengths to achieve some greater good.

By moving forward and maintaining one’s integrity, by living true to the Primary Attributes which form the code and creed of the Zentropist, one will acquire wisdom which may be used to the benefit of one’s self and others.

Some may believe that our journey through life is walked on the precipice of a Great Abyss, which we may choose to acknowledge or not, and that our actions will indeed “echo through time” whether we realize this or not. Whether we gaze into the abyss, and whether or not it looks back are inconsequential; the Zentropist has a responsibility to share his or her gifts, however humble they may be perceived, for in doing so he or she will be rewarded one thousand-fold.

Thus speaks the Tao of the Zentropist…

February 9, 2009

The Zentropist Defined: The Fourth Attribute

We now turn to the fourth of the Zentropist’s Primary Attributes, which is centered on Knowledge in all its myriad forms. There is a natural tendency for some to seek to flaunt their accumulation of knowledge, to prove to the world that they are “expert” or somehow all-knowing when it comes to a particular subject. This is the course of fools and charlatans. On the other hand, there are those who revel in their ignorance, or worse, do not comprehend how dramatically their lack of knowledge impacts their journey through this life, which is a tragedy in of itself.

The Zentropist walks the Middle Path. The Zentropist seeks, The knowledge of when to speak, and when to listen.”

For as with force, which can only have one direction in a given moment of time, one can be speaking or one can be listening. One cannot, however, be doing both simultaneously.

Knowledge can be highly esoteric or highly technical; it can be mundane, it can be revolutionary; it can change the course of human events or it can simply be a part of the greater flow of life. The Zentropist must selectively continue to evaluate his or her body of knowledge, to seek to broaden it where appropriate, and to plumb the depths of the subjects to which he or she is drawn, for knowledge calls out to those who seek it and takes on a life of its own. Possessing knowledge for knowledge’s sake may not be productive in our fast-paced modern world, but encouraging the curiosity and thirst that lead one down a path, so long as that path is not one of self-destruction or harmful to the well being of others, is to be admired.

Let us also be clear on an important point. A Zentropist is not someone who knows a little about a lot of things, a dilettante masquerading as a subject matter expert. In fact, a Zentropist must have a command of a number of subjects, and certainly should demonstrate expertise or substantial capability in specialized fields. That being said, a Zentropist should also have the wisdom to consult with those more knowledgeable when the situation warrants, and must never overstate or over-estimate his or her abilities. To do so would invite the very disharmony and chaos that we seek to overcome.

The Zentropist exhibits qualities of both the generalist and specialist, which some in the business world have termed a “versatilist,” or per a press release statement in 2005 regarding the IT sector by Diane Morello, VP of Research at Gartners, Inc., “Versatilists are people whose numerous roles, assignments and experiences are enabling them to synthesize knowledge and context to fuel business value.” In many respects, the versatilist as defined by Ms. Morello is a prototypical Zentropist.

It has been famously said that, “To know is to know that to know is not to know.” This is something that is rather profound on several levels. In admitting our ignorance, our knowledge is revealed, and in seeking to address the very deficiencies that we all know to exist, we discover new things about ourselves which lead to our continued evolution.

And the more a Zentropist evolves, the better he or she can serve not only his or her own needs, but those of others.

And that, ultimately, is what it is all about…

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