If you're a parent your child has at some time told a "whopper" that's so outlandish that you had to respect the kid for having the cojones to even try it! Yesterday, while trying to drill down into the numbers surrounding the recent budget fight, I bumped into two such whoppers within 15 minutes, but they weren't from my kids... they were from elected officials.
2+2=5 (for extremely large values of 2)
I was reminded of this seminal math joke when I saw Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl's impressively false claim from the Senate floor regarding the percentage of Planned Parenthood operations devoted to abortions. Sen Kyl claimed that abortions account for "well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does," while the actual number is 3%. Politifact.com has a pretty good analysis of the numbers, but I personally like Jon Stewart's presentation. Kyl's office didn't even attempt to backup his claim. As CNN reported, they simply stated that "his remark was not intended to be a factual statement." Steven Cobert, who coined the term "truthiness", a constant reminder that today's standard of integrity seems to be somewhat below truthfulness, brought this gaffe into the social media age by creating the Twitter hashtag #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement. Now you can tweet anything you want, no matter how blatently false, as long as you include the #NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement hashtag.
Just 10 minutes later I landed on CNN.com for some commentary about high speed rail. To their credit, CNN had collected questions from their users and posted responses from a variety of experts. Things were going quite well until Congressmen Mica and Shuster responded to a user who stated that goverment projects always run over budget:
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee has received testimony that simply adding one federal dollar to a transportation project adds 14 years to the delivery time.
Since I'm unaware of any transportation projects that ran 90 years late, I did a quick Google search for projects that went back to Congress for $5 or less of incremental funding. Surprisingly, I came up empty there. I'm now forced to consider the possibility that the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee receives its testimony from Sen. Jon Kyl.
The Modern Integrity Crisis
We often have a tendency to romanticise the past. However, when it comes to cheating the numbers say things really are getting worse. Rutgers professor Donald McCabe et al. found that cheating among college students has increased dramatically over the past 3 decades. For example, the percentage of students who admit to copying a test or exam increased from 26% in 1963 to 52% in 1993. Of particular note:
Major variables investigated in this study included the existence of an honor code, student understanding and acceptance of a school's academic integrity policy, perceived certainty that cheaters will be reported, perceived severity of penalties, and the degree to which students perceive that their peers engage in cheating behavior. This final variable, peer behavior, was found to show the most significant relation with student cheating in this study.
Why this Matters
I will skip over the entire MBA101 discussion on how our entire market economy is built upon trust and that the entirety of contract law is created to strengthen that trust. Thus, it is literally true to say that an erosion of our standards of integrity is a threat to our entire way of life. Instead, I want to focus on why so many IT project fall off the rails so quickly - poor requirements documentation. How is this related to the Integrity Crisis? Well, you can't really articulate what you need unless you know what you've got. If you call me and ask for directions to my office I'm going to ask for your current location. Don't expect valid directions if the location you provide is bogus. Project plans are no different than travel directions. If your current state definition is bogus you have little chance of reaching your desired end state.
As noted by researchers at Arizona State University, the cheating epidemic can be understood in terms of market economics. Corporate cultures establish markets for honesty and dishonesty, effectively setting a relative "price" for each. I've seen a few trends over the past decade or so that I believe contribute to the problems we're seeing today.
Winning isn't Everything, it's the Only Thing
Red Sanders captured the American ethos when he coined this phase back in 1950. American's are naturally competitive, so there's never really been a reason to explicitly state that, "hey, we want to win." Thus, I'm somewhat disturbed by the number of companies that have added "winning" to their list of explicit corporate values. Just two days ago I was speaking with an IT director within a major retailer who complained of how the young new executives seem to focus on share price to the utter exclusion of old-fashioned ideals like building a good product and providing a healthy work environment for the most talented employees. This change in attitude threatens to elevate our natural competitiveness into an unhealthy hyper-competitiveness that crowds out all other cultural values.
Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News
For quite some time managers have tried to empower problem solvers with the suggestion, "don't bring me problems, bring me solutions." However, I fear that in some companies this mantra has devolved into a sort of Wicked Witch of the West threat against employees who might highlight inconvenient truths. A few years ago I was on a large conference call lead by a high-achieving person who had just been assigned to pull a wayward project out of the ditch. Her review of the new project plan required her to explain that some prerequisites presumed by the original project plan were not actually in place. Her boss promptly threw her under the bus, jumped inside and drove the bus back and forth over her lifeless carcass! Until this meeting, I had often wondered why this senior executive was so ignorant about operations within his own organization. Now I understand that it's because he makes it obvious to his directs that he only wants good news. Employees who are willing to make statements NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement are much more likely to be happy in his organization.
Almost as bad as not knowing where you are is not knowing where you want to go. I find myself bombarded by requirements documents, contracts and even issue logs (supposedly the pinnacle of specificity) with weak or non-existent Definitions of Done (DoDs). Every document that asks someone to build something or fix something should provide an unambiguous method to answer the question, "are we there, yet?" Lack of metrics-based requirements and goals paves the way for masters of the art of lying without lying. These are people who simply declare their project successful whether the final product provides any value or not. It's not technically lying, since no one ever defined what success looks like. However, it's still unethical.
New Core Values
I'd like to suggest a few new core values that were central to the U.S. Navy Submarine Force.
It is What it is
Ben Hogan once said, "the ultimate judge of your swing is the flight of the ball." Few people understand that statement more fully than submariners. The ocean is terribly unforgiving and has historically provided brutal reminders of the difference between "seeming to be so" and actually being so. As a result, Navy personnel are trained to give and receive factual information no matter how inconvenient or embarrassing that information may be. Nuclear Navy personnel have a nearly fanatical concern for the accuracy of their instrumentation. With the recent events around Japan's nuclear power plant, it's worth noting that one of the reasons Three Mile Island got so far out of hand is that poor maintenance of plant instrumentation had lead to a culture of casual distrust of that instrumentation.
My experience watching how people use asset inventory lists, CMDBs (Configuration Management Databases), and volume metrics databases indicates that surprisingly low inaccuracy rates will cause users to largely abandon an information source. There's no reason to believe people have any higher threshold for "fudging" in other information areas. It really is critically important that when people say something, "it is what it is."
I Reserve the Right to Get Smarter
The engineer on my boat used to say this all the time, emphasizing that we make the best decisions we can based on the best information and experience we have available, not based on protecting our previous decisions. Today, I often see hesitation to revisit previous technology decisions not because of the cost of migrating to a new direction, but because of fear that people will ask embarrassing questions about how the original choices were made. It should go without saying that a corporate culture that discourages employees from learning from both their own mistakes and those of others will be less innovative and less efficient.
People Respond to Incentives
A fundamental tenet of capitalism is that people respond to financial incentives. Sure, some people are pathological liars. However, I think the fact that over 50% of college students admit to cheating in school indicates that, as a culture, we need to take a hard look at our incentive framework. I believe there are things we can do to encourage high integrity and discourage lying. I believe we can reverse this erosion of our cultural morals and halt this lying epidemic. And that is meant to be a factual statement!
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