The Short Attention Span President

    When I am listening to advice from others, 99% of the time I exhibit a short attention span. The other 1% of the time the advice is worthy of a listen. In that rare case, I can listen all day. Given the situation I just described, would you say I have a short attention span?

    Suppose you give me a briefing book with thousands of facts and I only seem to care about three of those facts. And then I succeed at whatever I’m trying to do with my three facts. Given that set of circumstances, would you say I am incompetent?

    Part of the fun of watching the press cover President Trump is that they don’t have a leadership filter. Most writers and TV news people have never been leaders in super-complicated industries. President Trump has. And let me tell you a few necessary skills a leader in that situation needs to possess:

    1. No patience with long explanations. If an advisor can’t put the USEFUL information in summary form, ignore and move to the next advisor.

    2. Ability to know which variables are sufficient to make the decision. 

    A president needs those two qualities. Otherwise, the job would overwhelm. if you are one of the advisors who doesn’t get enough attention from the president – because your explanations of things are overly wordy or useless – what message do you leak to the press?

    Answer: You say President Trump has a short attention span. 

    You get this same situation with almost every CEO of every large organization. In larger companies, underlings rarely think the CEO is sufficiently well-informed to make decisions. I write a comic strip about this sort of thing. It’s a universal phenomenon in large organizations.

    And what happens if you are an advisor who puts together a brief that is too long and too complicated for a president with a hundred issues swirling around in his or her head? When your president skims or skips your brief, you start whispering to associates that he has no appetite for knowledge. You probably don’t leak the other explanation – that you are bad at summarizing.

    Let me give you some context that might help here.

    One of the patterns I observe in U.S. politics is that Democrats organize around the general concept of fairness for all people, including non-citizens. Republicans are more oriented toward the psychology of motivation. And that means you can easily put the wrong filter on your analysis of how much information a president needs before making decisions. The fairness president needs different information than the motivation president. Each would stop the learning when they had enough for their purposes, which are different.

    For example, let’s say I’m a Republican president and you are trying to explain some policy options to me. As soon as you begin your description, I can see that your recommended approach would demotivate my base. That’s a non-starter. Do I need to hear the rest of your details? Skip it. Don’t need the details.

    President Trump has navigated complicated business situations for decades. I’ll bet during those years he exhibited what others might label a short attention span and a low interest in details. Yet he succeeded, bigly. Same situation when he ran for president. He ignored a lot of details and won anyway.

    Generally speaking, if you see a person who is a failure in life ignoring advice and eschewing knowledge, the best explanation for that situation is you are dealing with an incompetent person.

    But if you hear allegations of a short attention span in someone with a multi-decade history of successfully navigating complicated industries, be open to the possibility that the messenger is pushing useless information on an executive who is good at knowing what matters and what does not.

    From my limited vantage point, I can’t tell if President Trump is ignoring useful information from aides or useless information. The only thing I know for sure is that it would look the same to both of us.

    Until he succeeds. 

    You might enjoy reading my book because I left out all the things you don’t care about.

    I’m also on…

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Is President Trump Doing Management Wrong?

    I made the mistake of turning on CNN yesterday and saw all the hypnotized pundits trying to work the secret persuasion word “chaos” into every comment about President Trump. That’s your tell that none of the pundits are offering independent opinions. They are part of the hive mind led by some uncredited persuader on their side. Someone told them to say “chaos” a lot, and so they do. This might signal the return of Godzilla. Reminds me of “dark,” their hive-mind word for the summer of 2016.

    It appears that Trump’s counter-persuasion for “chaos” involves framing his administration as “disruptive.” That’s a good persuasion move because it doesn’t deny the observations. A disruption looks a lot like chaos from the outside. Two movies on one screen.

    The interesting question to me is this: How do we know whether President Trump is doing a good job or a bad one? What standard do we use for comparison? If you are not comparing Trump’s performance to some objective standard, you’re not saying anything at all.

    Does it make sense to compare President Trump’s performance to an imaginary president who didn’t get elected? I don’t think science recognizes your imagination as the base case for an experiment. It just feels like it should be. That’s an illusion.

    Does it make sense to compare President Trump’s performance to past presidents who got a lot done in the first week? Well, maybe, if such a person existed. No one has ever tried moving at Trump’s speed before. We expect the slow-moving traditional leader to create less “chaos” than the entrepreneurial and disruptive leader. But don’t you have to include the benefits in this comparison? The whole point of Trump’s flurry of activity is that he’s trying to create good outcomes. We don’t know if the good outcomes will pan out. All we know is that it was a bit messy at the start. 

    Is being a bit messy a sign of a problem?

    Not if you’re the entrepreneurial, disruptive, candidate of change who just got elected.

    Let me explain another management concept that the pundits don’t understand because, generally speaking, they don’t have the right kind of education or experience to analyze a business process. 

    There are two basic styles of management. One is the cautious style of Fortune 500 companies. The other is the rapid-iteration and A/B testing style of entrepreneurs. Trump is bringing the latter style to the office. The markers for this style of management include:

    1. Rapid and decisive hiring and firing.

    2. Bias toward action. 

    3. Rapid A/B testing. Release the early beta version and judge reactions. Adjust accordingly.

    4. Emphasis on the psychology of success. Entrepreneurial management includes lots of persuasion and bullshit because entrepreneurs have to fake it until they make it. In other words, they have to create demand via persuasion.

    Compare that management style to a large company style. Big companies move slowly in both hiring and firing. They get caught in “analysis paralysis” because no one wants to be seen as making a mistake. And they don’t do rapid testing and iteration with consumers. They try to get it right before any customers see the product. 

    The world is watching Trump trade some “chaos” to get the benefits of entrepreneurial management. It’s fast and messy, but he’s testing in real time. He’s watching protests. He’s watching news coverage. He’s watching social media. And he’s rapidly adjusting as needed. The net effect of Trump’s bias for action in his first week is that he created a presidential brand of being the most action-oriented president of all time. Your first impression will be sticky. If things work out for Trump, you will forget any temporary “chaos” and remember him as the most effective president in history. Success fixes everything. Every entrepreneur knows that.

    The smartest person I know told me that the secret to business success does NOT necessarily involve hiring the right people. We just think it does. The real secret to success is firing the people that you discover to be the wrong fit until eventually you END UP with the right people. No one is psychic enough to do hiring right every time. Job applicants are good at misrepresenting themselves. But a good leader knows which employees to fire and does it quickly and humanely.

    Trump fires well. We saw him fire campaign managers as needed to restaff for each phase of his campaign. Lewandowski was perfect for the scrappy first months. Manafort was the right campaign manager to get Trump through the nomination process. And Conway was the right pick as his closer.

    I’m not suggesting that everything Trump does is the right move. Quite the opposite. I’m suggesting that he has chosen an entrepreneurial management style that is guaranteed to create more small-scale unforced errors than you might see from a boring Fortune 500 management style. If Trump quickly fixes his unforced errors, you’re seeing a style done right, not wrong. 

    If you see a pundit crying “chaos” about Trump’s early moves, you’re probably seeing someone with no entrepreneurial management experience. In the startup world, speed has replaced intelligence whenever you can rapidly test*. Doing things quickly, and adjusting as needed, often gets you to a faster/better result than planning a moonshot that has exactly one path to success. 

    Obviously you want to match the management style to the situation. The messy entrepreneurial style might work great for fixing “systems” in the government, such as healthcare and immigration. It should work against ISIS too. And I expect it will be great for negotiating with other countries because they don’t know what to expect. 

    But sometimes you need to get it right the first time because the stakes are high. Those situations will be obvious to any president. I wouldn’t worry about President Trump launching some nukes just to see how it turns out. 

    A good way to tell whether a pundit or citizen understands the field of risk management well enough to critique Trump’s performance is to ask how they view his history of bankruptcies. If a person thinks those bankruptcies are a sign of poor management, they probably don’t know much about business. But if they understand the few bankruptcies – out of hundreds of projects – as part of a diversification strategy with good risk management that siloed off the losers, you might be seeing someone who understands business.

    *The smartest person I know told me that too.

    Scott Adams

    Co-founder of WhenHub

    Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big