Lessons from Science and Diplomacy

During Fellows Orientation, I learned a little about the importance of science in diplomacy.  The one application that I know is that often science and technology exchange is the leverage that can be used to bring about progress in other areas.  Wanting to learn more about how science and diplomacy can mix, I took the opportunity to go to roundtable event about careers in that area.  The two presenters had both been AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Fellows in the past, one in the State Department and the other in USAID, so they were particularly knowledgeable about our own experiences.  Their comments were entertaining and helpful in many different situations, so I thought I’d share.

Both men are working on water issues, but from two different perspectives.  The first is working at MCC, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was created by Congress in 2004 as an independent foreign aid entity.  MCC works with the most promising developing countries on the most promising projects.  To qualify, a country must be above average on a number of key indicators in the general areas of Ruling Justly, Encouraging Economic Freedom, and Investing in People.  Often countries that are on the borderline for qualification will make considerable efforts to improve their performance so that they will be eligible for MCC projects.  The second presenter is currently working at the State Department, having done his fellowship at USAID, and he works with a lot of inter-country water agreements.

One of the first comments that struck me was a statement similar to what I’ve often said in the past.  In the presenter’s words, “Schedule, quality, and cost.  You fix two and the other one floats.”  Essentially you can optimize two out of three of those variables, but you can’t optimize all three.  In synthesis, there are two “quality” factors and the cost usually gets left out so you can only optimize two out of three of yield, purity, and time.  I find it a very useful lesson for the perfectionists in the crowd.  Yes, sometimes I need to remind myself.

The two presenters, both of whom have done considerable international work, had very different perspectives on learning languages.  One felt that by having at least rudimentary language skills, a diplomat has much more flexibility in assignments.  I always think about Spanish as one of the key languages, but he pointed out that French is important in many African countries.  He also has some Arabic and enough Portuguese that he can read reports written in that language to get a sense of whether or not they say what they are supposed to.  The second man prefers to learn very little language so that he doesn’t accidentally create a misunderstanding.  He does, however, pay close attention to the body language of people with whom he meets.  On the occasion when a translation did not match his sense of the attitudes of the other people in the meeting, he turned to the translator and said, “That’s not what they said,” meaning that the translation certainly wasn’t what they meant.

When asked what experiences they had found valuable preparations for their current jobs, one man mentioned two key parts of his past.  He said that as a past juvenile delinquent, he understood the criminal mind, and having played ice hockey for 15 years, he has a high tolerance for pain and learned not to back down from a fight.  With that said, he then suggested that perhaps he wasn’t an ideal role model for the folks in the room.  We were amused.

I was fascinated by one man’s comments about writing.  One of the questions came from a State Department Fellow in the audience, who expressed frustration that by the time a memo reaches the top levels, it has been edited so many times that it has lost all of its excitement.  In response, the man suggested that there should be a cadence and flow to writing. There is a rhythm to the words so that a reader does not have to stop or go back.  By understanding that flow, the writing does not get in the way of the substance, and it is less likely to be edited.  He then smirked and suggested that yes, it sounded like he was commenting on the Zen of memo writing.

I hadn’t really thought about the time frame it takes to make good policy, but that was another useful lesson.  One fellow expressed frustration that she had written a memo about adopting a new policy in the first three months of her fellowship and it hadn’t gone anywhere.  The speakers made two observations.  The first is that it probably takes about 10 years to build a new issue unless there is ground work in place.  Given my brief experience in Congress, I would agree with that idea.  The second observation is that in a town that is filled with memos, that preparing and creating a constituency is vital to making progress for your issue.

Prior to the session, one of the presenters asked the people with whom he worked to share the most useful advice he had given them over the years.  I found a number of these to be applicable far beyond diplomacy, so I wrote them down to share:

1)       Don’t let knowing what you need to know get in the way of doing what you need to do.  Scientists in particular are accustomed to learning absolutely everything they can about a problem before making a decision.  Sadly, in government, this is often a luxury that is not possible if the action is to be timely.  So don’t study a problem to death before you act.

2)      Be first.  Be Best.  That’s where the wins are, but most of them come from being first.

3)      In writing: If you see an adjective, kill it. (-Mark Twain)  You need to be direct and concise.

4)      Say what you mean and say it lean.  Far too many people beat around the bush or go on for pages.  If it’s not on the first page in the first couple of sentences, it won’t get read.

5)      It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear.  That is particularly important in diplomacy that you need to be attentive to your audience.  If your message isn’t getting through, then you aren’t doing your job.

6)      Regarding career expectations: Nothing is worse than finding out that you are good at something you didn’t want to be good at.  The former juvenile delinquent is appalled that he’s actually very good at making a bureaucracy work for him, but he accepts that it is so.

7)      You are not Secretary Clinton.  Don’t kill yourself with insanely high standards.  You can work and strive all you want, but without certain lucky breaks or being in the right place at the right time, you are not going to rise to that level no matter how smart and talented you are.  Find a place where you are happy and can perform well.

8)      Everything follows the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  He didn’t actually explain this one to a group of science nerds and no one asked him about it, but the idea is that the universe is constantly moving toward the maximum state of disorder and chaos.

9)      Don’t just take advantage of opportunities, create opportunities.  (I think I’ve done that quite well this year, myself!)

10)  Be nice.  We work in a small world.  The two men mentioned that they met 10 years ago and have been in and out of each other’s professional lives multiple times since then.  You never know who you are going to need later.

11)  Have a vision.  That vision allows you to shape the world around you and allows you to take advantage of opportunities.  (I’ve never felt strong on this one.)

12)  Know what you look like.  Know how you sound.  These two comments are all about the impressions that you make on people.  The presenter mentioned that at one point after making a presentation, the only comment he got from someone was that he, the presenter, had said, “Um” a total of 43 times.  He no longer says, “Um.”

13)  You don’t know anything.  (-Game of Thrones)  The key is to pull together the right people who *do* have the background to help make a sound policy decision.  That’s what makes you look good.

14)   Results matter…except when they don’t.  Relationships are also important.

15)  Know who you work for and what success is in their eyes.  As a corollary, the other man added that your supervisor may not know exactly what success looks like, in which case you must educate them.

16)  Fail strategically.  You probably aren’t going to be able to do everything or to do it perfectly.  Make sure you choose which pieces are going to be failures, and make sure they aren’t the important stuff.

The second presenter added the following:

17)  Don’t always count on people articulating what they want.

18)  Be the kind of person who people want on their team.

19)  Be willing to work with junior staff.  It helps them grow, and it helps build future strategic alliances.

20)  If you are enthusiastic, it is contagious

One that I’ll pull out specifically is the intriguing idea that it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you don’t need to take credit.  Get other people to do the work for you.  If you do one project, then that’s just one project.  If you convince people that the projects are a good idea and give them ownership, then you’ll get a hundred projects instead.  The other speaker suggested that there is a balance between taking credit for your own work and allowing others to have ownership, and I agree with that as well.

Lastly:  Being famous and changing the world are not the same thing.



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