Progressive Elaboration

One of the most common issues I see in my day-to-day work is the challenge colleagues have in communicating complex, or broad, issues to people with either limited understanding or previous interaction with the materials. Usually these presentations also occur in a time sensitive situation. As a result colleagues regularly fail to get the resolution they seek not because their ideas are bad, but because they cannot convey their idea quickly and appropriately.

The methodology I was taught is that proposals should be structured like a newspaper front-page, with a headline, short summary and main body presented (in that order). Unfortunately, I cannot find this approach articulated anywhere. The analogy I use with my team is that presenting a complex idea is like building a house: first you need the foundations, then the walls (the structure), then you add the furniture. It’s the same idea: you start at a high level and add more and more detail. The term I use for this, borrowed from the Project Management discipline, is Progressive Elaboration. It’s a useful tool and a common sense approach, but it is amazing how few people are trained in this way. Time and time again you see colleagues struggling with presenting too much/ too little information, getting challenged on facts or losing some or all of their audience. For this reason, I thought I would explain my process in full:

Part 1 – The Outline


Part 2 – The Main Body



Part 3 – The Appendices


Understanding who you are presenting to, their sophistication, background and writing clearly are absolute musts. And when this is done using the right structure, I find, more times than not, my ideas or proposals get the response I wanted.

Progressive Elaboration

Maskirovka and Misinformation – A Dystopian Reality

A few weeks ago I heard a BBC documentary about a Russian military strategy called Maskirovka. Essentially this is the art of disinformation, about engineering truth to distract or mislead your enemies. Clearly written in the wake of activity in Ukraine and the assassination of Boris Nemstov, the conceit of the piece was that this was a worrying development in a major global power’s approach to war.

At first I questioned what the issue was with this. Misdirection is surely a legitimate tool in war; it’s a legitimate tool in any strategic contest. It is common too. Indeed, as Lucy Ash says, it’s not even exclusive to Russia. But as I reflected further on it, I felt less at ease. If in war subterfuge is acceptable, then a tight definition of “war” is required. Without this, a policy of lying is able to exist in the grey, fuzzy areas between war and peace.

As I considered the potential issues, I was reminded of Wittgenstein’s language-game theory. In this context, language-game theory would assert that while you are war, language adopts a unique set of rules – in the “game” of war “truth” is not always true. The problem is that government defines these rules and they can do so without their citizens knowing. In fact they must do so, because if their opponent(s) know the context in which truth may be manipulated, it negates the potency of the strategy.  Because of the imbalance of power between a government and its citizens, and because the strategy necessarily involves deception, it is impossible to know what is truth and what is reality; if you are playing the game or not. Essentially, once you legitimize a strategy of misinformation and do not parameterize its usage, you create a situation where “truth” in any context becomes fallible, or subject to interpretation.

Furthermore, it seems in today’s society a lot of state sponsored (violent) action occurs in the space between war and peace. Consider acts of espionage (Western government’s policy of Extraordinary Rendition, for example) or certain acts of foreign policy (such as claims about Iraq’s WMDs). These all involve elements of subterfuge, disinformation and misdirection made to achieve a specific objective in response to a perceived threat.

Finally, because national security and foreign policy are so closely intertwined with matters of state, arguably policies like Maskirovka necessarily affect the wider democratic process (consider the political decisions that were made in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, for example). The point is, we make democratic decisions on the basis of information we are fed, but we can’t honestly say if this information is correct or not. The very basis of democracy can be challenged once you set a precedent that truth is definable.

The most obvious solution to this, as I see it, is a free press and intra-national oversight of news. But as one must exist within national borders, and governments fund the other, I do not truly see this as the answer. The alternative would be to more tightly control policies that propagate disinformation, but this would surely be rejected because of the impact on national security.

So what’s the real answer? What do you do if you can’t trust a government you have democratically elected?

It all reminds me of George Orwell’s prescient novel, 1984. You could pick half-a-hundred quotes from the book that apply, but I chose this one: “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’.”

Maskirovka and Misinformation – A Dystopian Reality

A trio of fantastic musical firsts

For consideration:

Greatest Opening Lines

“As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I take a look at my life and realize there’s nothing left” – Coolio, Gangsta Paradise.

I can think of few more recognisable, catchy opening lines. So evocative. It perfectly captures the tone of the song: full of malice, dark, contemplative. The only problem for me is that, lyrically, the rest of the song is down hill from there.

[Alternate“I once knew a girl In the years of my youth, with eyes like the summer, all beauty and truth. In the morning I fled, left a note and it read: ‘Someday you will be loved’” – Death Cab for Cutie, Someday You Will Be Loved]

Greatest Opening Song

Jenny Was a Friend of Mine – The Killers, Hot Fuss.

I am a little indifferent to the album, but as far as opening tracks go… this is amazing. The lyrics are so compelling. Led in by the thumping base, the song just draws you in. Who is Jenny? How does the singer know her? What’s happened? Who is he talking to and what are they asking? Do I even believe what he’s saying? There are just so few songs out there that are as narratively interesting – certainly in my music collection at least.

[Alternate: Smells Like Teen spirit – Nirvana, Nevermind.]

Greatest First Album

Led Zeppelin I – Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin I – IV are practically flawless. In fact there is little use my proselytising. I can’t do this album justice. Musically, it sensitive, technical, awesome. Culturally, it changed music forever. And what’s more it was written by a group of twenty-one year olds. Just… staggering.

[ Alternate: Rage against the Machine – Rage Against the Machine.]

A trio of fantastic musical firsts