A problem with public diplomacy is the illusion of planning and control. I was looking though my old documents and found an “aspirational statement” from my first month in Brazil. In that statement, I laid out things I wanted to accomplish and thought I could. I talked a little about who would help do it and conditions that would help or hinder. That was it. It was only a page long. I don’t recall ever referring to it again, but I am amazed to the extent that it came true. I acted on those aspirations for the next three years and expanded them. The result was the greatest success of my career.
Contrast that with detailed planning. It takes a lot more time to do than my one page. And it hinders innovation. You try to follow the path. Let me be clear. Engineers need to plan. You need to plan buildings and bridges. You need to make some plans for personnel and you have to plan budgets. But you should not really plan diplomacy in any detail because the challenges and opportunities are unknown and probably unknowable.
Maybe more importantly, good diplomacy requires that we work with partners, whose plans might not mesh with ours and who certainly will not be under our control. Synergy creates something better than just adding our plans together.
We have the QDDR. I am not sure what those initials stand for. I am vaguely aware of what is in the plan. I have never actually read it and don’t plan to read it ever. I had no need to know the detailed contents. I think I know the general aspirations because they are the simple ones we have worked with for many years. I am not saying that all the effort that went into making this document was wasted. Well, let me leave it at that.
We need to abandon the idea that we can plan in detail. It is not only useless; it is pernicious when it allows us to pretend to know more than we do and absolves us too often of the need to apply judgment to what happens.
When I arrived in Brazil, the plan was very different from what we did. Within a month of my arrival, the Brazilian government announced a “Science w/o Borders” program to send Brazilian students overseas to study in the STEM fields. We went all in. I neglected other priorities to take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity. Whatever plans existed were ignored and it was good. By the end of this year, more than 30,000 Brazilians will have studied in the U.S. on this program. We are sending (with Brazilians resources) 1080 secondary teachers of English to the U.S. to study how to teach. Up from 20 in 2011. We have a senior ELF in the ministry of education helping implement English w/o Borders complement to Science w/o Borders and 120 new ETAs deployed around the county. And there is much more. NONE of this was planned or could have been planned in 2011.
Makes you wonder about that planning stuff. I don’t think doing much better would have been possible, although worse was an option.
I had a discussion with a counterpart at another embassy about this. He was approached by the Brazilians about the same time we were asked about sending the 1080 teachers to the U.S. At the time of our discussion, we had already sent our first 540 and the next wave was leaving. He told me that his ministry was “thinking about it and planning.” They still got nothing and nothing is what they will get, but they will look better on paper.
Maybe better to aspire than to plan in detail.
What we need is process, not planning. We need to be ready to take what comes. We should be able to say that I don’t know (and won’t try to predict) exactly what challenges my colleagues and I will face, but I am reasonably sure that we are prepared to face them and can adapt to the changing circumstance. When asked about your plan, repeat the last sentence.
I ask all of you to think about you best tour, your best year, the one that really made your service worthwhile. Did it work out as you planned? Did you know going in what you were doing and who you were going to work with? If we think we control events, we have little chance of success. If we understand our own limitations, our chances improve greatly. Let’s learn to do less planning and more doing.