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Maybe Just a Kleenex Will Do?

This was originally posted in my internal NSA blog some years ago, a story from the late 1970’s.

On one of my first Intern tours, I was working on the Operations Research Staff of the Deputy Director for COMSEC (DDC). This small team performed a variety of mathematical studies, like estimating the cost of building COMSEC devices, the expected life of key generation equipment, things like that.


One day my supervisor came rushing in and grabbed me. "The DDC has an urgent job for us! He has no idea where all of his manpower is going in the mission. Data, voice, space systems, weapons? And how does it divide up by research, development, evaluation, testing...? He needs us to figure this out for him! "


Me being a green-as-grass Math Wonk, I must have looked pretty clueless (there's a reason for that), so they brought in a mid-level Mathematician to lead this urgent project. And so began the ironically named COSMOS - The COMSEC Manpower Operations Survey. Never was a project more aptly named, because this quickly became an all-encompassing monster. Piles of paper surveys sent to every Branch (front-line organization) in the Directorate. A room full of key-punchers to transfer the data onto Hollerith cards. A ponderous FORTRAN program to tabulate the results. And grumbling everywhere in the workforce.


Months later, as we approached the conclusion of the data gathering and analysis, my supervisor turned to me and said, "My fine young Intern (well, he said something like that), we are going to give *you* the chance to brief this important project to the DDC and the entire senior leadership team. You get 20 minutes." So, I analyzed and hand-drew my vu-graphs, and wrote my script, and practiced, and did dry runs. And then did it all again.

Finally, the Big Day came. In the darkened room, I stood before government Senior Executive leaders for the first time in my career and delivered my presentation. It went great, without a hitch. Positive comments all around.


But I will never forget what the DDC said next. "Wow, this is really interesting. But all I really wanted was a back-of-the-envelope sort of thing." My heart sank at the thought of the countless hours burned and the energy spent. And the countless friends *not* made among all of the unhappy supervisors who had to fill out their forms projecting Manpower against Projects by TENTHS OF A “MAN-MONTH” OVER THE NEXT 5 YEARS!!! I glanced over at my Supervisor, who was sitting quietly in the corner.


I see something like this happen so often at NSA that I gave it a name - "The Boss Sneezed." As in,"Ohmygawd, The Boss Sneezed!! Quick! He wants us to put together a gazillion dollar plan to cure the Common Cold!!! Let's GO!!!".


Maybe he just needs a Kleenex?


The lesson for me: before launching into any significant task, try to get back to the source of the task, or as close as you can get. Do it for the taxpayer. Do it for your sanity.

If you have a similar story of well-meaning over-reaction to the Boss' sneeze, please share. Friends Don't let Friends Overreact to the Boss.


By the way, I am not sure that many people got the lesson from that day. This survey continued on for at least a couple of years. As I moved on from that Intern tour to others, I inevitably moved to Offices that would receive their COSMOS forms to fill out. Ah, the bad words that were heard. For fear of my performance rating and my physical well-being, it was years before I could admit that I was part of the team that developed it.



In hindsight, I got a second lesson from this experience. As I reviewed the data on the forms, something struck me as odd. When you ask supervisors to project their people resource needs, no Project was ever scheduled to end. In fact, almost every Project showed an upslope of 10-20% more resources needed over the next five years. This turns out to be a common theme in mission-driven organizations, and I’ll share observations on this topic later.


As for the supervisor? He’s still one of my all-time favorite bosses. Despite my inexperience, Noel gave me a challenging amount of responsibility for several tasks and let me run with it, but always with his support and encouragement.



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