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Joseph McNamara, Editor
Joseph McNamara, Editor

Tackling Complexity with Simplicity…and a Plan


There is certainly no shortage of major issues facing the world today. Three months ago, news headlines focused on climate change as the Paris world conference reached a historic agreement. Later this month, the spotlight turns to Washington, DC, where leaders will gather for the fourth and final nuclear security summit, and we will watch for significant action to keep the world safe from the threats of nuclear terrorism.

For 60 years, the Stanley Foundation has been dedicated to bringing global leaders and experts together to develop solutions to these and other complex world issues blocking the peace of its people. As the foundation prepares for the upcoming summit, I am reminded of two lessons learned in my previous corporate life about dealing with and communicating complex situations. In a few words, they are simplicity of focus and communications. 

First, I recall how good or bad customer service could make or break a company, and how difficult it was to manage complex processes to achieve and maintain high quality levels. What’s more, the higher levels we reached, the harder it was to reach even higher. We would reach 95 percent high-quality service, then with huge efforts maybe move the 95 to a 96. Each additional point seemed insurmountable…until we learned a secret. Instead of focusing on increasing good service from 95 to 96, we focused on reducing bad service from 5 percent down to 4, and then down to 3, and so on until we actually reached 98 to 99 percent quality levels. 

With nuclear terrorism, efforts to eliminate the threat are focused on securing all the weapons-grade nuclear material in existence and preventing terrorists from acquiring any of it. Currently, some 99 percent of the world’s nuclear materials have been secured, but the remaining 1 percent amounts to several thousand pounds. The challenge—no, the necessity—is to get it all secured, to increase the 99 percent to 100 percent. But to do that we must focus on the remaining 1 percent and secure it all. Similarly, communications should focus on eliminating the 1 percent, not continued rhetoric on progress of securing the 99 percent.

Second, I am repeatedly reminded of the simplest, most basic necessity for tackling complex issues: a plan. If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there. A plan will guide action, even if the action is to determine the next steps. 

In the long history of nuclear security negotiations, the upcoming summit is the last of four to assemble global leaders committed to addressing and crafting solutions to old and new threats. The summits were part of a plan, with structure, commitments, timelines, and actions. When the gavel ends the last one, much will have been done, but there is still much to do. The threats continue, and the need to arrest them is absolute. 

The only way to ensure a positive legacy of the nuclear security summits is for their final action to launch a plan to complete the task. It is an act that rests with the world leaders assembled for the final summit. We hope and pray for their enlightenment and their unselfish, apolitical bravery.


— Joseph McNamara, Editor
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The Winter 2016 issue of Courier features policy insights for the President-elect and new US leadership to improve our peace and security in nuclear policy, genocide prevention, and climate change. The issue also includes an in-depth interview with a survivor of the Phnom Penh, Cambodia genocide in the late 1970s. The full Winter 2016 issue. PDF (1.0 MB) Subscribe for FREE.

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