Memo to Rex Tillerson: Why the US State Department needs word clouds

I’m listening…
I’m listening…
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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The Donald J. Trump administration is very concerned with efficiency. That’s why they’re cutting wasteeliminating regulations, and—the ultimate efficiency hack—tapping senior adviser Jared Kushner to full-on Disrupt Government.

That might also be why secretary of state Rex Tillerson allegedly asked State Department employees to fill out an online questionnaire aimed at streamlining their jobs. Tillerson wants to know what works well, what’s frustrating, and whether each employee has “made a change to a process or approach that has positively impacted a client/customer’s experience” in the past 12 months. Perhaps best of all, the survey asks every employee to share six words that describe their mission, with the goal of creating a word cloud.

If you’re wondering where the administration is getting these out-of-the-box approaches, Quartz has obtained a recent memo to Tillerson from Streamlining Made Simple that might explain a few things.

Mr. Secretary, We wanted to inform you of a new initiative that we think will go a long way toward streamlining internal processes at the State Department. The exercise is simple: Ask everyone in the department to describe their mission in six words. This might seem a bit too simple, but it’s actually highly effective. The exercise has two benefits: It helps your employees think more clearly about their purpose in this vital organization, and it gives you and the President more information about what the State Department is for. That could go a long way to helping you fill the hundreds of vacant positions at the Department. Here’s why ‘six’ is the perfect number for this exercise. People like even numbers, for one. Second, five is too easy. Everybody does five. Here at Streamlining Made Simple, we eschew conventions, like using five. Once we have collected everybody’s responses, we will analyze them using a “Word Cloud.” A Word Cloud is an advanced data visualization technique that tells us which words are most important, by making the most commonly used words bigger, and the less common ones smaller, then arranging them in a cloud-like structure. Forget the criticisms that say word clouds are useless, take words out of context, ignore important outliers, and don’t tell you much at all about a collection of text. This is just another way we do things differently here. I want to address another question you may have. When we say “describe your mission in six words,” is it supposed to be a list of terms, or a sentence? Let me just tell you that the way people interpret this says a lot about them. There is a difference between people who answer with something like “Trade, Win, Negotiation, Innovate, Trumpism, America-promotion” and people who answer with something like “Promote our US America interests abroad” or “Beat back the Communists today, forever.” The studies [ALEXIS I NEED A LINK!!] clearly show that one type of answer is better. The main way this will jumpstart innovative thinking is by bringing State Department employees together in a state of bewilderment—a state known as aporia to the ancient Greeks and a technique often employed by none other than Socrates. There are some alternatives of course, and to make clear our flexibility I’ve included a few of those here:
*Ask people their most-favorite and least-favorite thing about working at State. *Ask people their favorite color and food. *Ask people to draw a picture of themselves at their desk. *Hold a “national capitals competition” with prizes for State employees who are able to name large numbers of national capitals. *Hold a “world leaders competition” with prizes for State employees who are able to name large numbers of world leaders. *Hold a Mar-a-Lago golf outing (bad optics?) *Hold a Silicon Valley-style all-night Ideation Hackathon for new ideas on how to help the State Department. Provide pizza and hoodies. (Recommended music: Skrillex) *Initiate a game of musical chairs. Whenever someone doesn’t get a chair, fire that person. (Recommended music: “America the Beautiful”) *Release chickens labeled 1, 2, and 4 into State Department offices and assess employees’ ability to solve the problem. *Set an “Escape the Room” on an Exxon oil rig and assess employees’ ability to survive. But again, we really think the six word thing is the way to go. Sincerely, Bradley Senior Streamlining Associate Streamlining Made Simple