Book Review – Failures of Imagination by Michael McCaul

Failures of Imagination: The Deadliest Threats to our Homeland – and how to Thwart Them by Michael McCaul.  A few months ago I put up a short post when I heard about this book coming out.  I speculated a bit on what I anticipated and fortunately those were good assumptions.

Michael McCaul is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.  Congressman McCaul (R-TX) has served with the US Department of Justice and was chief of Counterterrorism and National Security for the US Attorney’s Office in Texas.  Along with chairing the House Homeland Security Committee, he is also a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs.  The background all contributes to some interesting insights and perspectives on the threats our nation faces.  Several of those threats have been presented to us in this book. FoI

Failures of Imagination presents several scenarios including an attack on our seat of government, a radiological dispersion device (RDD), foreign influence on an election, a mass shooting in a public space, a cyberattack on finance and infrastructure, a bioterrorism attack, an airplane bombing, and an invasion by foreign powers.  Each scenario is introduced with what I will term a short story, followed by a fictionalized executive situation report, and concluded with a factual review of how the scenario is plausible.

The short stories that introduce each scenario are fairly compelling.  They read like any popular thriller novel, establishing two or three converging story lines with a brief bit of character development which quickly establish motive, plot, and execution.  The timelines are set anywhere from two to 10+ years from now.

With the those scenarios set further in the future, I feel the author has taken some liberties assuming that little has changed in comparison to the current global politics and state of affairs, but that doesn’t bother me too much.  I expect that some readers might feel these fictionalized stories sensationalize the scenarios a bit.  While on the surface that is understandable, consider that the plots as they unfold in these stories may not be far from reality, and that the Congressman has discovered that a mix of fiction and non-fiction can help enhance the readers’ experience and sell more books.  Also consider that we often do the same thing when doing scenario-based planning, training, and exercises.

As a follow-on to each scenario’s short story, a mock executive-level situation report is provided which gives an overview of the impacts of each scenario as presented in the short story.   The basis of this is something we also do in many of our preparedness efforts as we try to gauge a realistic scope of impact.  The Congressman outlines in many of these not only the casualties, but broader impacts such as those to the economy, and takes some realistic stabs at longer term recovery matters.  These situation reports give a good perspective to the reader about the potential impacts of each scenario beyond the more narrow scope of the short story.

Lastly, McCaul provides some narrative on how each scenario presented is rooted in reality.  These summaries provide information on the current situation as it relates to each scenario, typically regarding the modus operandi of certain terrorist groups or state sponsors of terrorism, relationships these groups may have with each other across the globe, and weaknesses in our own security construct which may permit these groups to gain access to the US and do us harm.  While much of the information and recommendations provided by Mc Caul in these sections are factual, practical, and eye-opening, I have to admit that I was significantly turned off by several instances of what I can only call antagonistic political finger pointing.  While I don’t disagree with what the Congressman was saying about certain policies and actions of other elected officials which have influenced our ability to prevent, protect, and prepare for these types of attacks, the messages often came across as snarky and partisan – something I have little patience for, especially in this election cycle.

Failures of Imagination certainly delivered.  While the focus of this book is on threats to the US, I would suggest that the foundational issues identified can apply to most nations and are a good read for anyone in emergency management and homeland security.  The short stories included in each scenario feed our desire to be entertained and contribute to the book being a quick read.  While the scenarios overall don’t serve as much of a resource for emergency management planning, as many of these types of scenarios are already in use in our efforts, the book does provide some context for each scenario which could be referenced, especially in regard to impacts.  Of most importance are the recommendations which Congressman McCaul provides for each scenario.  Many of the recommendations indicate higher-level actions we as a government need to take to prevent, protect, and prepare for attacks of these types.  Increased awareness of these actions will hopefully lead to development, funding, and implementation.

© 2016 – Timothy Riecker

Book Review – The Manager’s Guide to Presentations

I was recently asked by Impackt Publishing to review one of their newest publications, The Manager’s Guide to Presentations (2014. ISBN-13 978-1783000142.  The book was authored by Lauren M. Hug, an attorney who has likely both seen and conducted a number of presentations.  The books is available in both paperback (which I reviewed) and e-book.  Providing full disclosure, I was not compensated for the review, but was provided with a review copy. 

Initially I was a bit skeptical, as the paperback version is only 44 pages.  Tomes of 100s of pages have been published on the topic.  What information worth publishing can be found in only 44 pages?  Surprisingly, quite a bit! 

The target audience for the book is new managers, who often, as I can personally attest, often have little to no experience developing or delivering presentations.  Yet, given their position, are often called upon to give a variety of presentations.  The book is concise, which is perfect for managers with little available time, providing step by step guidance and several job aids to help them identify needs, outline presentation content, and deliver their presentation. 

If you’ve read any of my blog posts in the past on presentations or training, you know I’m big on ensuring an audience focus – they are, after all, the reason why we are doing the presentation in the first place.  Given that, I was initially dismayed that there was little mention of the audience in the early pages of the book.  However, as I progressed through the book, I realized the sense of the author’s approach.  Instead of focusing first on the audience, the author, keeping in mind that HER target audience was new managers, asks these new managers to put the focus on themselves first.  It’s a great reality check for new managers.  The author emphasizes the need for new managers to examine their own preferences, presentation tendencies, fears, and their particular goal for the presentation.  Some of these reflections are longer-term issues which likely don’t need to be examined for each and every presentation, but certainly the question of the new manager’s goal for the presentation is one that should be asked for each presentation given. 

Once the internal reflection is complete, the author directs the new manager toward the needs of the audience.  While she doesn’t spend as much time on audience analysis as I would like, she still hits the highlights.  She also provides a few items of consideration toward the logistical needs and environment of the presentation, with heavy emphasis on knowing the environment you are stepping into and being prepared for it. 

The second chapter focuses on designing the presentation.  I was pleased here to see considerable reference to the audience, their needs, and what the presenter needed them to walk away with.  Job aids prompting the reader to identify the audience appeal, presentation points, and a call to action help focus the neophyte presenter – brief but good points that Nancy Duarte would be proud of.  They finish off the chapter with several points on audience interaction.  I was quite pleased to see this, particularly since many presenters (both new and experienced) have a tendency to simply present rather than engage the audience. 

The third and final chapter focuses on body language and practicing the presentation.  A number of great ideas are given in this chapter, including pre-presentation discussions with stakeholders, when and how to rehearse, and conducting Q&A sessions. 

Overall, the book is quite effective.  It’s short and to the point, which is ideal for managers who have their attention pulled in many directions.  I would feel confident in handing this book off to a new manager and, if they followed the guidance contained therein, they would be successful in their presentation endeavor.  It’s not going to turn anyone into a presentation expert, but that’s not the goal of the book.  It provides great ideas and insight and the job aids are excellent.  Kudos to the author and publisher for identifying a need and providing good, concise information to address it.