There is no algorithm for good management

There is a malaise in security. One problem is that as a “profession”, we’ve tried to mechanise security management, as if it were just like generic manufacturing, ammenable to ISO 9000-like management standards. We use essentially the same process and policy templates for all businesses. Don’t get me wrong: process is important, and we do want our security responses to be repeatable and uniform. But not robotic. The truth is, there is no algorithm for doing the right thing. Moreover, <i?>there can never be a universal management algorithm, and an underlying naive faith in such a thing is dulling our collective management skills.

An algorithm is a repeatable set of instructions or recipe that can be followed to automatically perform some task or solve some structured problem. Given the same conditions and the same inputs, an algorithm will always produce the same results. But no algorithm can cope with unexpected inputs or events; an algorithm’s designer needs to have a complete view of all input circumstances in advance.

Mathematicians have long known that some surprisingly simple tasks cannot be done algorithmically. The classic ‘travelling salesman’ problem, of how to plot the shortest course through multiple connected towns, has no single recipe for success. There is no way to trisect an angle using a compass and a ruler. There is no consistent way to tell if any given computer program is ever going to stop.

So when security is concerned so much of the time with the unexpected, we should be doubly careful about formulaic management approaches, especially template policies and checklist-based security audits!

Ok, but what’s the alternative? This is extremely challenging, but we need to think outside the check box.

Like any complex management field, security is all about problem solving. There’s never going to be a formula for it. Rather, we need to put smart people on the job and let them get on with it, using their experience and their wits. Good security like good design frankly involves a bit of magic. We can foster security excellence through genuine expertise, teamwork, research, innovation and agility. We need security leaders who have the courage to treat new threats and incidents on their merits, trust their professional instincts, try new things, break the mould, and have the sense to avoid management fads.

I have to say I remain pessimistic. These are not good times for couragous managers. For the first rule of career risk management is to make sure everyone agrees in advance to whatever you plan to do, so the blame can be shared when something goes wrong. This is probably the real reason why people are drawn to algorithms in management: they can be documented, reviewed, signed off, and put on back the shelf in wait for a disaster and the inevitable audit. So long as everyone did what the said they were going to do in response to an incident, nobody is to blame.

So I’d like to see a law suit against a company with a perfect ISO 27001 record which still got breached, where the lawyers’s case is that it is unreasonable to rely on algorithms to manage in the real world.