November 22, 2004

Excerpts: Spies Inc. - Part II

By: 800-CEO-READ @ 11:21 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Following the hardfought and hard won Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Israel and its military was looking for new approaches. The Talpiot program was established as the Israel Defense Forces elite brainpower summit, tasked with changing the language of technological warfare.
The professors submitted their proposal to the Chief of Staffs Office in 1975. A small think tank was formed, drawing from the army, the Chief Scientists Office, industry, and military R&D to come up with a full-blown concept that might make this idea a viable reality. Hanoch Zadik, a civilian working in the air force with a background in economic statistics and human development systems on the organizational level, was approached two years after the group was formed. He was giving a lecture on creative thinking at the Israeli air force academy when he was asked to join up with the men grappling with this endeavor. It was dubbed Talpiot , named for the biblical Hebrew word meaning to build something strong, impregnable, and impressive. For a year and a half, a committee of 12 met once a month to kick around the Talpiot project. They laid out the objectives and detailed the possibilities of executing what would eventually become the IDFs most elite brainpower summit.
However, for an army that fed off of innovative thinking, even this was a somewhat radical notion. There were a lot of objections that this was a waste of money, recalled Zadik. At the time, the national discussion centered around closing the gap between those of means and those less fortunate in society. The idea was equal education for all, Zadik continued. It was rooted in the countys deep socialist roots. Nobody spoke about taking excellent boys and girls and accelerating their learning and doing something good. There were other concerns as well. People feared that if we took such brilliant people it was dangerous, he explained. There could be a military junta. It was against the basic value of Israeli culture to take people and separate them and say you are the best, and if you put the best in the army like this there was a danger of a coup. I was quite sure that they wouldnt do anything with this.
Nevertheless, Israel has always had resourceful military leaders willing to make giant leaps of thought along razor-sharp edges. One such man was Rafael Eitan, the IDFs chief of staff. Sometime in the late 1970s, Eitan launched an education initiative that took kids from disadvantaged circumstances, many living on the periphery, and made sure they had an educationparticularly in the basics. Instead of leaving them sidelined, this program greatly improved their future prospects. Talpiot was on the opposite end of the same spectrum; it would take the intellectually elite and enhance their already considerable opportunities with enormous educational and institutional advantages. In 1979, Eitan took that leap and green-lighted Talpiot, although initially he gave it one year. Zadik and Dr. Dan Sharon, who received his PhD in innovation sciences, were asked to look for people to run the project. However, they were so enthusiastic about Talpiot, the pair decided to head it up themselves. To do so, they both reenlisted in the army more than a dozen years after their own compulsory services had been completed. My wife and I had two kids, and she couldnt believe this move, said Zadik. It was crazy. For the first seven years of the program (until 1986), Zadik served as Talpiots deputy commander and chief trainer. Nearly two decades later, he became a management coach at the High-Tech Management School at Tel Aviv University.
The project was daunting from two significant vantage points: A military corps of geniuses was nearly unprecedented, and the military had very little to go on. Most of the recruits, for their part, were just finishing high school and had even less to go on. For the privilege of signing up for this new frontier, they were staring down the barrel of eight years of military duty five years longer than the standard term (later it would extend to a total of nine years). The inaugural Talpiot class began with a group of 26 high school graduates out of an initial pool of 1,000 potential candidates, and only 20 made it to the end. All of them were male. In the second year, 30 recruits were selected, and 20 graduated. In the third year, the Talpiot class started with 28 soldiers and finished with 20. Talpiot began recruiting female candidates in the mid-1980s.