Scariest Article of The Year

Scariest Article of The Year

I read a recent Wall Street Journal article that made me cringe.  The title of the article says it all: “The Unsung Beauty of Bureaucracy“.

The headline, as you might imagine, caught my attention; I couldn’t resist reading it.  Quite honestly, I fully expected that the title was of the snarky, sarcastic sort–and that the article would be some sort of scathing expose of the absurdity of bureaucracy.

Imagine my surprise (and the sharp uptick in my blood pressure) when I realized that the authors were serious!  The article, in a nutshell, said that we need bureaucracy.  That too much freedom is a bad thing.  That bureaucracy keeps us safe.  Sure, it is a bit restrictive and stifling, and it hampers innovation–but it also keeps bad stuff from happening.  The article said that, if there had just been more bureaucracy, the BP oii spill of 2005 wouldn’t have happened.  It said that, if there had been more centralized, bureaucratic control, the Airbus A380 fiasco would never have happened.

The authors went on to make a statement so patently absurd that I have to quote it in all it’s glory here:

“By the same token, many government functions may be laden with bureaucracy, but the private sector might not do any better with the same tasks. Like the makers of baby products, governments deal with uniquely sensitive problems, from ensuring that terrorists never get past airport security to keeping deadly germs out of the food supply.”

As I write this, I’m having to break and walk away from the computer every few minutes just to keep from yelling at my computer screen.

Here are my issues with this:

  1. Offshore oil must be one of the most heavily regulated industrial endeavors in the world!  I don’t know much about BP and how they run their company, but as far as I’m concerned, It’s ignorant–perhaps even patently dishonest–to imply that BP wouldn’t have happened if there were just more bureaucracy!  The government oversight, red tape and general intervention into anything oil related is mind-bogglingly stifling!  There were plenty of rules, regulations, inspectors and regulators keeping reign on every facet of BP’s business.
  2. I know very little of the Airbus fiasco–other than that I can agree with the authors on this: that for all intents and purposes, it looks to have been the worst planned new aircraft in recent history.  What I’m far more skeptical about is the cause of the mess.  I’m open-minded (my wife might disagree with me there–but hear me out), so I’ll consider any hypothesis.  But I’m also a reasonably bright, observant guy.  The authors say: more centralization would have kept the A380 on time, in budget and without long-term integrity issues.  My natural instinct is to look to the poster child for centralization and bureacracy: the government.  They are NOT known for doing things in a timely manner or within budget (in fact, they actively resist even creating a budget)!  And most of what they do amounts to an abysmal disservice to those they are supposed to serve.  Think about the last time you went to the department of motor vehicles: how fulfilling an experience was that?  My point–I’m not sure I’m buying that “the obvious answer is simply more bureaucracy”.
  3. Finally–and this is the thing that just drives me absolutely bonkers: the writers say, “governments deal with uniquely sensitive problems, from ensuring that terrorists never get past airport security to keeping deadly germs out of the food supply.”  What makes these problems “uniquely sensitive”?  in fact, what in the world does “uniquely sensitive” mean?  Does he mean that “the only people who care about these problems are government officials”?  I hope not–because that’s just stupid.  Does he mean that “nobody but the government knows how to keep terrorists off planes or germs out of our food”?  Again, I hope not–because that’s even more absurd.  No food company worth anything “doesn’t care” about keeping the food they make germ free!  No airline with any sense of self-preservation doesn’t care about keeping terrorists off their planes!  These problems aren’t “uniqely sensitive”; they are just things that businesses need to do in order to remain viable.

I could rant on for pages here (can my colleagues say “amen”?), but let me summarize for you: it’s a logical fallacy to say that some of the worst examples of business failure in the last decade would have been averted if there were just more bureaucracy–at least if you’re going to use the arguments that these authors used.

But the larger point for me is this: bureaucracy is nothing more than a human technology–a tool that someone invented as a hedge against ignorance and dishonesty.  And I won’t argue that bureacracy is not somewhat effective at minimizing the risk associated with ignorant or dishonest people.  But it’s effective in the sense that an atomic bomb is an effective way to eradicate a bed-bug problem.  It’ll work–but the collateral costs are atrocious.  Our job as thinking, innovative human beings is to imagine, and devise, a BETTER technology for limiting the impact of ignorance and dishonesty–a technology that doesn’t have side effects that are as painful as the disease it purports to heal.

- Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on March 16, 2013.

Don’t Touch Those Bananas

Don’t Touch Those Bananas

A group of primate researchers some years ago performed a now-famous experiment with a group of rhesus macaques (a pretty common species of monkey used in numerous animal research labs). It’s uncertain what the experiment was initially designed to test, but the results have become oft-referenced in social literature.

The researchers stuck a group of monkeys in a closed room with a tall pole in the center of the room. The pole had a bunch of bananas attached to the top. The monkeys which, of course, enjoy bananas and were easily capable of climbing a pole to reach the tasty snack, immediately began to climb the pole.

But any time a monkey would begin to climb the pole, the researchers would blast the climber with a stream of high-pressure water from a fire hose, knocking the monkey to the floor. This went on for just a while, but the monkeys, being pretty smart creatures, realized pretty quickly that climbing that pole was only going to result in a pretty crummy experience.So they stopped. After just a little while, the monkeys settled into a routine that effectively ignored the pole with the bananas on top. No huge surprise there.Then the researchers decided to replace one of the monkeys in the room with a new monkey, one who had not been subject to the startling discomfort brought on by the dreaded fire hose. The new monkey, of course, noticed the bananas almost immediately and, as expected, began to climb the pole.

This time, though, the researchers didn’t need to get out the fire hose; the other monkeys in the room did the job for them! They gathered around the pole and, collectively, yanked the new monkey back to the ground! The monkeys in the room who’d had the traumatic fire hose experience were now keeping new monkeys, who weren’t subject to the same experience, from climbing the pole.

Who knows why they did it; maybe it was some noble monkey credo that has something to do with “protecting our fellow monkeys from things that might hurt them”, or perhaps it was a more base response–namely, if I can’t have the bananas, neither can you. It doesn’t really matter; the point is, they carried on the “can’t touch the bananas” tradition.

The the researchers got another bright idea: they decided to replace ANOTHER of the original monkeys and they observed similar, but perhaps more interesting, results: the original monkeys and, now, the first replacement monkey (who’d been yanked off the pole repeatedly by his peers) together proceeded to pull the new arrival from the pole every time he tried to climb it.

And this went on; the researchers, one by one, would replace one of the original monkeys with a new, oblivious monkey and, every time, the results were the same: the entire group would band together to keep the newbie from reaching those bananas. All this without a single “reminder” blast of the old fire hose!

And then came the most fascinating experience of all: the researchers realized that only one of the monkeys in the room was from the original group; he was the only one who’d experienced the fire hose. “What will happen,” they wondered, “if we remove that guy? Will the whole thing break down? Will we have to get out the fire hose again?”

You, by now, probably know the answer to that. They replaced that last guy with a new monkey and, now, not a single monkey in the room had ever experienced that annoying fire hose. Yet the result was the same: when the new monkey tried to climb the pole, the group rallied around and pulled him down. And the pole went unclimbed, and the bananas went uneaten!

So what does this have to do with your organization? Well there are two important lessons here, I think. First, if you’re a leader in your organization (whether by title or by expertise–and MANY of us are leaders in numerous ways), recognize that your actions send a very loud message to those you lead. A few “blasts from the fire hose” from you, and those who follow you will adjust their behavior accordingly but, more importantly, they’ll enforce that behavior with their colleagues. That’s what we call culture: it’s something that’s embedded deep within the organization, and it’s very hard to change.

Which brings me to the second, and perhaps most important, lesson here: your power to influence and perpetuate culture. With the group of monkeys, it quickly became a cultural taboo to try to reach those bananas. And that cultural taboo was reinforced over and over again by every monkey in that room, even past the point where all of the “old-timers” who actually knew WHY the bananas were bad had “passed on”, and all that were left were the newbies, who only knew that THEY’D been yanked down from the pole. And yet they perpetuated that cultural taboo; they reinforced it vehemently.

You are the culture in your organization, no matter who you are. And what you choose to reinforce is what will become the norm. The thing is, often it’s so easy to just go with the status quo, to accept that “it’s just the way we’ve always done it”.

Perhaps, in your case, the “way we’ve always done it” includes a massive hierarchy, with miles and miles of red tape; or perhaps your “untouchable” bunch of bananas is a person who is a tyrant but who is mysteriously accepted. Regardless the actual situation, whether you like it or not, you will be a part of perpetuating that thing in your organization, or changing it; it’s unavoidable.

So, ask yourself these questions: first, in those areas where I’m a leader, am I using the fire hose in the right areas, or am I sending the wrong messages? And, second, as a participant in my organization, am I just becoming “one of the monkeys” and allowing the messed up parts of our culture to simply persist, or am I constantly doing my part to change the things that need to be changed, and reinforce the things that need reinforcement?

- Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on October 21, 2009.

Destructive Confrontation

Destructive Confrontation

A few weeks ago, a colleague sent me a well-reasoned note that pointed to what he felt were contradictions between a few of my previous blog posts. He reminded me that Self-Management derives a great deal of strength from the cross-colleague feedback that the organizational model should foster. It forms a sort of self-regulating organization that, theoretically, is far stronger than the traditional hierarchical model in that each and every colleague is charged with addressing and correcting issues they perceive within the organization.

My colleague went on to reference a subsequent post in which I ruminated on the dangers of rudeness in the workplace. In that post I referenced recent research that suggested that rudeness causes overall cooperativeness to diminish and also might actually diminish the cognitive capacity of those who are subjected to rude behavior.

These two premises, my colleague pointed out, seem contradictory. Confrontation, he says, is a vital ingredient in a Self-Managed enterprise (I would argue, actually, that confrontation is a vital ingredient in ANY healthy social organization). But every time, he goes on to say, that he’s confronted someone, the confronted colleague perceives the confrontation as rude.

And he makes a good point: often, he says, the deviant (the one who is engaging in this behavior that so desperately demands correction) has justified the behavior in his own mind and really isn’t interested in hearing what you have to say.

That’s fair and I have no doubt that it happens from time to time.

Finally, my colleague points out that he’s had his life saved by someone who started out the confrontation with something like, “Hey, you $*$#@& idiot!” Essentially, he says, sometimes “rudeness” is the only way to get someone’s attention–and I agree. Particularly when someone’s life is on the line. But most of the time, someone’s life isn’t on the line; the situation is something far more mundane. And those are the situations that I’m interested in.

So I ask you to consider a completely different social environment, one which demands that you confront another from time to time: your marriage (or relationship with significant other). I suspect that most of us (at least those with a reasonably healthy, happy relationship) have found a way to confront our significant other without being rude. In fact, courtesy seems to me to be an earmark of civilized interaction.

What’s the difference, then? Why is it that we think confrontation at work demands brusque, discourteous behavior?

That’s an honest question.

Here’s what I think: confrontation at home is given–and received–with an understanding that this confrontation is intended to better both of our lives. That doesn’t mean it’s enjoyable or even well-received, but there’s an implicit understanding that both of us are committed to this relationship, so this confrontation is simply intended to enhance that relationship.

At work, on the other hand, our relationships with our colleagues are too-often built on wary distrust. We’re generally friendly and get along OK, but we go through our careers driven by this undercurrent of fear–that someone is looking for a way to give me the boot and rob me of my livelihood.

Further, when we’re put in the position where we have to confront another, there’s this feeling of unease about the “aftermath”–that is, what’s this relationship going to be like after the dust settles?

And these two phenomena, together, manifest themselves all too often as unproductive confrontations that do more damage than good.

Does that make sense?

How can we solve it?

- Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on September 1, 2009.