Management 101 - Systems Management and Self-Management
After a moderately successful career in management a few things become painfully obvious. No matter what, you don't know everything, and you'd better listen to both those who do the work and those for whom the work is done. And being bullheaded not only makes enemies of those who you lead, it alienates (putting it mildly) the customer, or whoever it is that pays for what your folks provide. You may think you know what's best, and fancy yourself a firm decision-maker, but your career will crash on the rocks with your ego. "Tell me more" and "I didn't think of that" are not just manipulative catch-phrases you toss out to impress others in the crisis meeting. You actually have to want to know more and assume you don't know what's really going on. It's not much fun, but it pays well.
On the other hand, there are various management theories. William Arkin, who writes the "Early Warning" thing at washingtonpost.com (the online site, not the print newspaper), notes the other style -
Extremist-in-chief George W. Bush yesterday continued along his merry way, going over the heads of the wise men and defying Washington moderation and the glories of bipartisan centrism to remind the American public that he is also the protector.
"The only way to secure a lasting peace for our children and grandchildren is to defeat the extremist ideologies," the president said.
Mark his words: the only way.
Those yearning for a tidier world can produce studies and recommendations galore, but the president firmly believes he is the one who has to deal with the real world, and that he and not the ivory tower uniquely understands how dangerous it is.
Thus we are witnessing the emergence of a new divide in American politics. It is no longer Democrats vs. Republicans or withdrawers vs. stay-the-coursers. The majority, bucked up by strong majority in American public opinion, is clearly in favor of change. In English, that means it's over in Iraq.
The new battleground will be between the believers and the non-believers. Bush and Cheney command the believers, who remain the custodians of the Sept. 11 aesthetic that America and the world are threatened, leaving no room for niceties and togetherness.
But it is not just Bush and Cheney, and the Washington-New York-Hollywood axis should take notice. The protectors are mobilizing. They see American "will" dwindling and think they need to do something about it.
In our naïve ways, we might believe that that means they have to change policy. But in the ways of national security, the protectors believe just the opposite….
It's that "I hear what you're all saying but there's only one way to fix this" attitude that's telling. It's a confusing of "firm principles" with "I know the best way to do this and you don't." They're quite different things, actually. The first has to do with your values, and the second with what you actually do, operationally, as they say. The latter is where you manage - where you get things done. Confusing the two is deadly. And that may be the problem here, with this whole business of how the administration will deal with the report of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group.
Of course the report says what we're doing just isn't working. But a good summary comes from Lindsay Beyerstein - the report is "demanding that our failed strategy start working better, and fast." Or as Ivo Daalder puts it - "The biggest problem with the ISG report is that it, like much of Washington, buys into the notion that because the consequences of defeat are so dire we should not accept the reality that we have lost."
Perhaps this is so. "Tell me more" and "I didn't think of that" are not in the mix here.
It is certainly clear that the report does not recognize that Iraq is in civil war, or that the government there is inherently weak but dominated by one side in this conflict, the Shi'a, or that the Iraqi army and police are pretty much shell organizations made up of Kurdish and Shi'a militias. That's a bit of a problem. To get to the "should be" one usually has to get everyone to agree on the "as is." You don't dwell on the "as is" - you just document it. It's what you have to work with, unfortunately. It's Management 101, not rocket science.
And the problem may be systemic. There may be a major management issue here, one Arkin on touches in passing.
Martin Kettle in the Saturday, December 9, Guardian (UK) agues that the report actually addresses the management theory problems the administration faces.
Kettle tosses in the expected nod to what everyone saw in the report, that it was a "shatteringly critical verdict" of the conduct of the war that "left George Bush looking more than ever out of his depth at his White House press conference on Thursday." So what else is new?
But then he calls out key passages from the report - "The US military has a long tradition of strong partnership between the civilian leadership of the department of defense and the uniformed services. Both have long benefited from a relationship in which the civilian leadership exercises control with the advantage of fully candid professional advice, and the military serves loyally with the understanding that its advice has been heard and valued. That tradition has frayed, and civil-military relations need to be repaired."
And there's this - "Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."
And this - "A lack of coordination by senior management in Washington still hampers US contributions to Iraq's reconstruction."
These are management issues, not foreign policy issues. So, really, the report is a repudiation of the way the Bush administration works internally -
Nowhere is this more resonant than in what it says about the Pentagon. For it was the Pentagon that ran the administration's Iraq policy, and the senior civilian officials - Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith - who did things their own way and marginalized any service chiefs who disagreed with them.
But the Pentagon ran the policy because the president allowed and encouraged them to do so. This was a huge disfigurement of the traditional inter-agency way of doing things, in which the president, as commander-in-chief, was supposed to make the decisions after taking advice from the inter-agency policy-making apparatus coordinated by the national security adviser.
Kettle calls this "institutional failure on the epic scale"
And it is not as if there were no warnings about this. Ron Suskind's The One-Percent Doctrine - "Sober due diligence, with an eye to the way previous administrations have thought through a standard array of challenges facing the United States, creates, in fact, a kind of check on executive power and prerogative." But that's not the management model they guys work from. And that come from the top, from the president - "He is suspicious of officials, bureaucrats and departments. He is impatient with policy intellectuals. He doesn't want information. He prides himself on his certainties." It's a classic confusing of "firm principles" with "I know the best way to do this and you don't."
Woodward's State of Denial noted the president has a "distrust of the inter-agency" and this instinct became even more pronounced after the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington, and that as things went bad in Iraq he wanted "a process" even less. Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books - "What is striking is the way that the most momentous of decisions were taken in the most shockingly haphazard ways, with the power in the hands of a few Pentagon civilians who knew little of Iraq or the region, the expertise of the rest of the government almost wholly excluded, and the president and his highest officials looking on."
Kettle sees the pattern here, and sees the Iraq Study Group as a management document - an indictment of "the way the Iraq policy was generated and maintained." It's really about how things were done, as much as it is about what was done, or not done.
Although Kettle doesn't say so directly, the idea seems to be that the "what" here isn't as important as the "how" - broken processes produce broken policies, as he would have it. Everyone makes mistakes, but you don't establish a system that is guaranteed to produce mistakes. The leader may have his firm principles, but combine that with a weak ego and a need to prove this or that, and a default trait of petulant, angry defiance when challenged, and the "management style" follows, as does this mess we're in. And this man has an MBA?
Perhaps the new defense secretary, Gates - who comes with a far different management style than Rumsfeld (from the president's father's group, not the president's circle like Rumsfeld) - will work the "how" of it all differently, and the senior military will once again "feel free to offer independent advice not only to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon but also to the president and the national security council." He seems to have done a fine job as a university president, where managing hissy fits among strong-willed and over-educated prima donnas to get useful things done is simply what you do. Here the stakes are higher.
But if Kettle is right - "bad forms of government contribute significantly to bad decisions" when there are "fewer effective ways for reasoned objections to affect the decision-making process" - it is obvious one thing that the Iraq Study Group was saying was it may be time to pull out the books from graduate school and read what was no doubt skipped way back when - basic management and organizational theory and all that sort of thing. Keep your firm principles - fine, no problem - but do some basic common-sense managing. Getting all defensive and shutting down or manipulating the organization is more than counterproductive. It is deadly. The dead bodies prove that, not to be too literal or anything.
As for self-management, that's a different kettle of fish - so forget Martin Kettle and turn to Jim Holt in the New York Times of 3 December, where he explains The New, Soft Paternalism.
This is very curious, and opens with this teaser -
When the government tells you that you can't smoke marijuana or that you must wear a helmet when you ride your motorcycle even if you happen to like the feeling of the wind in your hair, it is being paternalistic. It is largely treating you the way a parent treats a child, restricting your liberty for what it deems to be your own good. Paternalistic laws aren't very popular in this country. We hew to the principle that, children and the mentally ill apart, an individual is a better judge of what's good for him than the state is and that people should be free to do what they wish as long as their actions don't harm others. Contrary to what many people believe, you can even commit suicide legally (although if you don't live in Oregon, you should think twice about seeking assistance).
But what if it could be shown that even highly competent, well-informed people fail to make choices in their best interest? And what if the government could somehow step in and nudge them in the right direction without interfering with their liberty, or at least not very much? Welcome to the new world of "soft paternalism." The old "hard" paternalism says, We know what's best for you, and we'll force you to do it. By contrast, soft paternalism says, You know what's best for you, and we'll help you to do it.
The example if this Holt cites has to do with casino gambling. It seems in Missouri and Michigan compulsive gamblers have the option of putting their names on a blacklist. This is a "self-exclusion" list, and it bars them from casinos - they're banned for life. If they violate the ban they can be arrested and have their winnings confiscated. And people have actually signed up - seeking help, one assumes - in Missouri ten thousand have. Holt notes that in Michigan, the first person to sign up for it was also the first to be arrested for violating its terms. He couldn't resist sneaking back to the blackjack tables - he got a year a year's probation and the state kept his winnings. Who'd have even imagined such a thing?
This is what's called a self-binding scheme - "a way of restructuring the external world so that when future temptations arise, you will have no choice but to do what you've judged to be best for you. The classic case is that of Ulysses, who ordered his men to tie him to the mast of his ship so that he could hear the song of the Sirens without being lured to his destruction. As a freely chosen hedge against weakness of the will, self-binding would seem to enlarge individual liberty, not reduce it."
But that may be wrong, or so the libertarians say -
To begin with, they don't like soft paternalism when it involves the state's coercive power; they are much happier with private self-binding schemes, like alcoholism clinics, Christmas savings clubs and Weight Watchers. They also worry that soft paternalism can be a slippery slope to the harder variety, as when campaigns to discourage smoking give way to "sin taxes" and outright bans. But some libertarians have deeper misgivings. What bothers them is the way soft paternalism relies for its justification on the notion that each of us contains multiple selves - and that one of those selves is worth more than the others.
You can read the multiple personality discussion if you will, be it's rather mind-bending -
You might naïvely imagine that you are one person, the same entity from day to day. To the 18th-century philosopher David Hume, however, the idea of a permanent "I" was a fiction. Our mind, Hume wrote, "is nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement." According to this way of thinking, the self that inhabits your body today is only similar to, not identical with, the self that is going to inhabit your body tomorrow. And the self that will inhabit your body decades hence? A virtual stranger.
… Further evidence for the fragmented self comes from neuroscience. Brain scans show that the emotional part of the brain, the limbic system, is especially active when the prospect of immediate gratification presents itself. But choice among longer-term options triggers more activity in the "reasoning" part of the brain, located (suitably enough) higher up in the cortex. Now suppose you're tempted by a diet-violating Twinkie. Which part of your brain - the shortsighted emotional part or the farsighted reasoning part - gets to be the decider? There may be no built-in hierarchy here, just two autonomous brain modules in competition. That is why you might find yourself eating the Twinkie even while knowing it's bad for you. (A similar disconnect between two parts of your brain occurs when a visual illusion doesn't go away even after you learn it's an illusion.)
The short-run self cares only about the present. It is perfectly happy to indulge today and offload the costs onto future selves.
There's great deal of this. Click on the link if you dare - but it comes down to an interesting question. Should we outsource our self-discipline? That's a fascinating question. The president outsourced his drinking problem to Jesus, or so he says. Are all those anti-smoking ordinances just outsourcing our self-discipline to the state? And what about that trans-fat ban in New York City? Should the state keep me from that doughnut that tastes a certain way? Did we all agree to that self-binding decision?
Holt notesThe Economist warned that "life would be duller if every reckless spirit could outsource self-discipline to the state." But we can, and we do.
Jean-Paul Sartre used to insist that each of us is free to redefine his character through "an act of radical choice." What choices do we have? Bush chose Jesus. Some of us liked those doughnuts down on 34th Street. This self-management business is even trickier than systems management in large organizations.
Ah well, somehow we'll manage - whatever that means these days.