Monday, October 17, 2005

Monday Smorgasbord

Some worthwhile articles I've come across recently:

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Improvisation and Bureaucracies

Leadership style plays a huge role in the success or failure of an organization. IMHO, the best leadership style is to create a clear purpose and provide a strong guiding philosophy of how to make decisions for the good of the endeavor, then turn people loose.

From the standpoint of systems theory, improvisation is what makes life possible. In natural systems, the needs and environment of the system impose operating constraints on the subsystems, while allowing the subsystems considerable freedom to optimize within those limits. Within the rules, subsystems are capable of a wide range of actions and adaptations: just consider the incredible variety of life on this planet!

Arguably, some environments and rule sets are better than others for encouraging life or economic activity. The genius of capitalism is that the rules encourage people to find a niche and create more wealth. The idiocy of communism is that the elite seek to control every aspect of society and the economy. Communists aren't the only idiots either. Consider the mullahs, writes Michael Ledeen:
The tyrannical Islamofascists obviously despise and dread their people; otherwise they wouldn’t be constantly seeking new ways to make sure there is no independent thought and certainly no independent action. All those madrasas, for example, are extended experiments in what used to be called "rote learning." The children sit around and memorize the Koran and the sayings of the prophet, blessings be upon him. But, unlike the schools in the civilized world, nobody ever asks anybody else what he thinks about anything.

In a world like that, several things happen. Above all, creative activity ceases to exist, since culture depends on advancing knowledge and improving understanding. Neither of these interests the clerical fascists who rule the terror countries. They want good little Muslim androids, who will accept the preposterous belief that all knowledge was acquired several centuries ago and that man’s only worthwhile intellectual activity is to imbibe that knowledge in order to recite it when called for.

Large organizations, including government bureaucracies, can encourage or stifle innovation by dint of the corporate culture and leaders' style. Arnold Kling, at TechCentral Station, writes in "The Planning Illusion:"
I think that people have a tendency to put too much faith in centralized planning, and they do not have sufficient regard for decentralized improvisation. The more ambiguity that exists in a situation--because of its novelty, uncertainty, and the absence of critical information--the more that it favors improvisation over planning. [...]

When something goes wrong, there is a natural desire to blame a lack of planning. In fact, with hindsight, it is always possible to come up with a plan that would have worked better. I would refer to this as the planning illusion. This illusion causes a number of problems.

First, the planning illusion leads to the syndrome known as "planning for the last war." Organizations develop a set of operating strategies that are based on theories that are outdated, or just completely misguided.

Second, faith in planning causes organizations to become overly centralized. Information from peripheral sources is ignored. Flexibility for field-level decisionmaking is denied.

Finally, faith in planning leads people to believe that government has a solution for every problem. In many cases, better approaches emerge from decentralized improvisations.
It's worth a read, along with the companion piece, "The Impossibility of 'Planned Improvisation'."

Related post: Nimble Bureaucracies

Thoughts on the Miers Nomination

I haven't posted in a while, because I've had massive writer's block on this topic. But here goes:

I don't have a strong opinion about the nomination of Ms. Miers to the Supreme Court, but I am discomfited by the wailing and gnashing of teeth about this "stealth" candidate. People had the same complaint about John Roberts too! Overall, I'm much more swayed by the enthusiastic support of her colleagues than I am by criticism from those who don't know her.

As a manager, I think that President Bush made a wise choice to nominate a person whose talents, experience, and training compliment those of the sitting Justices. I agree with Hugh Hewitt that the last thing SCOTUS needs at this point is another legal scholar! (Hugh has lots and lots of posts, and Radioblogger has lots and lots of transcripts.)

Last week, Orin Kerr at The Volokh Conspiracy rounded up conservative pundits' dismay, and summarized the four basic arguments being made:
If you're right of center and support the nomination: You should approve of the Miers nomination because 1) the President has picked Miers, and you can trust him; 2) several prominent conservatives like James Dobson and Leonard Leo support the nomination, and they must know something you don't; and 3) the loudest conservative critics of the Miers nominations are the annoying ivory tower elites, and if they don't like her it's probably a sign that you should.

If you're right of center and oppose the nomination: You should oppose Miers because 1) Democrats like Harry Reid recommended her to Bush, and seem to be pretty happy with the choice; 2) the Alliance for Justice and PFAW haven't attacked Miers; and 3) lots of solid conservatives are upset about the Miers nomination.

If you're left of center and support the nominaton: You should support the nomination because 1) Democrats like Harry Reid recommended her, and seem to be pretty happy with the pick; 2) many conservative activists oppose it, and that's probably a sign that Miers is as good as it gets.

Finally, if you're left of center and oppose the nomination: You should oppose the nomination because 1) George W. Bush picked Miers, and having promised another Scalia or Thomas he surely will deliver; 2) prominent conservatives like James Dobson and Leonard Leo are in favor of the nomination, and their enthusiasm means that Miers must be bad news.
I think the angst about the Miers nomination boils down to the President's political sin: surprising the pundits. Nominating a lawyer wasn't the surprise, for obvious reasons, although pundits were expecting someone who had worn judicial robes. Nominating a woman wasn't the surprise, since President Bush had taken flack from all sides about originally naming a man to replace Justice O'Connor. Nominating a friend, a member of the Administration, and a Texan wasn't the surprise, since people had contemplated (and generally rejected) the possibility of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales being nominated earlier in the year. Therefore, nominating a female White House lawyer from Texas with no judicial service to her name wasn't the surprise.

The surprise was that she was chosen over those on the long list of more "suitable" candidates. (Dr. James Dobson provided some clues today that the short list was, indeed, very very short due to the likely tenor of the confirmation process, both inside and outside the Senate.)

Harriet Miers wasn't on the presumed "short" list, mainly because the pundits kept looking at judges and law professors in their elite circle, instead of active practioners. (Some even considered politicians as potential nominees.) People assumed that since the White House had a list of vetted candidates from the search that ultimately produced Chief Justice Roberts, the President wouldn't go outside that list. Having key Democrats endorse the choice added insult to injury!

As the James Taranto put it last Friday (second item),
When President Bush nominated Harriet Miers on Monday, we saw it as a missed opportunity. It left us underwhelmed, not appalled. But having spent last evening communing here with some 1,000 conservatives at National Review's 50th anniversary dinner, we see a political disaster in the making. [...]

From what we saw last night, the right is furious at President Bush for appointing someone they see as manifestly underqualified and for ducking a fight with the Democratic left--a fight that, in their view (and ours), would be good for the country, the conservative cause and the Republican Party.
Over at, Thomas Sowell has some choice words about the political calculus the President is really dealing with:

President Bush has taken on too many tough fights -- Social Security being a classic example -- to be regarded as a man who is personally weak. What is weak is the Republican majority in the Senate.

When it comes to taking on a tough fight with the Senate Democrats over judicial nominations, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist doesn't really have a majority to lead. Before the President nominated anybody, before he even took the oath of office for his second term, Senator Arlen Specter was already warning him not to nominate anyone who would rile up the Senate. Later, Senator John Warner issued a similar warning. It sounded like a familiar Republican strategy of pre-emptive surrender.

Before we can judge how the President played his hand, we have to consider what kind of hand he had to play. It was a weak hand -- and the weakness was in the Republican Senators.

If you were the President, faced with a spineless Senate majority, a nasty confirmation process, and needing other important legislation to move through the Senate, wouldn't you want someone who has bipartisan support, won't automatically trigger the "nuclear option" forcing a showdown on the filibuster rules, is well-qualified and well-respected in her profession, and who won't leave another vacancy in the Federal judiciary to deal with?

Monday, October 03, 2005

Nimble Bureaucracies

People tend to think of bureaucracies as organizations bound in inextricable red tape, where neither the employees nor the customers have any ability to change "the system". Exhibit A recently was FEMA requiring sexual-harassment training of firefighters who had volunteered to help after Katrina hit:
"They've got people here who are search-and-rescue certified, paramedics, haz-mat certified," said a Texas firefighter. "We're sitting in here having a sexual-harassment class while there are still [victims] in Louisiana who haven't been contacted yet."

The firefighter, who has encouraged his superiors back home not to send any more volunteers for now, declined to give his name because FEMA has warned them not to talk to reporters.
At, Daniel Henninger lays the blame squarely on the bureaucratic mindset:
A reality-check will reveal that we remain a government of men, not superheroes. A grimmer reality is that we remain a government of bureaucracies. The more serious question that Katrina lays before us, one no congressional panel will touch, is whether after 75 years of uncapped growth, our domestic bureaucratic system is simply too fat to answer the fire bell.

Throwing Michael Brown into the media shark tank isn't going to divert a public that is now acutely focused on the problem of modern bureaucratic dysfunction. Yes, we endure lines at the department of motor vehicles. It was ever thus. But last year the 9/11 Commission report described in detail the failure of the national-security bureaucracy to protect us from terrorism. And now Katrina. Looks like the problem here is a lot deeper than a bureaucratic failure to communicate.

I once read a description of a bureaucracy as an organization that can operate for six months with no input and no output before anyone notices. That's because the activity is self-generated: meetings, memos, action items, studies about studies, in-house training, and compliance checks. Complexity and diffusion of purpose breeds more bureaucrats and more rules.

There are reasons for the rules: they help ensure that similar situations receive similar treatment, and common exceptions can be dealt with reasonable efficiency. The problems arise when the rules can't handle the situations faced by the bureaucrats and the managers aren't empowered to ditch the rules and improvise. Having managers (especially lawyers) in charge who enforce a defensive mindset does not create a nimble workforce. As Peggy Noonan notes,

We live in the age of emergency, however, and in that age we hunger for someone to take responsibility. Not authority, but a sense of "I'll lead you out of this." On 9/11 the firemen took responsibility: I will go into the fire. So did the mayor: This is how we'll get through, this is how we'll triumph.

In New Orleans, by contrast, the mayor seemed panicked, the governor seemed medicated, and the airborne wasn't there until it was there and peace was restored. Until then no one took responsibility. There was a vacuum. But nature abhors a vacuum, so rumors and chaos came in to fill it. Which made things worse.

No one took charge. Thus the postgame commentary in which everyone blamed someone else: The mayor fumbled the ball, the governor didn't call the play, the president didn't have a ground game.
Having been a US Civil Servant for several years, I know firsthand that the corporate culture of the organization makes a huge difference in how it functions, even within government. I worked for a Navy command that proclaimed "Fleet Support is Our Heritage". Staying focused on serving our sailors and their ships meant a culture where people worked very hard to work through or work around red tape when it impeded the main mission. Doing a temporary stint in Washington, though, with the endless meetings and bureaucratic churn, made me yearn for the comparative freedom of my home command.

I've been aboard ships where the crew stood adamant on their written regulations to the detriment of the training we were trying to provide, and on others where the crew was flexible and eager to see how far they could push their warfighting systems. The difference was the tone set by each Captain and his senior officers.

Leadership matters a lot in bureaucracies. So do having a clear purpose and taking responsibility for actions. Those are qualities that the military cultivates, which is why they generally perform well in emergencies. The military practices, practices, and practices even more to be ready to deal with whatever surprises and disasters await them -- deployed or not. [The crew of the USS San Antonio (LPD 17), which is under construction in Pascagoula, came to the assistance of the shipyard personnel during and after Hurricane Katrina roared through!]

Likewise, many local and state governments understand the need for disaster preparedness, and train constantly. Florida officials rebuked their Mississippi and Louisiana brethren for lack of preparedness:

"If we weren't prepared, and we didn't do our part, no amount of work by FEMA could overcome the lack of preparation," [Gov. Jeb Bush] said. Natural Hazards Center director Kathleen Tierney agreed, saying emergency planners in the Gulf states should have taken a tip from the jazz legends that made New Orleans famous.

"Organizational improvisation" is essential to cope with unpredictable events such as Katrina, Tierney said. "Research on jazz musicians shows that people don't just pull stuff out of the air when they're improvising. These are people with an extremely wide knowledge of musical genres. They have always practiced and practiced and practiced. Similarly, improvising involves a deep understanding of the resources you have at hand in your community."

Nimble bureaucracies do exist. They have strong leaders, clear purpose, good teamwork, and operational flexibility. That's something President Bush and Congressional leaders might keep in mind as they prepare to "fix" FEMA.

Update 10/12/05: See my follow-on post, "Improvisation and Bureaucracies"