Sunday, July 7, 2013

Can we transform our institutions from top-down hierarchies to flat, collaborative agents of change?

A human trait is that we use previous models to construct new ones...and sometimes our new constructs bring with them both the best and the worst of the previous models, instead of only the best.
We humans have been extraordinarily inept in our deployment of our imaginations when generating new organizations. We have drawn far too heavily on the military, and brought that model into the church, into the bank, into our burgeoning bureaucracies, into our schools, colleges and universities, into the hospital (not only into the operating room, but also into every department) and we have, as a result, compelled those in those organizations and the people who work there to "follow the rules" or face extermination, insofar as that specific organization is concerned.
The adherence to a model that geneates "efficiency" over "effectiveness", order over chaos, compliance over creativity, and top-down authority over bottom-up generativity has produced both multiple generations of human robots who must find their "lives" outside the workplace, and a few "executives" whose power, control and stipends have gone off the charts, compared with the ordinary working 'stiff' on the floor of the organization. In short we have made idols both of our organizations and of the people who 'run' them, leaving all those in the learning curve eager, anxious and more than willing to do whatever it takes to climb one of those ladders. The labour movement once provided a leaven that helped to balance the needs, aspirations, rights and responsibilities of both management and worker.
That is no longer the case, as the labour movement has, in far too many cases been relegated to either the trashcan or at best, the margins, by both governments and the executive suites.
We have adopted what could be called the "gate-keeper" approach to our organizational development. We screen, on the basis of highly specious testing (much of it out of WACO Texas, based on terms and conditions that would have been welcomed by the Third Reich) those we permit into the organization, based on something highly subjective we like to call "fit"....Will he or she fit into our organation? Will he or she be a challenge to manage? Will he or she be willing to start at the bottom and work his/her way to the level of competence that is appropriate for his/her aptitudes? Does he/she come from the background that would make it feasible (read likely) for him/her to integrate into our culture?
Does he/she know someone inside the organization who, unofficially could and would tip us off about any "weirdnesses" but we can't call them by that name, so we prefer, "idiosyncracies"?
I once had the opportunity to be screened for/by a management consulting firm who used the WACO tests to screen applicants, charging a fee to applicants, while promising that the results would in no way impact their decision to hire. Upon further investigation, because I had answered the questions honestly, and not "approrpiately" the CEO commented that my attitude to authority "would make it difficult for him to manage me"....and the potential relationship ended rather abruptly. Placing that much trust in a testing device applied not only to me, but to all of his clients, one of which was the federal government, for whom his group performed much of the hiring process. He was, in effect, hired as a screening agent, and his WACO testing was his method of filtering potential candidates, and of course, we can assume that those who hired this firm knew little to nothing about the nature of those tests, only that the firm provided "compliant" bodies in suits and/or skirts or both, for their empty spots.
This is a form of social engineering, which does not belong in our culture, dependent as it is on the friction and tension of new ideas, newly presented, newly underpinned with renewed passion, and not  a kind of replication of the mediocrity and the compliance of previous hires, who became compliant and mediocre as their enthusiasm and the creativity were both repressed, because all new ideas had to come "from the executive suite"....and not from the lunch-bucket labourer.
Hierarchies probably were developed on the back of the divine right of kings thesis, in the belief that all power comes from God, and therefore the sanction of God was required for a king to remain in power. Such borrowing from the divine realm to justify whatever human beings in power seemed at the time to require, is nothing more or less than "playing God" in all other institutions, while dropping the "divine right of kings" argument to sustain the actions of the monarchy.
Certainly, such an application of the divine right of leaders has applied for too long to the christian church, where, for example, Henry VIII decided to remove Cardinal Wolsey when he could not arrange a divorce from the Pope in Rome, and appoint himself as the Head of the new Church of England, thereby joining the power of the thone with the power of God. Bishops followed, under the model established by Henry, whose power was and is virtually unchallengable.
Similarly, military generals are possessed of a degree of unreproachable power that their decisions serve as fiats, unless and until someone who believes s/he has been unjustly treated, risks everything by "going public" and creating a fuss, while at the same time deliberately committing self-sabotage on his/her career in the military.
Speaking ill of either the company or its chief executive, as well as a bishop, is an invitation to the phrase, "Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out!" because that is the fate that awaits those who refuse to comply with the "oath" of whatever it is the organization ranks as important enough to be included in a recruit's employment, whether that is loyalty (another word for obedience) or confidentiality (another word for secrecy) or morality (another word for corporate embarrassment) or fiscal integrity (another word for producing the "books" that you are commanded to produce).
The military, top-down, deeply disciplined and profoundly compliant organization can also become, (and most often does) both brittle and entropic, eroding from within. It cannot help but move in that direction, given its determined resistance to anything it cannot tolerate and that includes anything that must not happen "on my watch"....
We can witness the entropy of most of our "established" institutions today, from Wall Street's over-reach on derivatives, to the military's incapacity to deal with reports of sexual activity among recruits, to the intelligence community's containment of both the scope and the methods of their activity, to the governments' inability to effective pass legislation that would address the major issues of both their nation's citizens and the world community, like climate change and global warming, the threat of terrorism, the need for boundaries that would monitor and reign in the gallopping globalization of the world's economy, workers' health and safety, and the movement of money without facing national taxation. And one of the reasons for this entopy is that those organizations were not designed to function in a collaborative, collegial and inter-dependent manner, but rather in a unilateral, siloed and completely independent manner, as they were first designed. In fact, their success, was historically dependent on their unilateral decisions, and the world has changed.
We now have organizations that cannot either keep up with the pace of change technologically nor manage their people in a manner that transforms their top-down hierarchies into flat, even boss-less collaboratives.
The power of a single executive to supervise a department, or a whole organization is no longer sustainable given both the complexity of the issues to be resolved and the level of education, experience and creativity that is currently being employed in those organizations. No longer does the boss know more than his workers; in many cases he knows less, and cannot be relied upon to provide the kind of imaginative, insightful and complex decisions that would sustain both the organization and the commitment of the people within. And the longer organziations attempt to sustain the unsustainable, that is to maintain their hierarchical purity and power, in an increasingly inter-dependent world, no matter if the arena is government, corporate, non-profit, or social service.
When teams of medical students are more and more joining in assessing the complexities of a "case" and teams are assembled for the purpose of originating, managing and growing a "project" in both industry and government,  we are witnessing the legitimate entropy of the top-down, militaristic, all-knowing single leader and the organization s/he leads, (while at the same time we cling to that model, as we celebrate the "star" leaders in a star-struck adolescent culture)....
And so we have hybrids emerging, as they should and must, to transform our instutitions into idea generators, and human developers, and social consciences, and political agents and artistic mentors and philanthropers, not in the model of the guilded age of the 1920's where individuals of great wealth and power spread their beneficience around as they saw fit. Today, we all have to harbour and to incarnate the best of our citizen models, inside and outside our workplaces.
And that is going to upset the comfortable executive suites of many top-heavy organizations like schools, colleges, universities, churches, banks and eventually governments. Thankfully!

In effect, we have created "micro-clubs" to which description we might add the words, "old-boys" and thereby we have both reduced our capacity to change, our also our capacity to adopt to new energies, new ways of doing things, and new ways to generate both new products and services and, in the for-profit sector, new profits. New recruits are schooled on learning the culture of the targets of their applications, prior to any potential interview, as if the kind of culture that has been established has morphed into a kind of religion that, if practiced by new recruits, will pave the way for their climb up the ladder, and if not, pave the way for a quick and less costly exit.
I once worked in  a community college, in the executive branch, where 90+% of the executive team was between 5'6" and 5'9"....very few were as tall as 6'. Whether or not that fact was the result of executive strategic planning and execution or not, I do not know. What I do know is that the physical models hired were unlikely to be a threat to the chief executive, not only because of their size, but because of the executive's management style. Diversity, even in physical stature, was clearly not a sought after trait of the oganzation, although there were representatives of multiple ethnicities in the teaching faculty.

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