Thursday, June 01, 2006

How to defeat the complexity of joint action (or prevent it from defeating you)

In my May 31 post, I talked about the formidable challenges of joint action and decision-making. Joint initiatives are becoming more common, because of the flattening and widening of bureaucratic structures.

While hugely preferable to rigid hierarchy and the accumulation of authority in fewer hands, joint initiatives introduce a number of inter- and intra-organizational factors that can gum up the works before the initiative even gets off the ground.

What are these factors? They fall into two major categories, which have to do with prevailing realities in each of the collaborating organizations. The first of these is a matter of organizational design. Organizations are made up of people and a collection of features—architecture or structure, routines or standard operating procedures (SOPs), and culture. This gives rise to the acronym PARC: People, Architecture, Routines, Culture.

Organizations exist to accomplish things that individuals working independently cannot accomplish. Once the organization is launched, its mission often metamorphoses into something quite different from what the ostensible masters of the organization have in mind. This has to do with varying interpretations of the mission on the part of those who own the organization (in the public-sector, the “owners” are those with institutional or statutory oversight) and those who run it.

Those who run the organization confront an array of operational problems. They develop SOPs, often through trial and error, to deal with these problems. The mission then becomes what is achievable through existing SOPs. Hence PARC—and the bewilderment of outsiders who experience bureaucratic processes, rules, and procedures that appear convoluted and silly. “Organizations do not make sense,” says consultant Geoffrey Bellman. But to at least some of those who carry out the SOPs, the routines make perfect sense.

The second major factor has to do with office politics. Joint decision-making involves bargaining on the part of players within and between collaborating organizations. Bargaining means navigating through inter- and intra-organizational rivalries—former Pentagon insider Perry Smith identifies eight distinct types of these—in an effort to determine a mutually acceptable course of action.

As you can see, the range of variables is mind-boggling. You could spend a lot of time just listing them. Therefore, to launch a successful joint initiative, you have to work out the kinks in order to develop the operational coherence to fulfill the initiative’s mission.

And how do you do this?

I’ll deal with this question in upcoming posts. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Designing agile organizations

Every manager has run into bureaucratic inertia. Some have complained that getting a bureaucracy to change direction is like turning around an aircraft carrier in a narrow channel. Even more frustrating are the situations in which no one disagrees that things have to change.

So why is organizational change so slow and so painful?

Often it is because organizational units share power over decisions and actions. Collaboration between such units—or across functional areas, or between government departments and agencies, or between countries—becomes an exercise in what some management theorists have called the “complexity of joint action.” With multiple decision-makers, each decision entails some degree of “friction,” which adds time to the process.

In such circumstances it is easily possible for all players to agree on the precise aim of a joint enterprise, and on a blueprint for action—and for the enterprise to grind to a halt in spite of this agreement. What seems obvious and easy is actually extremely convoluted and complex.

For example, I recently worked on a project whose aim was to centralize certain core administrative functions across a vast bureaucracy. It seemed obvious to everyone concerned, from the designers of the project to the implementers and those whose work would be radically transformed, that these moves were necessary and that they would result in big cost savings and better work experiences.

But once we really got into the work, we discovered the range of interdependencies between these seemingly straightforward administrative functions. We identified over 70 individual administrative actions within four major functional areas. We had not initially appreciated that these interdependencies would grow geometrically over time, as more participants became directly involved in the new processes. Nor had we realized the difficulty of obtaining consensus between the major participants. Once we did, our problem-solving focus shifted from more rational organization design to consensus building.

Problems of joint decision and action have become more common, with the advent of more horizontal structures in government bureaucracies. This is not to say we need to return to rigid hierarchy and all the problems it entailed. But a healthy respect for the difficulties of joint action is a pre-requisite for anyone who proposes, designs, or implements such an initiative.