Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Organizational Inertia

There was an article in the local paper this morning about a vet who had served more than 20 years in the military, multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, has a disability and is now meeting general apathy from the people in the Veteran’s Administration as he tries to move his disability package through the system.

The comment that I found interesting was that he had been through more than 20 years of service, multiple deployments, wounded, etc., and ‘it means nothing to them.’

Correct.  It means nothing to them.  And there is a lesson to be drawn from that.

The Veteran’s Administration is, like the rest of the government, a large bureaucracy.  It functions just like every other bureaucracy.  And that’s the point: bureaucracies don’t care about ‘you’ or anything outside the walls of the bureaucracy.  This isn’t said to be derisive, rather it is an observation that has been shared by thousands throughout history.

To begin, we need to recognize the difference between any organization and the people within it.  Every organization – large or small - has a ‘personality’ of its own.  As the organization ages, that ‘personality’ becomes more pronounced and more difficult to change.  As the organization grows in size the ‘personality’ again becomes more entrenched.  Very large organizations develop very well complex ‘personas’ that are often substantially more complex than any human being.  Anyone who has been in the military can attest that there is really an entity out there called ‘the Army,’ ‘the Navy,’ ‘the Air Force,’ and in particular ‘the Marine Corps.’ 

And, while it is possible to substantially change any organization in its first few years of life, as the organization ages the persona’s resistance to change will become more and more pronounced.  While there are any number of reasons for this, two that are critical to this organizational inertia are Rules and People.

Rules: As any organization matures and develops it will propagate rules on ‘how things are done.’  At first, these rules will focus on just a few key issues, issues that are at the center of the goals of the organization.  But within a relatively short period of time the rules will begin to expand, reaching ‘down’ into the organization and driving into ever greater detail: expanding from what must be done to what specific people are to do to how they are to do it and finally to how they must act while doing it.  The rules develop to protect ‘the Army Way’ or ‘the Navy Way’ or ‘the XYZ Corp. Way.’

People: During the first few days, months, years of any organization the people are believers, focused on the goals of the organization with a burning desire that these goals be achieved – ‘come hell or high water.’  They were there at the start and they share a sense of ‘ownership’ in the original purpose of the organization.  But as the original leadership depart and are replaced by managers – even bright and well-intentioned ones – and as the ‘rank and file’ are replaced not by believers but by people simply looking for a decent job, the focus of the people shifts from those great, overarching ‘goals’ to maintenance, to sustainment, to stasis.

This is particularly true of government bureaucracies.  Few if any people grow up hoping to some day be a clerk at the Department of Agriculture.  The vast majority of the people working in government bureaucracies work there not because they fervently believe in the goals of the organization as stated in the yearly “Strategy Statement” that nobody reads, but because they need to work someplace and there was a job available.  This is true even in organizations that have a reputation for promoting commitment to higher goals, organizations such as the Army or Navy.

Government organizations in particular – and in the end the government itself – evolve very rapidly over time so that within just a few years of being established they begin to focus on one thing, and one thing only: sustaining themselves, or what can be more easily termed ‘survival.’  Nothing else really matters.  Nearly everything else the bureaucracy does can be thought of as theater, something that is done to make certain that those ‘outside’ see the ‘right things,’ to convince the majority of them that the organization is doing some close to what it is supposed to be doing.

Thus the Department of Energy attempts to manage oil leases and the Department of Education passes out student loan money and the Department of Agriculture inspects food and the Department of Defense maintains the military.  Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc.   But, the simple truth is that governments have no inner moral compass that keeps them focused on staying within the law as well as focused on the good of the people.  They never have and never will.  They focus on two things, the only two ‘tangibles’ in government: power, and the tool of power – money.

So, what is the lesson to be drawn from all this?  Simply this: anyone who wishes to change the direction of any organization must begin with an understanding of the organizational inertia that needs to be overcome to affect any real change.  The Persona of that organization, particularly as embodied in its Rules and its People, will need to be changed if you wish to institute real change.  Failure to do so will result in cosmetic changes only and all your work will be of no permanent consequence.


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