Saturday, June 27, 2009

Dysfunctional Hierarchies

I just read a blog posted by an Army Sgt. about, among other things, the unseriousness of soldiers receiving promotions. I believe that good organizations have a natural tendency to degenerate over time, and this tendency must be resisted strenuously. Good organizations come about through a confluence of good luck and exceptional individuals with strong motivation. Neither will last very long. For that reason, the most important function of an ongoing organization is the recruitment and promotion of those people who will best preserve and extend the aspects of the organization that make it "good". Personnel evaluation is the most difficult and most easily corrupted aspect of that function. Disinformation and performance theater will gradually overcome integrity and actual performance. And once inappropriate assignments are made, the next cycle will be even more vulnerable to suboptimal choices.

The cure for this process involves a dedication to two principles. 1) Trust but verify. 2) Cultivate diversity.

Reality checking is neglected for many reasons, but mostly for its labor saving aspects. You need to budget a certain percentage of your effort to proving yourself wrong, to testing the obvious. Every man a scientist! Most importantly, you should test whatever you are most emotionally invested in. I have talked about the need for red-teaming before, and it applies in this context.

So what do I mean by diversity? I'm talking about different points of view, different methods of processing information. People who agree with you should make you uncomfortable. They are encouraging your natural tendency toward assuming too much, and not adding anything valuable. Sometimes diversity of thought follows diversity of background and demographic classification. Not necessarily though. And no matter what the organizational taboos are against it, you have to find out what people think depending on their hierarchical position. When it comes to personnel evaluation, that means you have to determine what the peers and subordinates of the individual have to say on the subject.

In politics, this natural degeneration of organizations tends toward the extreme. Personnel evaluation in the political world is dysfunctional, almost counter-productive. I've often thought that we would have a better Congress if our representatives were chosen at random from a telephone directory. Is that too harsh? Yes, it is. There are many well meaning individuals who have been honestly elected, but they are essentially helpless to accomplish anything. The sea of influence, horse-trading and gamesmanship that they swim in controls their every motion. It's a problem. But it's a problem we must solve if we expect to prosper.

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