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Information filtration

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Our withdrawal from Afghanistan, we’ve been told, has been utter chaos. Utter chaos that has somehow resulted in the successful evacuation of 122,000 Americans and an expected 50,000 Afghans, actively assisted by the Taliban.

While we’re waiting on self-consistent reporting on the subject, or even if you don’t much care about it at all, take time to read this guidance on management theory by the always insightful Fareed Zakaria, cleverly disguised as a commentary on the deficiencies in the U.S. national security apparatus that led, or at least contributed to, the 20-year fiasco in Afghanistan.

And I quote: If you want one statistic to explain the failure of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan it is this: The National Security Council met 36 times since April to discuss it. Even more remarkable, this number was shared with the media to illustrate how well the administration had handled things. The U.S. foreign policymaking apparatus has transformed itself into a dinosaur, with a huge body and little brain, a bureaucracy where process has become policy.

And this: Preparation and memos for meetings become a substitute for effective action.

Another: The larger an organization gets, the more layers it develops, and the more layers, the harder it is to navigate them.

One more: Many insiders had come to realize that the mission was doomed, but the information stayed trapped within the bureaucracy.

Sound familiar? My experience as a management consultant suggests you could choose the name of just about any Fortune 500 enterprise more or less at random, substitute it for “National Security Council” in the snippets I quoted above, and the observations would be equally accurate.

Not that Zakaria’s analysis is perfect. It isn’t – it’s incomplete, exploring only one side of a two (at least) sided issue, namely, how many layers of management an organization should have so as to function effectively.

As Zakaria points out, the more layers you have, the more information “… stays trapped within the bureaucracy.”

Except that this formulation misses one of the primary root causes for this trapping: Every layer is headed by an individual whose career can depend on the heads of higher layers not knowing exactly what they need to know most, namely, what isn’t going as well as planned.

Or, to be more plain-spoken about it, I brag about what’s going well to my boss while doing my best to make sure anything that isn’t going well gets concealed, blame-shifted, or, occasionally, quietly fixed.

The fewer the layers, the less likely it is that this filtering keeps upper-layer management completely in the dark.

Seems like a cut-and-dried case for a leaner organization, doesn’t it?

Not so fast. Simple geometry suggests it’s time to say “yeah, but.” The simple geometry?

For any number of people in an organization, fewer layers, means each manager has more direct reports. More direct reports means less time spent with each direct report. Less time spent with each direct report means less opportunity to provide leadership.

Not only that, but one of the primary benefits of a lean organization … fewer barriers to the flow of important information … is partially negated. Spend less time with each direct report and you have less time, and therefore less opportunity to explore the ramifications of what your direct reports are telling you.

So what’s the right answer? Sorry, there is no right answer, only less-wrong answers for different situations:

  • Focus on Operations: If what you need most is a smooth-running operation, go for fewer layers. Operations is about management, where you need to know What’s Going On Out There to know if something isn’t running as smoothly as it should.
  • Focus on Change: If you’re trying to accomplish significant change of some kind, go for fewer direct reports. Change is about leadership, so you need to expand your leadership reach and impact. That means spending more time with each direct report.
  • Focus on Policy: Smart policy comes from expertise. Ignore the organizational chart altogether. Instead, form cross-functional teams composed of as small a number as possible of smart, knowledgeable, creative, innovative thinkers, who are … and this is vitally important … on the team to provide their expertise, not to represent the area they work in.

Bob’s last word: When you charter a cross-functional team, make sure it has a limited lifespan. If it doesn’t disband after finishing its mission it will inevitably bloat into exactly what you formed it to avoid.

Bob’s sales pitch: I know it’s hard to believe, but there’s yet another piece on CIO.com (on an entirely different subject) by yours truly for you to admire, and maybe even read. This one is titled “The 3 IT processes CIOs need the most.” I think you’ll like it.

Comments (5)

  • The pullout in afghanistan which was 20 years overdue, was worse than chaotic. It would be better described as a maximum fustercluck because senile Joe ‘the big man’ Biden pooed every scrooch in the pound to come up with his backwards way of performing the withdrawal.

    So now we have several airplanes full of Americans on the tarmac at another airport but the taliban won’t let them depart until sleepy Joe kisses their ring and gives them credibility for the world to see and then sends them money or gitmo terrorists or whatever else CSB2they will demand next.

  • Encourage reporting of issues up the chain but still keep the chain.
    Forbid any meetings unless there is a problem to be solved.
    That problem is the agenda for the meeting.

    If managers want to impress others in meetings, then they need to bring in problems.

    As far as Afghanistan goes, you’re right about the pull-out. It’s hard to lose a war neatly. And it’s even harder if the people who have been telling you all along you’ve been winning are now saying you’ve still got 18 months.

    And I always remember the line in Moby Dick (1850) where Ishmael, the out-of-work literary professor, takes a job on a whaling ship rather than “fight the endless war in Afghanistan.”

  • Hi Bob,

    American main stream media has shown themselves to be partisan and predominantly left so the coverage, even “scathing”, would always be skewed towards downplaying errors by the current administration, unlike to how they shouted frm the rooftops the errors of the previous. It really should universally be decrying all the previous administrations of the past 20 years equally.

    But take the analogy of Afghanistan being a relatively medium-sized enterprise (call them Afg) that had a hostile take-over 20 years ago by a huge corporation, let’s call them BigBrother, who came and agressively installed their own management structures and tried to override the existing company culture with their own brand. However, BigBrother never really had a clear strategy on what they wanted to achieve with their new acquisition or why they took it over in the first place. So, after 20 years of mismanagement, corruption and only having a partial impact on the culture, they decided to up an leave, again with no clear strategy on how to do this and what their Afg management should do afterwards. They sent a company memo, took most of the BigBrother employees with them, while leaving some others to fend for themselves. They also took some of Afg’s employees but not really knowing what roles they played, what positions they held, if they were competent and whether they even had any loyalty towards BigBrother. No, they were just blinded by their own hubris and self-congratulations, using their marketing department (media) to gaslight many. All the while leaving employees behind who have grown up under the BigBrother culture to just fend for themselves in a new Afg management culture that is foreign and hostile to them.

    It does not matter how many or how few layers you have in your management structure if the people right at the top do not have clear vision of the journey they are on, instill the right culture and promote honesty and integrity where mistakes are acknowledged and dealt with. If you install people in senior positions that are incompetent and will only protect their own interests, those B-players will never hire A-players who will potentially expose their incompetence or challenge them, they will hire other B or C players and so down the chain the rot will grow. Let’s hope BigBrother is able to clear out the rot but I suspect it is so far gone, those A-players left over will be fighting a losing battle. CHeers.

  • But back to the topic at hand: how many layers? I suggest that one reduces layers by increasing reports, and to make that work you delegate better: Tell, teach, coach, delegate — the 1-minute manager showed you the way long ago. Von Moltke knew to drill and put his reports in war games where they learned each other’s tendencies and could learn trust. Management is not leadership: leadership is expanding the capability of your reports so they don’t need you very much.

    So if more layers means more smoke, developing your people allows fewer layers. But that means YOU have to work on the right things — making yourself less needed.

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