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.

An abbreviated history of the seat belt:

  • 1922 – Barney Oldfield installs the first three-point restraining harness in his Indy 500 car.
  • 1959: Nils Bohlin invents the three-point seat belt/shoulder harness for Volvo. To encourage automobile safety Volvo gives the design away free to all automobile manufacturers.
  • 1968: Lyndon Johnson signs mandate that all new cars must be equipped with the three-point safety harness into law.
  • 1973: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandates new cars must have a seatbelt interlock mechanism installed, preventing cars from starting unless the seat belt is engaged.
  • 1974: Congress repeals the mandatory seat belt interlock law.
  • 1984: New York State passes law requiring all drivers to wear their seat belts. Between then and now all states except Hew Hampshire have passed similar laws, extended beyond drivers to all passengers.
  • 2000: Nils Bohlin dies. Volvo estimates his invention had saved in excess of 1 million lives.
  • 2021: Some drivers still refuse to wear seat belts because “You can’t make me.” Many Americans refuse to receive COVID-19 vaccinations for the same reason.

Imagine you’re enough of a libertarian to oppose the “nanny state” on principle whether it is nannying about seatbelts or vaccinations.

Also imagine you accept the by-now-overwhelming evidence that the major COVID-19 vaccines are, like seatbelts, safe and effective.

Further imagine you accept that wearing seatbelts mitigates the harm from car crashes, making them less lethal or crippling, just as COVID-19 vaccinations reduce the morbidity and lethality of an infection. But unlike seatbelts, which don’t reduce the odds of being in an accident, vaccines do reduce the odds of becoming infected.

Next: Read or review Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and use it to justify the proposition that even though using seatbelts can save you from death and severe injury, the political point you’ll make is worth the risk. With some ingenuity you can probably manage this, as when you refuse to wear a seatbelt you only endanger yourself … assuming, of course, you have no family that needs you alive and healthy.

Now try to justify the parallel proposition about vaccines.

With FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine for general use, we can expect an increasing number of employers mandating vaccination, following the advice given here a few weeks ago (admittedly, most of them didn’t know I’d given it, but I’ll take credit for it anyway). And with the current surge we can also anticipate a return to mask plus social-distancing mandates.

“You can’t make me!” isn’t much of a moral proposition. It isn’t what you’d call thoughtful. “Childish” seems like the more appropriate adjective.

Bob’s last word: In Horsefeathers, Groucho sang:

Your proposition may be good

But let’s have one thing understood:

Whatever it is, I’m against it

And even when you’ve changed it or condensed it

I’m against it.

For those who miss the point, the song is supposed to be satire.

Bob’s sales pitch: CIO.com just published another essay from yours truly. I think you’ll like it. But you’ll never know if you don’t read it. You’ll find it here, in “The three IT processes CIOs need most.”