Tuesday, April 12, 2005

April 11, 2005

The Bigger They Are

There’s an odd saying, sometimes attributed to Henry Ford, but I can find no proof he actually said it. “Nothing fails like success.”

When I was just beginning my working life I thought it was a wacky saying. I mean, really, how can you fail by succeeding? Dumb. Forty years later I understand it all too well.
It’s really quite simple, and the histories of every social grouping, from civilizations to corporation, testify to its accuracy.

The larger any organized group grows the less efficient it gets. It’s the inevitable outcome of initial success. One of the first signs the process has begun is that the quality of people who begin rising to top positions erodes. Just how this happens in interesting in itself.

You find two kinds of people in any organization. Let’s be simplistic and call them the “Smarts” and the “Mediocres.” There are varying degrees of both in any organization but it's the tug of war between the two extremes that leads to failure.

Smarts will only put up with so much BS on the job before they bail out. Mediocres, who see themselves as Smarts, have a natural staying power. Most of them, lacking in genuine abilities, have developed unique survival skills. Like weeds you can never seem to get out of your garden, they tend to set their roots deeply in organizational soil.

Mediocres bristle at resistance from smarter subordinates and, when so threatened, make life miserable for any Smart that challenges them.

Once Mediocres group near the top of an organization they create a kind of mutual protection society, covering each other’s backs against the occasional Smart-attacks from below. (If you work in government or a large company I suspect you know exactly what I am saying. And, dare I say, I feel your pain.)

It was precisely to further fortify the positions of Mediocres that the Orwellian named “Human Resources Department,” was created. This is where subordinates who think they are smarter than their superiors are either re-educated or whacked. I remember a Human Resources Director at a company

A company I once worked for asking an employee who was being discharged, “Can you agree to leave your anger at the door?” The employee, a woman, shot back, “Hell no. It’s my anger and I’m taking it with me.”

Anyway, I am rattling on too much before getting to my point. The process I describe leads me to wonder if we expect too much from government. After all, if nothing fails like success what country on earth has been more successful than the US? Succeed we did, but now failures abound. We can’t seem to do anything right any longer, no matter how much money we spend.

* Intelligence: We spend over $60 billion a year on spies and still have no idea what’s going on outside our borders. While the CIA continued to warn during the 1980’s that the Soviet Union was a super threat, it was actually a hollow rooting tree that fell over on its own. How’d they miss that?
* Intelligence 15 years later: “Dead wrong” on Iraq’s WMD. All those spies. All those satellites, all those analysts, all those wiretaps and purloined emails, and the CIA’s chief source of intelligence was a drunk Iraqi in Germany the CIA aptly code named, “Curveball.”
* Health: The FDA has repeatedly approved drugs that kill many of those who take them. Bextra is the latest, but before that was Vioxx and several others. Sure there’s drug company money involved, but there were Smarts within the FDA who tried to blow the whistle. They were last seen heading off for a chat with the their department’s Human Resources Director.
* Homeland Security: Oh Jesus, I don’t even know where to begin. The Homeland Security Dept. may be new, but the people running it came from the top ranks of government lifers. Mediocrity rules the Homeland Security roost. Running it are people who float to the top… like pesky turds that refuse to be flushed. Almost daily now we learn of boondoggles at Homeland Security. Today’s is the revelation that they pissed away nearly a quarter of a billion taxpayer dollars on a high-tech border surveillance system that does not work

“A critical network of cameras and sensors installed for the U.S. Border Patrol along the Mexican and Canadian borders has been hobbled for years by defective equipment that was poorly installed, and by lax oversight by government officials who failed to properly supervise the project's contractor, according to government reports and public and industry officials. The problems with the $239 million Integrated Surveillance Intelligence System (ISIS), which U.S. officials call crucial to defending the country against terrorist infiltrators, are under investigation by the inspector general of the General Services Administration.”(Washington Post)

Who gets fired for these astronomically expensive screw-ups? Forget about it. Mediocres don’t get fired they get promoted. (Or awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom)

The news about the border surveillance screw up follows on the heels of the nearly three quarters of a billion dollar FBI top brass wasted on a terrorist/criminal data base that does not work, at all. How does such a thing happen? Again, you just know there were Smarts who tried to warn someone above them.

Here is where another Mediocre tactic -- “Buy In,” comes into play. Buy In sounds like a it might be a positive process in which everyone involved in a decision does his or her due diligence on the matter and agrees to proceed. What Buy In becomes in a mature organization is something just the opposite. I ran into the buy in trap once myself. After everyone, including myself, made a decision to proceed in a certain way on a project I decided we had made a potentially expensive mistake. At the next meeting with the group I raised my concerns and suggested we put the thing on hold and devise a better plan. That was not what the group wanted to hear. The group manager’s response: “Pizzo, we had buy in on this, including yours. So I would suggest you make it work.” (It failed.)

That’s how Buy In works in large organizations, especially government. Once the Mediocres achieve Buy In. It's a kind of blood oath and mutual suicide pact. It is also the prime way mediocre managers avoid personal responsibility when things go wrong. "Hey, we had total Buy In on that."

I wish I had a solution to offer. Or at least some hope that somehow organizations can grow themselves out of this death spiral into institutionalized inefficiency. But I don’t. I only mention it because I think we need to understand what goes on down in the bowels of government. There tens of thousands of hardworking folks toil in cubicles reading and writing reports, checking facts and, for the most part trying their best. Above them are layer upon layer of managers who got out of that cubicle-farm by not pissing anyone above them off.

And, while elected officials showboat on TV, it’s those invisible managers who are enforcing Buy In on God knows how many expensive, wacky ideas.

Eventually you’ll read all about them in you morning paper. The only question is, how much inefficiency can any organization have before it collapses under the sheer weight of all its own stubborn mistakes? Ask the Russians. They know.

By Stephen Pizzo
Raconteur at Large

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