Action expresses priorities.
― Mahatma Gandhi
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
― Peter F. Drucker
I know that I’ve written on this general topic before, but it keeps coming up as one of the biggest issues in my work life. We are getting more and more management while less and less leadership is evident. I know the two things shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but seemingly in practice they are. With each passing year we get more and more management assurance, more measurement of compliance all the while our true performance slips. We are “managed” in the modern sense of the word better than ever, yet our science and research is a mere shadow of its former glory. Perhaps this is the desired outcome even if only implicitly by society where lack of problems and readily identifiable fuck ups is valued far more than accomplishments. A complete lack of leadership nationally that values accomplishment certainly shares part of the collective blame.
The core of the issue is an unhealthy relationship to risk, fear and failure. Our management is focused upon controlling risk, fear of bad things, and outright avoidance of failure. The result is an implemented culture of caution and compliance manifesting itself as a gulf of leadership. The management becomes about budgets and money while losing complete sight of purpose and direction. The focus on leading ourselves in new directions gets lost completely. The ability take risks get destroyed because of fears and outright fear of failure. People are so completely wrapped up in trying to avoid ever fucking up that all the energy behind doing progressive things moving forward are completely sapped. We are so tied to compliance that plans must be followed even when they make no sense at all.
Any imperative revolving around progress and overall technical quality has absolutely no gravity in this environment. The drive to be managed well simply overwhelms us. Of course managed well means that nothing identifiable as a fuck up happens; it almost never means doing something great, wonderful or revolutionary. Accomplishment is limited to safe, incremental things that couldn’t possibly go wrong. Part of the issue is our adoption of modern management principles, which put a massive emphasis on the short term. To be clear, modern business management is obsessively short term focused. This short-term focus is completely contrary to progress, quality and imagination. These impacts are felt deeply in the private sector and manifesting themselves profoundly in the public sector where I work. One of the key aspects are the structural aspects of modern management practice. We are too obsessed with following our management plans to completion as opposed to being flexible and adaptive.
We put management practices that are intrusively damaging on a virtual pedestal. A prime example is the quarterly progress obsession. Business is massively damaged by the short-term focus embodied by demands for unwavering quarterly profits. The same idea manifests itself more broadly in public sector management to a deeply distressing degree. The entire mentality is undermining the long-term quality of our scientific base nationally and internationally. We are unwilling to change directions even when it makes the best sense and the change is based on a rational analysis of lessons learned and produces the best outcomes.
All of it produces a lack of energy and focus necessary for leadership. We do not exercise the art of saying NO. We are managed to a very high degree, we a led to a very small degree. Our managers are human and limited in capacity for complexity and time available to provide focus. If all of the focus is applied to management nothing is left for leadership. The impact is clear, the system is full of management assurance, compliance and surety, yet virtually absent of vision and inspiration. We are bereft of aspirational perspectives with clear goals looking forward. The management focus breeds an incremental approach that too concretely grounds future vision completely on what is possible today. All of this is brewing in a sea of risk aversion and intolerance for failure.
Start with the end in mind.
― Stephen R. Covey
The focus of our management is not performance of our jobs in the accomplishment of our missions, science or engineering. The focus of our management is to keep fuck ups to a minimum. If some one fucks up, they are generally thrown to the wolves, or the fuck up is rebranded as a glorious success. This increasingly means that our management insofar as the actual work is concerned contributes to the systematic generation and encouragement of bullshit. The best managers can bullshit their way out of a fuckup and spin it into a glorious success.
This is incredibly corrosive to the overall quality of the institutions that I work for. It has resulted in the wholesale divestiture of quality because quality no longer matters to success. It is creating a thoroughly awful and untenable situation where truth and reality are completely detached from how we operate. Every time that something of low quality is allowed to be characterized as being high quality, we undermine our culture. Capability to make real progress is completely undermined because progress is extremely difficult and prone to failure and setbacks. It is much easier to simply incrementally move along doing what we are already doing. We know that will work and frankly those managing us don’t know the difference anyway. Doing what we are already doing is simply the status quo and orthogonal to progress.
Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Managing and leading are different, but strongly related. We need both in the right measure and they shouldn’t be exclusive, but time and energy is limited. Today have too much management and virtually no leadership because the emphasis is on managing a whole bunch of risks and fears. We are creating systems that try to push away the possibility of any number of identified bad things. We soak up every minute of time and amount of available effort in this endeavor leaving nothing left. Leadership and the actual practice of good personnel management is left without any time or energy to be practiced. The result is a gulf in both areas that becomes increasingly evident with each passing day.
Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.
― Stephen R. Covey
Leadership or the positive qualities of management do not stop or control all the bad things directly. Leadership and management impact these things in a soft and indirect way. Rather than step away from the overly prescriptive and failed approach to control every little thing that might go wrong, we continue down the path of micromanagement. Each step in micromanagement produces another tax on the time and energy of every one impacted by the system and diminishes the good that can be done. In essence we are draining our system of energy for creating positive outcomes. The management system is unremittingly negative in its focus, trying to stop stuff from happening rather than enable stuff. It is ultimately a losing battle, which is gutting our ability to produce great things.
Producing great things is in the service of the National interest in the best way. By not producing great things and calling not great things, great, acts to undermine the National interest. Today we are doing exactly this and letting ourselves off the hook. We have made management of risks and failure the focus of our energy. We had sidelined leadership by fiat and allowed mediocrity to creep into our psyche and let progress and quality drift. Embracing quality, progress, risk and allowing failure in service of greater achievement can make change happen in ways that matter.
What’s measured improves
― Peter F. Drucker
The issue isn’t that most of the management work shouldn’t be done in the abstract. Almost all of the management stuff are a good ideas and “good”. They are bad in the sense of what they displace from the sorts of efforts we have the time and energy to engage in. We all have limits in terms of what we can reasonably achieve. If we spend our energy on good, but low value activities, we do not have the energy to focus on difficult high value activities. A lot of these management activities are good, easy, and time consuming and directly displace lots of hard high value work. The core of our problems is the inability to focus sufficient energy on hard things. Without focus the hard things simply don’t get done. This is where we are today, consumed by easy low value things, and lacking the energy and focus to do anything truly great.
I think there needs to be a meeting to set an agenda for more meetings about meetings.
― Jonah Goldberg
Examples of this abound in the day to day life of Lab employees. If you are a manager at one of the Labs, your days are choked with low value work. A very large amount of this low value work seems like the application of due diligence and responsibility. I think a more rational view of the activities is to view it through the lens of micromanagement. Our practices lead to our micromanaging people’s time, work and budgets as to absorb all the available time. This effectively leaves no time or effort to be available for people’s judgment. These steps also act to effectively remove the staff’s ability to act as independent professionals. We are transitioning our staff from an active independent community of world-class scientists to a disconnected collection of hourly employees.
Your behavior reflects your actual purposes.
― Ronald A. Heifetz
Perhaps the core issue is a general ambiguity regarding the purpose of our Labs, the goals of our science and the importance of the work. None of this is clear. It is the generic implication of the lack of leadership within the specific context of our Labs, or federally supported science. It is probably a direct result of a broader and deeper vacuum of leadership nationally infecting all areas of endeavor. We have no visionary or aspirational goals as a society either.
The quest for absolute certainty is an immature, if not infantile, trait of thinking.
― Herbert Feigl