18 November 2007

Managing Without Managers; Leading Without Leaders

I had a minor epiphany recently regarding the BAH-ness of action items (or if you like your jargon just a little more obfuscated, “actionable”). One of the key characteristics of the BAH organization is that it is primarily and predominantly focused on functions, outcomes, responsibilities and accountability. Essentially, bureaucracies are defined to accomplish the instrumentality of the system for which it is formed, that instrumental purpose being of paramount importance. Administrative procedures are installed to ensure that the system accomplishes that purpose. The people become interchangeable parts in the machinery of the system, with a hierarchy instituted so that communication can be both efficiently disseminated (going down), and efficiently concentrated (going up). Hierarchies are also good for establishing responsibility and accountability – in other words, who gets blamed when something goes wrong, since, in a well designed system, the system itself is never to blame. It is only when people deviate from the established administrative procedures that things go wrong - ideally, speaking, of course.

What this means is that when a group of people come together to analyze a situation and come up with new and potentially more effective approaches, that session must always end with a set of action(able) items for which somebody, or bodies, must take responsibility. After all, without someone responsible, who will ensure that the items “get actioned?” There’s also the little matter of who to blame when little happens. Or something goes wrong. Or both.

Last spring, our department had a strategy retreat. All faculty, staff and a representative contingent of students were invited off-site for a full day session to reconsider our department’s vision. This day was a culmination of an extensive amount of research undertaken by our then-new Department Chair, with a student research assistant. Our new Chair had interviewed every member of the faculty and staff, and (together with the department student association) conducted a series of focus groups with students. The data was collated and compiled, and provided a number of themes for our department that were hashed through using a World Café format.

By the end of the day, a large number of recommendations and undertakings were created for each of six overarching themes, ranging from the way we see ourselves, through environmental issues in our physical surroundings, to communication, and internal bridging of our two programs. The Chair asked for each group to appoint a person who would take responsibility for following up on the various recommended undertakings. The answer was a resounding NO! Everyone had quite enough to do, thank you very much. Although the day was unanimously hailed as a success, and everyone was keen for another similar event, no one wanted to take on the additional workload of being responsible for yet more items added to their personal to-do lists. Thanks for the conversations, but no thanks for the increased workload. Somewhat chagrined, the Chair reluctantly but wisely deferred to the wisdom of the crowd.

Fast forward six months. At the beginning of the second World Café session, this time in our large lounge area, the student facilitator asked for those who had attended the prior session to report on anything that might have happened to be accomplished in their thematic area. She expected this to take perhaps 10 minutes or so for the six groups. Forty-five minutes later, the list of initiatives that had been accomplished or at least started was startling for its breadth and depth. This was truly remarkable, if not somewhat confusing. No one apparently had time to be willing to take responsibility for any of the action items six months prior. Yet most people had, in some smaller or larger way, contributed to an extensive list of successful undertakings.

Startled by this result, I asked myself the obvious question: Would the accomplishments had been the same if certain people actually had responsibility for project managing the various thematic groups? Of course, it’s impossible to say what might have happened, but I think not. Since no one person had responsibility, everyone became responsible. The nature of the day’s conversation was sufficient to create a common contextual awareness and gain an agreement on some fundamental aspects of the department’s culture. This allowed people to align their priorities with a common awareness of what was important, thereby enabling them to direct their non-instrumental efforts (i.e., activities that were not necessarily part of their official job requirements) to accomplish those things that contributed to the common culture, those items that were identified during the retreat day.

How did this happen? I'm guessing that in a UCaPP organization, the cultural ground becomes what is commonly shared because of the emphasis on creating relationship in the ground, rather than superficially as figure. Contrast this with a more conventional BAH organization that has a shared mission, vision and purpose – all figure items that pay little heed to the context that gives them meaning to individuals. In a UCaPP organization, people can manage themselves for the effects that they create in the total environment; in a BAH organization, people must be managed to accomplish the organization’s objectives that might not align well with the valence relationships that are supposed to tie people together in a cohesive organization.

A common ground of valence relationships may well be the secret to managing without managers, and leading without leaders.

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