Further Musings

Beauty smote his heart, he looked up from the forsaken land & hope returned to him

Insights on Organizations

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Currently reading Bureaucracy by James Q Wilson at night (#GeekAlert).  It’s amazing that wisdom and insight about how organizations function is free for the taking if you can find the book and devote the time to reading it.  As someone deeply involved & interested in three complex and important organizations (the church, the university, and government) I’m eating it up.

This bit was particularly insightful.  Reminded me a great deal of many of the church leadership meetings I’ve been to over the years where we hashed out what the mission statement of the church is:

In trying to understand the success of these organizations, one has to understand how they … decided … to perform their critical task.  By critical task I mean those behaviors which, if successfully performed by key organizational members, would enable the organization to manage its critical environmental problem… for the Texas Department of Corrections, the critical environmental problem was maintaining order among numerically superior, temperamentally impulsive, and habitually aggressive inmates.  The critical task became the elaboration and enforcement of rules sufficiently precise, understandable, and inflexible that inmates would never acquire the opportunity for independent or collective action.

Notice that I have referred to tasks, not goals.  It is often the case that many analysts and executives who wish to improve an organization begin by trying to clarify its goals.  Sometimes this is useful.  But often government agencies, much more than business firms, are likely to have general, vague, or inconsistent goals about which clarity and agreement can only occasionally be obtained.  Often any effort to clarify them will result either in the production of meaningless verbiage or the exposure of deep disagreements. 

At some level, the Texas and Michigan prisons may have had similar goals – to keep order, rehabilitate inmates, incapacitate criminals, or deter would-be criminals.  But if either organization sought to improve itself by thinking harder about these goals, it probably would have discovered that it did not know how to do some of these things (rehabilitate), could only guess at whether it was able to do others (deter) and would have been internally divided over the relative importance or even meaning of others (order, incapacitation).

At Carver High, “educating children” was to some degree a purpose shared by everyone, but if a new principal had devoted himself or herself to clarifying the meaning of education, there would have occurred an interesting seminar but not much change.

Wilson, Pg.25-26.


Written by furthermusings

May 21, 2012 at 10:13 pm

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