Friday, June 29, 2012

Authority v authoritarian

A couple of issues have recently come into my frame:
  • Authority that becomes authoritarian
  • Institutional sustainment that subsumes mission
Re the first point: authority. We're not talking about moral authority here; we're looking at positional authority and the potential abuses of positional authority. Who in the project domain has such a position? There are two:
  • Project manager (or portfolio manager, or program manager or executive, depending on scale)
  • Governance board (the policy and control guys, to include the project sponsor)

Every leader and every manager wants authority to back up their responsibilities. The Principle of Subsidiarity says put authority with the lowest competent authority in the pecking order. Everyone I know buys into that idea. But, for purposes of discussion, let's just stick with the PM.

What's expected of authority?

  • Decisiveness: to include willingness and capability to make a decision, to make it timely, with to have sufficient moral authority that it has stickiness. (I hate it when it comes unstuck!)
  • Order and protection: hold off the barbarians at the gate so that lean, effective work can be done
  • One stop shopping: in other words, not a committee; and, the buck stops here and does not circulate in an endless do-loop of do-nothings
  • Ability and willingness to say yes: (this is different from just making a decision) almost anyone in a bureaucracy can say no. That's what bureaucracy is for... to distribute and diversify the risk. Saying 'no' is the same as executing Plan A: Do nothing; often that is the low-risk thing to do. (See: Congress, US, 2012)
  • Overcome the ankle biters: Closely related to 'saying yes', this is a little different: it means overruling all the staffers that say no.
  • Keep your head when others don't: This is the pressure thing, and the antidote to panic. (See: Mann-Gulch tragedy)
  • Transparency: this may be the meme of the day in the decision and authority business, but it's really code for fair and equitable treatment of all the constituents, though some will lose and some will win. It doesn't mean everybody gets a medal. And, this is different from lack of secrecy: Secret has its operational purpose in some spaces. (See: OSB, dead)
So, what happens when authority gets authoritarian?
  • Intolerance for an alternate point of view.. that is, intolerance for decision inputs that are not convenient
  • Intolerance for not adhering to doctrine... that is, our way or the highway
  • Secrecy without operational purpose... no time to justify to the rif raff
  • Panic decision making that leads to sacrifice of the little people
  • Decision making without consideration of the sacrifice of the little people (See: Stalin, J) 
  • No decision making at all... just stall
  • No consultation because the decider is self-certain
  • The inner circle is small... group think may be all there is
An interesting bit of trivia is given to us by Daniel Kahneman in his book "Thinking, fast and slow": in an authoritrian regime, people can be persuaded to accept a false message by the simple expedient of frequent repetition. Say it enough, and it's believed. And, you don't even have to repeat the whole message. Through a phenomenon known as "priming", the message is effectively repeated by just touching on the priming message.

What about institutional sustainment?

Instutional sustainment is about survival of the enterprise.
Fair enough
What if sustainment requires compromise of mission?
Now, we've got an issue. The legitimacy of the enterprise may hang in the balance.
Questions: Should the enterprise go out of business if it can't sustain the mission, or the other way around: change the mission to fit what's sustainable?

My experience is that in the private sector, it's the latter: change missions. That's ok; that's destructive innovation

In the public sector, perhaps it's not so simple: the mission may be everything. If this or that institution can't make a go of it, change the institution.

Now, the hard part is when authortitarian governance intersects with instutional sustainment. It may morph into sustaining the authority over both mission and institution. At the very least, the authoritarian will seek to sustain the structure that gives sustenance to power.

What's the remedy? Well, the Arab spring is one example. Upset elections are another. In the private sector, it's activist shareholders. In the project business, it's solidarity among team leaders.

Bottom line: it's good until it's bad. Then, it has to be resisted and fixed.

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