Matching management systems to system behavior

Matt Keene and I have been having a back and forth on the topic of how management systems are built with respect to the way in which systems actually behave. Below is a record of our conversation to date.

Jonny’s thoughts
Desirability of Narrow Rigid Planning
First, I don’t place any negative value judgments on the need for rigid planning. There are good reasons for it given the nature of the world. Second, I don’t think that environmental management is different from any other kind of management in this regard. Everyone is in the same boat.  Third, the problem is not management systems. To blame the systems is like shooting the messenger.  Management systems match the world in which management takes place, and that is what is giving us trouble.

As for: “management systems being bounded (e.g. separated from others with similar work and goals, often ignoring or trying to prevent interdependence),” I think that is just fine and highly desirable. I have a long discussion of this in Chapter 3 of my book, but it comes down to the impossibility of stretching coordination, expertise, knowledge, money and personal contacts across too many organizational boundaries. Any attempt to do so is bound to fail.

Fundamentally, the world people like you and I live in is largely fixed on yearly cycles. The most important for the likes of you and me is the fiscal yearly cycle. That is when budgets are set. It also fixes an event time horizon that works for us. I know that multi-year planning and budgeting is done, but for the most part it’s fair approximation to say there is a yearly cycle. And I think this is just fine. We could not give up on this and even if we could I don’t think I’d be in favor of it. Another example is the school year. Sure kids don’t grow on a 365 day cycle, but what with seasons, budgeting for teacher salaries, Christmas coming but once a year, history and so on, school years are inescapable. I’m fine with all that.

The only good counter example I can come up with comes from the military, where in battlefield settings what matters is “commanders intent”. A lot of detailed planning may go into preparation for a fight, but once the fog of war sets in, what matters is the ability of the war fighting unit to adapt to circumstances in a way that will achieve the military objective.  What is going on here? First, we have an activity that is not subject to yearly planning cycles. Second, those in authority are highly sympathetic to the idea that while detailed planning is necessary, it is certain that the plan will break down. That is not a very common set of conditions for people like you and me and all our friends and colleagues and relatives .  I think there has been some writing about using this idea in business planning and management, but I don’t follow that stuff much so I don’t know. In any case I am skeptical that too many business settings have the conditions needed to manage by “commanders intent”.

Also, I don’t know for certain but from what I have heard from a friend of mine with a military background, the idea of “commanders intent” is not limited to tactical war fighting. It begins at very high strategic levels, and rolls downhill to tactical operations. But I have to check on that.

Why Narrow Rigid Planning is Problematic
The problem is twofold. First, other cycles are operating that are not yearly. Environment is a good example. Species population size is yearly, but forest development is not.  Or take education.  The school year is fixed on a 365 day cycle, but human development fits stages that are not fixed by counting years. I bet we could find a gazillion more examples if ever we cared.  So in this case we are forced to impose artificial measures. Or if not artificial, at least kludgy.  And if not artificial or kludgy, then imprecise. For example, I bet the ecologists know how to measure intermediate measures of “stem exclusion” in forest development.  I assume these measures are useful in ecology, but  even if they aren’t, I know they are useful when a program in forest regeneration has to be justified on a yearly basis.

So part of the problem is this. Can we develop measures that can be used on a yearly basis and also be valid for whatever other cycle is involved? If we can, great. If not we get silliness and meaningless measures.  And to add insult to injury, we are forced to make decisions and guide our lives based on those silly and meaningless measures.  It is hard for me to think of an example right now but I’m sure I could come up with one over time. If you think of one, let me know.

The second part of the problem is the need to adapt to circumstances (complex systems and all that), while keeping fixed objectives in mind. This gets us into a lot of trouble because it can make us look as if we are not executing a plan or making intermediate progress. The problem is that we are (and should be) accountable to people who do not understand the complications we live by. And why should they? It’s not their expertise. Also, to ask them to understand us would mean asking them to also understand the complications of all the other people (with different expertise than ours) who report to them. And that is for our direct supervisors only. Each of them as to justify our work to their supervisors, and so on and so on. A structure of expertise and decision making like that cannot exist. Thus asking for fixed measures that can be fit into a yearly cycle is adaptive for the system as a whole. Any other approach would lead to anarchy.

What Might Work as a Solution
So what is needed is a dual system that is loosely coupled. There has to be enough freedom of action in one to make sense with respect to non-yearly cycles and to changing circumstances, but also to be mapped in a half way defensible way to fixed activities on a 365 day cycle. Everyone I know who is good at his or her job finds some way to do this.  But nobody I know has thought about a systematic way to develop these kinds of management systems.

As for evaluation co-evolving, I’m  not sure what Andy had in mind, but I think I agree. I just wrote a piece on my blog about how evaluation can be understood in terms of four nested niches – 1) all potential users of evaluation, 2) actual users of evaluation, 3) people who identify themselves as evaluators, and 4) the intellectual traditions within evaluation. “Using an evolutionary biology view to connect the intellectual development of evaluation and the development of the evaluation community

Matt’s original message
“I believe that one of the fundamental problems with environmental/natural resource management and conservation is that our management systems are not well matched to the systems we intend to manage.

That is, our management systems are relatively rigid and static (or we try to make them so), bounded (eg separated from other with similar work and goals, often ignoring or trying to prevent interdependence), linear (eg in planning, action and expectations), resistant and insensitive to change, and so on. The systems we intend to manage are, in many ways, the opposite – open, dynamic, adaptive, self organizing, inter-connected/dependent and “curvy”.

This dissonance makes everything just so darn confusing. Let’s be cognizant of our opportunity to make a choice of whether we avoid or create the same problem in environmental evaluation. In fact I believe it may be evaluation’s (with environmental eval playing a major role) responsibility to take the lead in understanding, describing and solving it.

Seems that Andy’s suggested approach is a step in that direction and opens the door for environmental evaluation to co-evolve and adapt along with the relevant groups of actors, who are, as Andy rightly says, the ones who make the decisions…and, as I would say, the ones on whose values the definition and achievement of sustainability (and the like) goals ultimately depends.

Looks like this could be a great conversation at the EEN Pacific Forum in September. Looking forward to it.

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