Sunday, August 07, 2005

Managerial Travails and Thoughts on Dealing with Them

The quotation that follows has been posted outside the door of whatever office I occupied for many years. This Wednesday I reproduced it as the ‘thought for the day’ from our weekly management group meeting. It is paraphrased from Machiavelli’s The Prince:

It must be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to plan, more doubtful of success nor more dangerous to manage than the creation of a new system. For the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who would gain by the new ones.

Striking an appropriate balance between ‘following the rules’ and ‘producing results’ is a challenge managers in large organizations inevitably face. Inevitably an organization will be populated with many individuals who view their primary function as ‘following the rules’ and compelling others to do so. Individuals with such predispositions may gravitate to such professions as accountant, department of human resources staff member, librarian, public safety officer and secondary school assistant principal.

The functions of such professions are essential. In recent publications, I argue that public safety officers must be regarded as key players in international development. If accountants had been following the rules and compelling others to do so, the Enron and Worldcom debacles might have been avoided. Human Resources professionals in an organization can be guarantors of equitable treatment for all.

But no organization succeeds by simply following the rules (even assuming that was possible). Peter J.D. Wiles brilliant classic, The Political Economy of Communism provides a richly textured analysis of why this is so. Of course rules and those who enforce them are intended to facilitate the production of results. When rule making, rule enforcement and the mission of an organization are aligned this can be so. Indeed, there is a profession of “Rule Making” that claims expertise in this arena. But on not infrequently, rules and those whose primary mission is rule enforcement, impede rather than facilitating. Hence a common dilemma of the manager and grist for an extensive literature produced by managers, retired managers and management theorists.

A favorite parable of mine, taught to every prospective US Navy officer, is the story of British Admiral Horatio Nelson at the battle of Copenhagen. Nelson led a squadron into the harbor where the Danish fleet was anchored. As the battle raged and smoke from broadside after broadside obscured the scene, Nelson’s superior became concerned and hoisted the recall signal. When the flag lieutenant call this to his commander’s attention, Nelson raised a telescope to his blind eye and responded “I see no recall.” The Battle of Copenhagen, a great British naval victory is part of the Nelson legend.

But what is the lesson that I – and others – struggling with the daily travails of management should draw from it?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Sir,
Have you not heard of the bumper sticker which exclaims " Question Authority" ?
Of course, if this is not possible,...go to your office..lock the some relaxing music and meditate or dance !

11:09 PM  
Blogger dormgrandpop said...

My daughter in law had a question authority bumper sticker on her car for years and as a Quaker I am also familiar with another saying, also useful: 'speak truth to power.' Thanks for your response

7:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said... the way I went to a Quaker boarding school so that might explain a few things !

8:20 PM  

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