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June 10, 2005

Why Not Direct Everything: An Iverson Family Tale

We are near the end of the comment period for Forest Service Manual and Handbook directives relative to the new National Forest Management Act rule.

For some time my general advice on running organizations has been to follow A Simpler Way (for example see this, this, this, this).

In keeping with A Simpler Way, I recommend that we abandon directives for planning, and revisit the “rule” to find a simpler way to deal with the complexities and wickedness inherent in any strategic planning endeavor.

I also recommend that we devolve all planning guidance to an internet-based knowledge system that is “open source,” allowing many who wish to do so to propose methods and techniques, and allowing many to participate in vetting these. This way we will be able to see who likes what, and who does not, who uses what, etc. There will likely still be a place for some manual and handbook directives for routine things in the Forest Service, but not necessarily any for the art of planning.

I have little faith that we the Forest Service will do this. But at least one can hope. While awaiting FS responses to comments on the so-called Planning Directives, I designed a little tale to keep us mildly amused:

Iverson family Tale: Professional practice directed by manuals and handbooks
On the way to work the other day I thought about manuals and handbooks guiding the professional lives of my brothers and sisters. First I tried to imagine my folk singer brother relying on a manual and handbook for his gigs. Horrible thought! Then I thought about my artist sister relying on a manual and handbook for her landscapes and other works. No better! Then I thought about my investment banker brother relying on a manual and handbook in moving money around the bond markets of the world. Nope! Then I thought of my brother-in-law managing a large county mental health program. No manual and handbook there either. Finally I thought of my small-business-entrepreneur sister and brother. I couldn’t imagine them relying on a manual and handbook either.

So I switched gears. How about my medical practitioners? How about my financial advisors? And so on. The only ones I could imagine following closely a plan would be house and general construction contractors. But here too there is no "manual and handbook."

Lastly, I thought about other aspects of my professional life. During the decade and a half I spent in city government I don’t think we ever felt naked without manuals and handbooks, although we did have our share of ordinances, building codes, laws, and what not. During the short time I spend in the corporate offices at Weyerhauser Corp. I don’t remember seeing people consulting manuals and handbooks at every turn.

A question lingers: Why is it that the Forest Service tries to reduce ALL to manual and handbook directives? Why would anyone try to reduce the art of strategic thinking, strategic planning to manual and handbook directives? Have we bought into some fallacies regarding how the world works? Is this ‘normal’ government practice? Maybe. But maybe that’s why there is so much pressure to outsource.

When I first saw the Prototype Plan teams playing with new ideas on planning I said to myself, “Finally, we have escaped our rational planning, control freak mentalities.” But my relief was short-lived. First came the NFMA rule to shatter my hopes and dreams. Then came the Manual and Handbook directives. So now once-again it is likely to be:

Back the inner sanctum of the bureaucracy! Keep your eyes on the manuals and handbooks and try to remember that somewhere ‘out there’ there are forest and trees and birds and fish and other charismatic megafauna (along with the many other creatures great and small). Mark Twain called these other creatures the higher animals. I wonder if he met some government planners who helped him draw that conclusion?

Don’t dwell on what it might take to manage ourselves and other humans and our relationships with what we call “Nature.” Instead, manage the Manuals and the Handbooks and see if there is any time left to think about land, and natural and social systems workings. If there happens to be any time left over, be sure use it to build ever-more-complex manuals and handbooks.

To get a feel for how the FS Manual and Handbook (and the mentality that creates them) tend to work on us, I recommend Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron.”

Posted by Dave on June 10, 2005 at 10:02 AM | Permalink


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