USFS Deeply Flawed Planning Culture
The US Forest Service has gravitated to a planning culture, believing wrongly that the task of management is planning, control, no-surprises, etc. The organizational culture is one that tries to fit the world to its expectations rather than to continuously adapt to fit the world as it unfolds—while simultaneously maintaining some organizational continuity, improvement, learning, etc.
Here are a few key problem areas, highlighting belief systems than underlie them.
- Belief that formal plans are a good way to resolve issues. Belief that planning is more an organizational solution than it is a problem. Lost is the ability to be continuously adaptive, with multiple actors at multiple levels playing off one another as the world unfolds before them. Remember that at least half the working environment is in the realm of the unexpected, rather than the expected. Plans tend toward bureaucratic ossification. Lost too is the worth of scenario planning: the ability to keep several futuristic scenarios in mind as a mean to rehearse the future, rather than trying to predict the future.
- Belief that formal hierarchical check systems will keep system players in line (e.g. monitoring and evaluation with oversight at 'higher' levels). Lost is the need to be constantly vigilant to what's important to you at your appropriate level in an adaptive organization. Instead people play games to try to win approval at so-called higher levels. Lost also is the need to attend to nuance, paradox, parody, irony, etc.
- Belief that wicked problems (or social messes are they are sometimes called) can be attended to at one level (e.g. a forest plan), in detailed ways that provide for rigid social and organizational accountability. Lost is the ability to view multiple layers of complexity while adapting at the local setting, recognizing other contexts while attempting both 'fit' and 'contribution to the whole.'
- Belief in Decentralized Planning: Unwillingness to embrace policy changes, instead invoking images of organizational decentralization and pretending that all (or most all) can be addressed at the local scale. At the same time planning tends to centralize and standardize much so that the organization tends to control the thoughts and actions of subordinates via pushes for 'consistency,' 'conformity,' etc.
- Belief in Centralized Control Systems and Budgeting: Attempting to tightly control budgets in the hierarchy, while pretending that planning is largely decentralized.
- Belief in linear progress, and related denial of organizational defense mechanisms that keep organizations stuck in status quo thought, action, etc.
- Belief in primacy of efficiency and effectiveness, denying that administrative politics requires consideration of alternative ends as well as consideration of alternative means toward achieving ends. The words psychology and politics are seldom heard in the Forest Service, but efficiency is ever-present. Seldom do administrators delve deeper to ferret out: Efficiency (or effective) at what? Efficient for whom? Efficient for how long? Efficient by what standard?
Note that these 'problem areas' relate closely to and stem from ideas from Henry Mintzbeg's The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe's Managing the Unexpected, Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey's How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation, J. Edward Russo and Paul Schoemaker's Decision Traps, Ronald Heifetz's Leadership Without Easy Answers. They also related to Deborah Stone's Policy Paradox, James March's A Primer on Decision Making: How Decisions Happen, Robert Jervis' System Effects: Complexity in Political and Social Life, …. They also relate to numerous works dealing with Learning Organizations and Adaptive Management.