We find complex systems theory chatter in every nook and cranny: ecosystem
management, adaptive management, business management, physics, chemistry,
weather forecasting. But what do we make of it? Dale Deiter, from the Idaho
Panhandle National Forests, recently used complex systems theory as a backdrop
in working up a vision statement for the IPNF. Perchance if we'd take time to
explore this terrain we would find ourselves working in an adaptive and
resilient organizational environment. But instead we seem to continue not to
get it for the most part. So if you are inclined to want to think about the SO
as "Support Organization" instead of "Supervisors Office" then take a look at
Dale's 'little dose of real reality'. 3 pages. d.
A Little Dose of Real Reality
Before summarizing my vision statement for the Idaho Panhandle National
Forests I wanted to add a little scientific context to the discussion. This
context is rooted in the sciences of Complexity and its cousin, Chaos.
Complexity is an interdisciplinary science that examines fundamental patterns
of behavior of complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems are
everything from neural networks in the brain, to you the person reading this,
to the stock market, to ecosystems, to the weather, and even entities such as
Districts and Forests in the Forest Service. An important feature of complex
adaptive systems is that behavior of the system is better predicted by
examining how the components of the system interact and function rather than
focussing on what parts make up the system. The behavior patterns that have
been identified with regards to complex adaptive systems appear to apply
universally and there is no reason to expect that the Idaho Panhandle National
Forests has been granted a special waiver.
It has been my understanding that with reorganization, which has turned out
to be downsizing, centralization and zoning, we wanted an organization that can
continually adapt to changing environments. I've included a couple of quotes
from two books on Complexity that I think are germane to the reorganizing
exercises that we have conducted in the past couple of years and I think that
they predict rather accurately the dysfunctional behavior that most of us have
observed and experienced.
Complex "systems tend to be somewhat more resilient and stable than
centralized structures because they are more forgiving of mistakes by any
one decision-maker and are more able to absorb unexpected environmental
fluctuations." J. Casti (1994) in COMPLEX-ification.
Thus, in our reorganizing it would be desirable to maintain the characteristics
of a complex adaptive system. These characteristics include:
Feedback and Feedforward loops: "Loops of this sort enable the system to
restructure, or at least modify, the interaction pattern among its
variables, thereby opening up the possibility for a wider range of
behaviors." Casti 1994.
In my opinion, the centralizing and zoning exercises that we have undertaken so
far lead to top down systems that suffers the frailties described below.
Non-centralized decision-making: "complex systems exhibit a diffusion of
real authority. Generally, such systems seem to have a nominal supreme
decision-maker, but in actuality the power is spread over a decentralized
structure. Actions of a number of units then combine to generate the
actual system behavior." Casti 1994.
"since it is effectively impossible to cover every conceivable situation,
top down systems are forever running into combinations of events they don't
know how to handle. They tend to be touchy and fragile, and they all too
often grind to a halt in a dither of indecision." M. Waldrop (1992) in
A little dose of my version of reality
I have included this section to supply additional context to how my vision
statement was developed. The IPNF Management Team successfully identified that
one constant that we can anticipate is change. However, unless we can travel
at speeds of near that of light, our space-time continuum will remain
relatively constant and retain its current dimensions. Said in English, the
land that we manage does not seem to be getting any smaller nor do we have any
more time than we used to. This has the predictable outcome that it is not
efficient to centralize and zone those functions that require interaction with
the land or the customers that use the land. For those functions that are
independent of the land (space) that we manage, centralizing and zoning may
well be appropriate. Modern communications allow us to exchange information at
near light speeds, but I have yet to see modern communications that could build
a fish structure or mark a tree or find a goshawk nest. Last I checked we are
still a LAND management agency. If land management is going to require some
kind of interaction with the land then I do not believe that centralizing and
zoning is a universally good "way to go". If land management is going to
require us to infinitely plan on what to plan to plan, then our current
organization is more than adequate.
On another line of thought, I mentioned previously that an important
feature of complex adaptive systems is that behavior of the system is better
predicted by examining how the components of the system interact and function
rather than focussing on what parts make up the system. Now examine two of the
decision rules used in the North Zone reorganization (1) get rid of 20 some
positions and (2) retain only 6 staff. This exercise was clearly focussed on
the parts of the system rather than on the functions and interactions that we
wanted to maintain. As an example, if the downsizing team would have focussed
on functions and interactions they would have realized that each District
defines TSI differently. Instead, the team concensus was each District gets 2
people in TSI. In this regard I must side (only a little) with any cynical
public that would wonder how we can sustainably maintain ecosystem functions
when we cannot even maintain the function of our organization.
I believe that a vision statement should be concise and easy to remember
and it should be revolutionary. So I fasted for several days in a dark room
high upon a remote table top in my house and came up with the vision that the
Idaho Panhandle National Forests should "Care for the land and serve people!"
This vision statement provides concise criteria against which to evaluate our
actions. I feel that hierarchical functions and interactions need to be
maintained to successfully achieve this vision at all scales, but I believe
that successfully achieving this vision must be accomplished from the ground
Chaos has been bantered about as the desired state for the IPNF - trying to
get across the idea that "change is good". By definition, "a chaotic system
generates behavior giving the appearance of complete randomness by means of a
purely deterministic rule." Casti 1994. Although this definition seems to
match the behavior of the IPNF, I hardly think that this is a suitable behavior
for an agency that must interact with and serve the public as we strive to
manage our nations' resources sustainably over the long term. Rather than
managing for the chaotic, I vote that we manage for the complex.
We can maintain the complex by having a truly empowered and integrated
workforce that has a wide diversity of ideas and skills. The workforce must
have an awareness that caring for the land and serving people is everyones' job
- so you have engineers informing biologists of wildlife sightings and
biologists cleaning a plugged culvert or throwing a few rocks off the road.
Whatever the collective Forest Service finds necessary to "Care for the land
and serve people" so should the individual find necessary and visa versa. It
is all of our jobs to "Care for the land and serve people." My vision is that
we reestablish our ties with the land and that we accomplish our mission in not
only an inter-disciplinary fashion, but in a intra-disciplinary fashion as well.
With regards to the organization, my vision is that the Districts be at the
top of the money food chain instead of at the bottom. Aside from a skeleton of
programs that provide for the Forest Service mission at broader scales, I
believe that the Districts should fund those services at the SO, RO, and WO
levels that the Districts find useful and necessary to care for the land and
serve people. If funding is not done from the bottom up then the overhead take
should not exceed 20 percent to maximize funding at the level where the
majority of our mission is accomplished. And before I wake up, it is my vision
that SO should stand for (in the words of one real life Forest Supervisor)
Support Organization rather than Supervisor's Office.
* Dale Deiter is a forester on the Bonners Ferry District of the Idaho
Panhandle National Forests who refers to himself as a "Caretaker of the Northeast Section of the North Zone of the IPNF". Dale recently submitted this "vision statement" to the Forest Supervisor as a part
of a visioning exercise for the IPNF.