Last Tuesday I was on a panel discussion at our Regional Environmental Management System (EMS) workshop. I suggested that the Forest Service has a long, tortured history of moving from the last big mess to the next big mess. Perhaps the biggest policy mess in my career has been capital "P" Planning. We were among the last of big organizations to wade into comprehensive rational planning, thinking it would solve all our problems. Remember how planning was going to give us a "get out of project level NEPA free" card? Remember how it was going to give us a 5-10 year sales schedule? Remember??? Now we are entering into the realm of EMS as if it is going to be the next saving grace or organizational fix. I think we ought to proceed with caution. We don’t want EMS to turn into the Next Big Mess (NBM).
I also suggested that EMS might be a chance to move from the last big opportunity to the next big opportunity. Planning is indeed a big opportunity (if an opportunity lost on the FS). Royal Dutch Shell and others champion scenario planning, where the object is to do two simple tasks: 1) rehash the past, and 2) rehearse the future. The idea is to hone skills in planning games, so that as the universe unfolds in daily organizational life we can be ready to practice adaptive management and organizational learning.
This may be considered a planning opportunity lost, so far, by the Forest Service. We hatched Planning in the FS as comprehensive, rational planning and although we are slouching toward scenario planning we have not yet arrived. Now it may be that we are taking all the front-loaded details of comprehensive rational planning and packing them into the rear end of the adaptive management process. If so, we’ll over-emphasize that part of the process just like we did with the planning part earlier.
I worried aloud to the group about the framing of EMS, promising so much; too much? I held up a copy of Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers' A Simpler Way, suggesting that we need to keep a keen eye on finding simpler means to work and live in complex social and environmental systems.
I left two Wheatley articles with the group. The first, Bringing Life to Organizational Change, highlights why change efforts often fail, as well as how and why some succeed. The second, What do We Measure and Why? is a guide to meaningful feedback in organizations where individuals and groups take responsibility for their own contributions to the whole without the need for carrots and sticks. A third article, which I didn’t hand out, is titled When Change is Out of Control and highlights quality improvement in organizations that have abandoned the planning/control model.
Finally I left the audience with the notion captured in this Oliver Wendell Homes quote, "I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity." If we once-again overcomplicate any aspect of adaptive management/organizational learning, then we will indeed have created the next big mess. On the other hand, if we over-simplify on the near side of complexity, we’ll have indeed laid the foundation for the next big mess as well. Challenges….
To punctuate these ideas, we might want to spend some time (in another post or series of posts) exploring the fits and misfits of quality improvement efforts and organizational culture. Over the weekend I found Total Quality Management as a Cultural Phenonemon [pdf]. One quote: "Many researchers are pessimistic about radically managed change in organizational culture…." Why? I believe it has to do, among other things, with organizational defense mechanisms. Organizations have many means to ward off perceived threats to the status quo. We must be careful not to dismiss the importance of cultural framing in our talk and action moving forward with EMS.