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May 20, 2005

A Simpler Way (Monitoring and Evaluation Edition)

I am amazed at the Forest Service’s propensity to over-complexify almost everything. I shouldn’t be. I have been watching this phenomenon for more than a quarter of a century. Monitoring and evaluation schemes are no exception to the general rule. Consider a high profile project called LUCID, (Local Unit Criteria and Indicators Development test).

The report that flowed from the LUCID test highlighted 12 pages of criteria and indicators (pp. 29-41) for monitoring and evaluation. When I saw the report I asked myself: Who is going to use such? Who will maintain it? How is it going to be integrated and used in decision making? And so on.

Arguably the task is not impossible, though. It just looks impossible to the casual observer—and to people like me who have seen such wish lists come and go for years with no tangible results.

To make such wish lists into actionable organizational information requires management and decision making systems that provide for various parts to be attended to, upgraded, improved, etc. It requires a management system that empowers people to own things they are supposed to attend to. It requires a system that gives people hope in organization and excites them in working within organization. It requires a management and decision making system that facilitates appropriate contextual framing to ensure that various parts contribute to organizational/societal wholes.

Where are these management and decision making systems? Are they largely lacking?

As I think about my ranting through the years over wish lists, I realize I have witnessed unflagging attention to a proliferation of parts with almost no attention to the organizational and managerial whole.

I guess Forest Service managers believe that these stacks of rules and regulations are their management and decision systems. I look at it and shake my head. All the rules and regulations certainly keep scores of people busy. But is it a useful way to organize, to run an organization? Are we managing the forests or just the rules?

I have spent my career reading about and highlighting managerial and organizational theory and practice that attend to cultural blind spots—management, leadership, organizational culture, etc. I have thought since I walked in the door that there was indeed a better way, and increasingly I believe there is a way that is both much better and much simpler.

For monitoring, as for the other aspects of adaptive management or management writ larger, I highly recommend W. Edwards Deming's The New Economics: For Industry, Government, Education (1994). In The New Economics Deming outlines theory and practice for monitoring and evaluation that is much simpler and much more owned-by-practitioners than what we normally see. How many Forest Service managers are familiar with Deming?

I should also note that when Jack Welch turned around corporate giant GE, he decided that even Deming's rather simple method was too complicated for them. Occam's Razor is in order. How often do we think to apply Occam's Razor?

Here are two article-length classics that help frame monitoring and evaluation, and highlight both the simplicity and excitement practitioners can find by framing things appropriately and finding simple means to deal with complex systems:

Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, "What Do We Measure and Why? Questions About the Uses of Measurement."

John J. DiIulio, Jr. "Measuring Performance When There Is No Bottom Line."

Finally, it does little good to attend mainly to evaluation and monitoring without also paying attention to management in general. For those desirous to learn a bit more about this most complex and wicked undertaking, try these:

A Simpler Way, Margaret J. Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, 1996:

A magical treatment of how to deal simply with the complexity of natural and social systems that enfolds us. Treating information and relationships as co-equals, Wheatley and Kellner-Rogers lead us forward away from rigidity and over-complexification, and toward self-organization, personal identity, and coherence.

Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Peter F. Drucker. 1973:

Still viable today, this is Ducker’s magnum opus. This is the book I wish I’d read instead of all the texts I endured in my MBA training. Although a weighty tome, it provides more practical wisdom that you’d find in a library of business books. For those who are tired of internal and external screech-monkey’s advising that we run the government like a business, pay particular attention to Ducker’s sage advice that we not. For those who gravitate to budget-based work planning and performance-based accountability, pay particular attention to Drucker’s advice to steer clear of such quick-fix nonsense. For economists (Personal disclosure: I am one) read his subchapter titled "When efficiency is a sin."

To repeat, Where is our theory? In particular, Where is the Forest Service's theory of the organization as Drucker as calls it? At least we pay some attention to theories of adaptive ecosystem management, ecology, biology, silviculture, and so on. But we seem not to do so for theories and practice of management, leadership, and so on. For those who do – e.g. those selected to sit at the feet of instructors at Harvard and elsewhere – there is almost no sharing of the knowledge. This particular blind spot would not surprise either Drucker or Deming who spent much of his time in Japan, working with managers who would listen, after having been shunned by American CEOs.

Have we learned anything about organizational management in the Forest Service? Can we learn anything? Or are we stuck with a rigid bureaucracy that shuns learning?

Posted by Dave on May 20, 2005 at 03:14 PM | Permalink


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