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June 30, 2005

Catch-22 and Maladaptive Organizations

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 should be required reading for both incoming and seasoned professionals in government service. It lays out some of the most fundamentally challenging dilemmas of organizational life. For example, How does one get anything useful done? How does one hope to effect any organizational betterment? How does one even survive?

Whenever reflective practitioners work to get something done that transcends “the rules,” or seek to make the rules themselves better, they are faced with a variety of Catch-22s. {For the uninitiated, here is a definition, drawn from Dictionary.com: Catch-22: A situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently illogical rules or conditions.}

Sometimes it seems hopeless. Yet amid the absurdities and contradictions of bureaucracy, there is still a ray of hope. There are those ‘small wins’ when a few people get together to inquire into better methods, better “whatever,” often done just outside formal organizational perimeters. And there are folks in academia who offer help and advice to do what often seems impossible, given the absurdities our organizations.

To illustrate the extent of the Catch-22 phenomenon at work in the Forest Service, let’s explore my personal work environment. My Forest Service work falls generally into three areas: collaboration, economics, and monitoring and evaluation. Let’s look at each, in turn.

In the Forest Service we have been admonished, particularly by the last two Administrations, to “work collaboratively with the public.” It makes so much sense that we should have thought of it ourselves. In fact we did. Forest Service founder Gifford Pinchot advocated collaboration from the get-go. But there is a catch, Catch-22.

Every form of collaboration seems to be so encumbered with rules and regulations, procedures and protocols—written and unwritten—that the very spark of energy required for effective collaboration dies a bureaucratic death.

Even if sparks of energy remain in any of us, would-be “outside collaborators” have to live within the confines of our rules and regulations, procedures and protocols. So even if we have sparks of life, our collaborators will not, at least not in the longer term if our rules and procedures prove too complex and cumbersome. Judge for yourself. How would you like to be an outsider, asked to collaborate the federal level, Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA, etc, as well as the state level department of natural resources, bureau of parks and recreation, etc., as well as regional and local level government and private organizations? Remember that each entity is comes with its unique rules and regulations.

We all deal with economics every day—for better or worse, richer or poorer... What we do each day isn’t rocket science, as they say. In fact it’s pretty simple stuff, albeit staged in a world filled with complex and politically wicked problems.

What needs to be done with economics in the Forest Service is, arguably, not much different than what we do in our families. The same adaptive management economics we do at home would suffice for much of what the Forest Service needs to make decisions on projects, plans, programs, etc. But there is a catch, Catch-22.

Forest Service, like other government bureaus, has procedures and protocols for, say, economic or financial efficiency apart from those of adaptive management. Why? Someone who had studied W. Edwards Deming’s The New Economics or Peter Drucker’s writings would likely be scratching their head wondering why the government would be so foolish as to think that the two were not one in the same. Me too. See, my earlier post, Cost Benefit Analysis: Wonder Tool or Mirage, for example.

Monitoring and Evaluation
What could be easier more natural than monitoring and evaluation? Every child practices it as part of the adaptive management of self, to learn to function within family, community, and broader realms of society and culture.

It seems so simple to keep track of what you do, what it accomplishes, and how it interrelates with recent updates in accepted (or standard) practice and theory. Any responsible professional, or group of professionals, would naturally gravitate to routine monitoring and evaluation—as part of reflective practice—in order to not be an embarrassment to the profession or to the organizations for whom they work.

In fact, however, there are whole bunches of Catch-22s associated with monitoring and evaluation, as there are with most functions in bureaucracy. First, there are the “rules,” that range from the RPA/Forest Planning Rule and a host of other Rules (which extend law through regulation), to various Manuals & Handbooks, and other guidance that have the internal cultural status of requirements. These rules and regulations are impressive to the casual observer—and perhaps only to the casual observer. Until recently they have proven to be a dead weight to practitioners, too cumbersome and complex to be less harmful than helpful. Any bets on whether they continue to be?

Second, there are the courts and “case law” that largely reflect both the promises made by the government (legislative and administrative) in the past, and the gap between those promises as interpreted by the courts and the realities of performance by government agencies as brought up by complainants. In many cases, but certainly in not all cases, interpretation by the courts tends more to confuse than to clarify. Such tendency is heightened by some administrators (often cheer-led by some legislators) who believe the courts to have over-stepped their rightful bounds as interpreters of legislative will. So, add mountains of case law to the mountains of directives.

Third, monitoring and evaluation practice is embedded in the over-arching frame of adaptive management, including adaptive planning, adaptive assessment, etc. all working under the guiding light of organizational learning. If other parts of the adaptive management scheme prove to be maladaptive, then monitoring and evaluation tends toward absurdity as a result. In such a circumstance, the highest importance must be given to monitoring and evaluation of the adaptive management process itself. But there is a catch, Catch-22—as we will see shortly.

Fourth, if the organizational culture is itself maladaptive, it will prevent adaptivity in any part. Defensive reasoning and organizational defense mechanisms provide a self-sealing maladaptive cocoon around whatever organization tends to be in place at any time. {Note: Here is a definition for Defensive reasoning: Whenever individuals or organizations are free to act as they wish and yet choose to act in ways contrary to their own interests. Chris Argyris, Overcoming Organizational Defenses, p. 10 }

There are no doubt other Catch-22s that might be highlighted. The list goes on and on. But this should be enough to see generally the character of the problem at hand for would-be reflective practitioners.

Where to from here?
We are left with a variant of Ghandi’s advice: “Nothing you do in life will make a difference. Do it anyway.” Plant some seeds for individual and organizational betterment. Plant idea-seeds that at once champion relationships and information. Find a way to deal the complexities of life that is at once simple and life-nurturing. Find a way that honors people and others who live on Earth.

A recurring theme of my blogging is to find “a simpler way.” Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Roger A Simpler Way provides a very useful portal into this way of organizing—this way out of the Catch 22 trap. In general, Meg Wheatley’s writings provide interesting first-steps along the path.

But we cannot even begin the journey if we remain silent, steadfast supporter of the status quo. In the conclusion to one of the chapters of Overcoming Organizational Defenses: Facilitating Organizational Learning, Chris Argyris says, in part:

Organizational defensive routines make it highly likely that individuals, groups, intergroups, and organizations will not detect and correct the errors that are embarrassing or threatening because the fundamental rules are to (1) bypass the errors and act as if that were not being done, (2) make the bypass undiscussable, and (3) make its undiscussability undiscussable.

These conditions, in turn, make it difficult to engage the organizational defense routines in order to interrupt them and reduce them. Indeed, the very attempt to engage them will lead to the defensive routines’ being activated and strengthened. This, in turn, reinforces and proliferates the defensive routines.

Individuals feel helpless about changing organizational defensive routines for at least two reasons. One, they feel the change is hopeless because the cure appears to be one that will make the illness worse. Two, they do not wish to be seen as deliberately making the situation worse by opening up a can of worms

.The result is something equivalent to an underground economy—namely, a gray organization that is alive and flourishing yet officially considered dead or nonexistent. This, of course, makes it possible for the gray organization to remain alive and to flourish. We now have the underground management managing the aboveground…. (p. 43)
We each play a bit part in the social drama of organizational and cultural life. We choose to play as we will. What role do you choose?

Posted by Dave on June 30, 2005 at 10:55 AM | Permalink


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