Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

May 18, 2011

Freedom to Focus

Filed under: Strategy — by Mark Chubb on May 18, 2011

On a recent long flight home, I had a little bit of time to catch up on my reading. Two articles caught my attention, and despite their divergent topics, I was struck with the sense that their insights were somehow related.

In the first piece (sorry, subscription required), New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell explored our understandings of innovation, particularly in the technological realm. He observed that the organizational cultures best suited to developing innovations are often very different from those required to adapt or advance them. The sorts of cultures required to do the latter often find it just as difficult to exploit their improvements as the former find it to advance innovations from ideas to prototypes.

Ostensibly, Gladwell sought to explain the pattern of innovation by tracing the evolution of the humble personal computer mouse. In doing so, he drew an unusual analogy between the Stanford lab that developed the original idea, the Xerox PARC research and development center that refined and applied it to a desktop computing platform, and the Apple Corporation, which successful brought the device to market, and the ways in which the Soviet Union, the United States and Israel developed, refined, and applied sophisticated electronic technologies to war-fighting. This was less a story about the power of ideas or the people who promote them than the sorts of environments that form, attract, employ and deploy expertise for comparative advantage.

Gladwell argued persuasively that hierarchical, highly bureacratic organizations may do a good job of developing new ideas, but they often have great difficulty determining which ones to back. Decentralized, entrepreneurially-oriented organizations do a much better job of adapting ideas, but sometimes become so obsessed with what they think their business is about that they miss important opportunities right under their noses to achieve higher levels of success. As it happens, you need a really sophisticated hybrid of these two types to make innovations pay off, but even that does not guarantee organizational advancement as opposed to the advancement of the innovation itself. It’s worth noting too that even such a limited definition of success often requires a pretty hostile, high-stakes environment that demands time-critical decision-making to motivate an adequate sense of purpose and urgency.

While I was still digesting these insights, I read Marc Ambinder‘s National Journal cover story on the Navy SEAL Team that executed the mission on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbotabad. I was struck by the similarities between Gladwell’s observations and the way our leaders positioned this mission in the nation’s military-intelligence complex.

Clearly, the success of the SEALs was a product of many factors, not the least of which was an incredible amount of preparation and raw courage. At the same time, the circumstances that made these investments pay-off seem to reflect hard-learned lessons about the importance of developing strong but nimble networks among intelligence, law enforcement, and military specialists. Just as no single SEAL can claim credit for the mission’s success, neither can any one agency or discipline. This was clearly a team effort.

The dynamics that created the necessary and sufficient conditions for success seem to be the same as those Apple applied to their development and deployment of the Macintosh personal computer, which was the first mass produced machine to feature a graphical user interface and a mouse. Breaking down silos between disciplines and not just authorizing people to communicate and collaborate but actually creating an imperative for them to do so, provides people with freedom of motion without sacrificing their focus on critical outcomes.

Those operating within the homeland security mission sphere often confront a hostile bureaucratic operating environment. Despite these conditions, homeland security practitioners still manage to develop some pretty entrepreneurial ideas beyond the purely conceptual phase. While these efforts may generate long term success of the mission as currently conceived, one important lesson from the demise of bin Laden is the tradeoff we face if our efforts to achieve long-term success (win the war) come at the expense of the operational flexibility required to rack up high-value wins (success in individual battles). Leaving enough room for skilled and committed operatives to collaborate requires leaders to create the imperative for individuals to put aside organizational differences when high risk decisions can generate high rewards.

P.S.: Also on the value of collaboration — my favorite post-bin Laden joke comes via Cpl Willie Apiata, VC of the New Zealand Special Air Service on Twitter: “RT @_socialize bin Laden’s death reminds us all that working from home is not a long-term option.”

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by William R. Cumming

May 18, 2011 @ 6:59 am

Terrific post Mark but sorry you were not there first nor was Malcom!

Extract from a Wikipedia entry:

Mary Parker Follett
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Mary Parker Follett
Born 3 September 1868
Massachusetts, United States
Died 18 December 1933 (65 years old)
Boston, Massachusetts
Occupation Social worker turned management theorist and consultant and writer
Nationality American
Genres Non-fiction
Subjects Management and Politics

Mary Parker Follett (3 September 1868 – 18 December 1933) was an American social worker, management consultant and pioneer in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behavior. She also authored a number of books and numerous essays, articles and speeches on democracy, human relations, political philosophy, psychology, organizational behavior and conflict resolution. Along with Lillian Gilbreth, Mary Parker Follett was one of two great women management gurus in the early days of classical management theory. She admonished overmanaging employees, a process now known as micromanaging, as “bossism” and she is regarded by some writers as the “mother” of Scientific Management. As such she was one of the first women ever invited to address the London School of Economics, where she spoke on cutting-edge management issues. She also distinguished herself in the field of management by being sought out by President Theodore Roosevelt as his personal consultant on managing not-for-profit, non-governmental, and voluntary organizations. In her capacity as a management theorist, Mary Parker Follett pioneered the understanding of lateral processes within hierarchical organizations (which recognition led directly to the formation of matrix-style organizations, the first of which was DuPont, in the 1920s), the importance of informal processes within organizations, and the idea of the “authority of expertise”–which really served to modify the typology of authority developed by her German contemporary, Max Weber, who broke authority down into three separate categories: legitimate, traditional and charismatic.[1]

Follett was born in Massachusetts and spent much of her early life there. In September 1885 she enrolled in Anna Ticknor’s Society to Encourage Studies at Home[2]. In 1898 she graduated from Radcliffe College, but was denied a doctorate at Harvard on the grounds that she was a woman.


Comment by William R. Cumming

May 18, 2011 @ 7:03 am


It just makes it easier for those black heliocopters to stop by!

You and other bloggers and commentators on HLSWatch.com are also welcome to stop by for a short or long visit.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 18, 2011 @ 9:07 am

Bill, reading your comments made me realize that I had perhaps done a disservice to Mr. Gladwell’s thesis. To be fair, I don’t think he cited collaboration once as a characteristic of organizational innovation or effectiveness. But I did read that into his remarks.

It might have been more accurate that Gladwell’s observation related more to the role of synthesis than collaboration. And, in fact, the sorts of things he found bureaucratic and entrepreneurial organizations most effective at doing was innovating through analysis.

Synthesis on the other hand requires an organization not only to see what needs to be done but also resourceful enough to see good ideas wherever they may be found, not just in the organization’s primary domain of expertise. To this end, Gladwell made the observation that quality is a direct byproduct of quantity. One success may require many, many failures.

Failure is not something bureaucrats or entrepreneurs like to think very much about. When they detect failure, they often respond to it in much more hostile ways than hybrid organizations that are very mission-driven and open to opportunities. As I observed, these organizations tend to be more collaborative as well.

You are quite right to tout the pioneering accomplishments and contributions of Mary Parker Follett to leadership and management theory. Her work serves as yet another example of the importance of an outside perspective and a willingness to look for solutions wherever they may be found. Moreover, he life story points to the importance of persistence, which, of course, is required if one is to turn quantity into quality.

At the risk of undermining my own arguments, I think it is also fair to note that Gladwell was making a point that innovators can exist in any organizational type. But the successful development and deployment of innovation may well depend on all three types of organizations. Bureaucracies tend to be very good at specialization, which often leads to insights others might miss because of background noise. Entreprenuerial organizations are good at building opportunities on ideas, but tend to become too focused to make use of novel ideas at the edge of their domains. Hybrid, mission-driven organizations are generally not very good idea generators, but they do an excellent job of applying others’ ideas in novel ways that lead to more innovation by still other people.

Bureaucratic organizations are tend to be input-focused. Entrepreneurs are more output-focused. Hybrid, mission-driven organizations are outcome focused, which tends to make them process and product agnostic. All of these organizational types depends on a sense of purpose, but the differences in the sense, direction, and intensity of their purposes has big effects on the way people operate within them, and their relationships to their environments.

The lesson: It’s a big, beautiful world, and trying to make everyone think, act, and do as we do is the surest and shortest path to stagnation, if not outright failure.

Comment by Mark Chubb

May 18, 2011 @ 9:15 am

Bill, thanks too for the invite to your place. I would love to take you up on the offer, but it will have to wait until I take delivery of a new black helicopter to replace the one I lost in a minor military mishap a couple of weeks ago. (No worries, no one important was hurt but the helo was write-off.)

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 18, 2011 @ 9:40 am

Thanks for the informative comment Mark. This is gross oversimplication–something I am known for–but in my opinion [IMO] bureacracies tend to do what they have done before and what they can do! Thus few rewards for innovation but perhaps more important few Bureacracies IMO know what they should be doing and can prioritize in any meaningful way. Something the public administration field should be analyzing closely.

Thus, the federal government constantly reorganizing in a wasteful fashion to accomplish two major goals-give appointees a blank slate [this never really happens] and pretend that the task, mission, goal whatever is not currently addressed by federal policies that drastically need rethinking.

I don’t agree with Rand Paul and his statement to abolish FEMA as creating a moral hazard but so far except on my blog have not seen any defense of FEMA except on Disaster Zone [Eric Holderman’s blog]. Hey he and I are compromised by our past so I would like to see a vigorous defense mounted by someone or some org for FEMA programs, functions, and activities. Strangely perhaps no FEMA Director or Administrator has been an “articulate” advocated for FEMA programs, functions, or activities. Usually left to subordinates or just not done at all. Clinton’ advocacy of FEMA was largely just being supportive of its economic stimulus function not on its hard issues, like referring between DOJ and DOD on military/civil issues [often ME!}!

Comment by William R. Cumming

May 18, 2011 @ 1:12 pm

Because many written orders from the President to FEMA in the past were not read by appointees and managers, did not read for whatever reason, or they wanted to do their own thing, often those orders lay fallow awaiting some kind of enforcement by an overworked WH. The real discipline came through the budget not policy docs like PDDs, NSDD’s, or HSPD’s that often were ignored because the FEMA principals could not somehow achieve linkage between current or proposed budgets and implementation or execution of the WH written order. Executive Orders have no real built in policing either. So Command and Control essentially relies for any President on those willing to be commanded and controlled. Those with independent political bases often not commanded or controlled so thereby the demise of strong willed Cabinet officialdom with independent judgements. I post this comment because after citing Mary Parker Follett it is clear most federal elected officials and appointees and managers don’t really want a team approach meaning respect for others opinions or perhaps obtaining a second opinion and just want execution. This explains in part the Presidents and their infatuation with the military. Actually in my experience many in the military made flag rank because they knew which orders to obey and which to disregard. Many orders are just plain silly or obviously impossible to implement. For a quick take on the problem watch the British series the TUDORS and see Henry the VIIIs frustration and he could chop off heads. I am sure any normal President has more than one time where that power is envied. With hubris, ego, and loyalty dominating over competence in Washington it becomes difficult for predictions of events being managed in any coherent way whatever their significance in the short or long term.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>