Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dis-Articulated Brain Waves

I'm in my last semester of school, and somehow it seems like the classes I'm taking really support and contribute significantly to the others. And I seem to finally have gotten enough into "school" mode that the workload doesn't feel completely overwhelming. Which means I have time to process what's going on in the readings, make sense of what's said in class, and basically cogitate on how it all fits into the big picture. I even have time to read some of the stuff *I* want to read. I kinda wish it hadn't taken until my last semester to get to that point, but heck, I'm grateful that I've gotten to that point *at all.*

This post feels like it's going to be nebulous until I work through exactly what I want to say...I know there's something there, but I haven't quite figured out what it is yet.

The classes I'm taking this semester are Managing Differences: Resolving Conflict and Negotiating Agreements; Performance Management; and Federal Acquisition: Concept and Management. They all seem to relate to each other. Federal Acquisition requires an understanding of useful performance management measures, especially as more and more government services are provided by contractors. Negotiation/Conflict Resolution is all about making relationships work--finding the best solutions for both sides, which is important in structuring contracts. And Performance Management can provide useful tools to determine if negotiated agreements are functional within the context of today's governance structure.

If I'm not entirely paying attention to the syllabus for a particular week, I find myself struggling to remember which readings are for which class because they overlap so much.

And then I started reading The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, by Peter Senge. It was mentioned in one of my classes last semester, and I took note that it might be worthwhile reading. My uncle saw it written on a list on my fridge and brought me his copy, warning me that he thought it was boring. I've read about four chapters of it so far, and think it's kind of funny how perspective makes all the difference in how we approach things. Uncle Heathen is very much an individualist...he owns his own business, and I think, pretty much always has. He *would* think a treatise on organizational psychology would be dry because he's not had much need or cause to cogitate on how large organizations function (I'm sorry if I'm putting words in your mouth here, Uncle H). I think the book is fascinating. And I see *a lot* of Coast Guard culture articulated in the book: mental models, life-long learning/personal mastery, shared vision...any of that sound familiar to Coastie-readers? I'm actually kinda surprised the book isn't on the Commandant's Recommended Reading List...maybe it is, and I just missed it.

One of the major themes of Performance Management is how the "wicked issues" government faces require a network approach, instead of the traditional bureaucratic/hierarchical approach. There's a great quote from The Fifth Discipline, "the basic meaning of a "learning organization" [is] an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future." I just realized that those two sentences make more sense put together in my head than they come across just plunked down next to each other like they are here.

I guess the connection that I see is that we need networks of "learning organizations" to address the wicked problems that plague government and society today. It isn't enough just to have one or two highly functioning pieces and expect the rest of the network to run smoothly based on their contribution. It *could* work that way, I suppose, but it would be a struggle...kind of like when everyone relies on one or two team members to do all the heavy lifting, instead of everyone contributing simultaneously.

Oh, side note: I read an article from Harvard Business Review, "The Discipline of Teams," by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith (it was for Federal Acquisitions). One portion of the article is about the differences between "teams" and "working groups." I took a little umbrage with their distinction between the two. Working groups have: "a strong, clearly focused leader; individual accountability; the group's purpose is the same as the broader organizational mission; individual work products; runs efficient meetings; measures its effectiveness by its influence on others (such as financial performance of the business); discusses, decides and delegates." Teams, on the other hand, have: "shared leadership roles; individual and mutual accountability; specific team purpose that the team itself delivers; collective work products; encourages open-ended discussion and active problem-solving meetings; measures performance directly by assessing collective work products; discusses, decides and does real work together." Jeesh, from that description, I wonder if I *ever* worked with a team...which, of course, I know I have--on MAUI and KISKA if no other places. But some parts of the working group definitely appeal to me more than the chaos of working with their definition of a team.

But back to the learning organization/wicked problem thing--it would just be better if more organizations *were* learning organizations. And maybe that's where the performance management aspect comes in. One of the first articles we read for that class, "Why Measure Performance? Different Purposes Require Different Measures," by Robert Behn, breaks the reasons for doing performance measurement into eight categories: evaluate, budget, control, motivate, promote, celebrate, learn and improve. But Behn emphasizes that the overarching reason is to improve...improve the services, improve the organization, improve well, performance.

I had an absolute brain wave in class just now. The professor had a very simplistic graphic that depicted the way that government currently functions as a network, with federal, state, local, contractors, sub-contractors, non-profits, citizens/clients all interconnected. Somehow that made me flash on the graphic from The Fifth Discipline of systems thinking. So the question that comes to my mind is are "learning organizations" more effective at accomplishing their goals in the new governance network? I'd have to say they are, based on their inherent ability to adapt to changing environments.

A lot of this may seem elementary and obvious to many folks, and I *know* it didn't come out at all coherently. But it's important to me to make sense of it in my own mind, kind of self-discovery, dis-articulation of the wheel, if you will. And boy, is it good to get it all out of my head. There's definitely more performance measures can meaningfully contribute to learning organizations, how learning organizations can help to make sense of governance networks.

I was whining to my sister a couple of days ago that while I really like the Performance Management class, I always walk out of there feeling like an absolute stupidiot. Everybody else seems to be able to take far-flung references and make them make sense during the class discussion. It feels like anything that I contribute is depressingly two-dimensional, with no added analysis or connections. It's my goal for this semester to work on that. To approach readings more analytically, to tie non-obviously related concepts together in a meaningful and insightful way, to maybe even...think original thoughts. I don't think I'm quite there, especially with this post, which is discouragingly scattered. But the seeds are there. Just need me a big bucket of man-u-re, some water and plenny sunlight.

1 comment:

Commandant said...

The Fifth Discipline is the only text I use in the graduate course in Public Policy and Public Administration that I teach at GWU, Leadership in Large, Complex Organizations.

Aside from the Fifth Discipline, Systems Thinking, the two that I focus on are Personal Mastery and Mental Models.