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HomeNewsArchivesSource Manager's Journal: Why Don't Things Work? Part 2

Source Manager's Journal: Why Don't Things Work? Part 2

The previous column explored the "what" of things that don't work. It focused on products and services delivered by organizations in all three sectors, private, public and non-profit. This week's entry looks at the "why." It is a complicated question, and the answers that follow can generally be prefaced by "I think…." Readers' comments and alternative explanations are invited.
Here goes: six reasons why things don't work.
People get used to anything: There is a difference between "not knowing any better" and being stupid, although the line can seem pretty fuzzy at times. It is a sad fact of the human condition that we are capable of adapting to almost anything. Over time, adapting becomes a behavior, and then a norm, and then a marker in the whole culture. Low standards and things that don't work become the norm, "how we do things here." Once something is normative, it becomes very difficult to change. And, possibly worst of all, anyone who goes outside the norm by suggesting ways to do things better tends to get squashed, or at least isolated.
Business has a remedy for this problem: failure and liquidation. But it is far more difficult to cure in public agencies and in some non-profits, because the bottom line is not available as a tool. People get wedded to repetition, which is critical to sustaining negative norms. And nobody asks the big question: Why are we doing this in the way that we are? To take a Virgin Islands example, getting the right schoolbooks into children's hands does not require rocket science, and yet it is a persistent problem, largely because of adherence to norms that constantly reinforce repetition and continue adherence to low standards.
Self-delusion and arrogance: These are two bad qualities that, in combination, pretty much assure that things will not work. They operate at the societal and the individual level. For example, Americans continue to believe — against all evidence — that we have the best health-care system in the world. This belief contributes to a downward spiral by making any change appear to put this supposedly wonderful system that we have at risk. Americans do not travel enough to make broad comparisons, but when large numbers begin to go to South Korea and Taiwan for high-quality affordable health care, as they are, the alarm bells are going off.
Arrogance makes its contribution because, as everyone knows, the United States is No. 1. We don't want some French health-care system when we have what we have. In recent weeks, we have seen former geniuses of Wall Street, the auto industry and the ultimate genius, Alan Greenspan, all appear before Congress to either plead or explain. Having produced disaster, shorn of their power and, in some instances, reduced to begging, they have lost none of their arrogance.
That arrogance was an important source of the wreckage that we now behold. As the philosopher David Hume said, "When men are most sure and arrogant, they are commonly most mistaken." To continue down this high-brow path and quote Herodotus: "All arrogance will reap a harvest rich in tears. God calls men to a heavy reckoning for overweening pride." Unfortunately, unlike wealth, the tears get spread around.
The Virgin Islands version of this delusion is the belief that being under the U.S. flag means that people are better off than anywhere else in the region. Like the best health care, this belief is demonstrably untrue. But as long as people continue to delude themselves, the pressures to fix the many things that do not work will remain weak and the pressures to keep them as they are will remain strong.
Lack of Trust: Americans are big fans of sports analogies. Generally these analogies don't work because the world of sports is different in important ways from most organizational life. Here is an exception. Recently, a National Football League player was asked to explain his team's success. His answer contained a profound truth. He said that the reason they were winning was because everyone trusted the guys next to him to do their job.
Things work when people trust one another, especially "the guy next to us." They don't work when there is a lack of trust. The systematic destruction of trust is one of the unexplored reasons for the failure and collapse of communism. We have all been in organizations in which a single untrustworthy person or small group was able do great damage. And, once trust is lost, it is very difficult to regain, so the damage is perpetuated and becomes institutionalized.
It would be worth doing an in-depth study of the consequences of mistrust in the Virgin Islands. As elsewhere, this is a complicated question with deep historic roots in race, class and inter-island relations. But I believe that there is little doubt that lack of trust among individuals, groups and islands contributes significantly to things not working well in the territory.
Indifference: If enough people don't care, things won't work. There won't be enough who do care to pick up the slack, and, over time, the indifferent ones will define the standard. That standard will be the lowest common denominator. This is a big Virgin Islands problem. Regular readers of The Source must be struck by the number of meetings that are canceled because they cannot raise a quorum. When people in leadership positions don't care enough to attend important meetings, what message does it send to everyone else?
One thing that we know about organizational cultures is that leaders define them and the norms and behaviors that make them up. There is a trickle-down effect, good or bad. If those at the top demonstrate indifference, so will everyone else. If those in leadership roles view those positions as property or an entitlement, why should anyone else care?
In the old Soviet Union, workers had a saying: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us." It may have been the ultimate system that did not work, but there is a lot of "let's pretend" indifference elsewhere. If managers pretend to manage, customer-service workers pretend to care, teachers pretend to teach, etc., there is an absolute certainty that things will not work.
I have other priorities: "Law and Order" is one of my favorite television programs. In the first half hour, the cops try to solve the crime, and then they hand the accused over to the prosecutors, and at 8:59 p.m. sharp, we get the verdict — usually "guilty." There is one thing about "Law and Order" that seems particularly unrealistic. The cops are always talking about the case. In my experience listening to police conversations, the one thing that is never discussed by cops is solving the case or resolving the problem. These discussions are usually about their real priorities: tours and hours, pensions, second jobs or other unrelated matters.
If people don't see their jobs as the top priority when they are at work, things will not work. And, it is another area in which the lowest common denominator kicks in pretty quickly. If Joe the Plumber doesn't care about fixing the pipes and he's getting paid, why should I care about whatever I'm supposed to be doing? If the people at the top don't see making things work as their top priority, bad results are inevitable.
Having other priorities is a big problem in the Virgin Islands. This is a complicated question because many — but not all — other priorities relate to low incomes in the territory. These other priorities are all mine. They do not relate to the mission and goals of the organization. They make getting everyone pulling in the same direction very difficult, if not impossible.
Lack of resources and underinvestment in people: Usually when you ask people working in a poor-performing organization why things are so screwed up, you get a simple answer: We don't have enough people or we don't have other resour
ces. Is it true? What is the difference between "lean and mean" and understaffed? I recently did a project that required interviewing hospital staff from nurse's aides up to the CEO. It was an enlightening experience. The CEO interviews all took place in the executive offices and were conducted in one uninterrupted hour. By contrast, the nurse and nurse's aides interviews were invariably disrupted by some work emergency, and we ended up doing almost all of them at night from the person's home. Is this the rule? I don't know, but I think so.
What is clear is that staffing reductions and reduced investment in planning and training, especially in the public and non-profit sectors, have taken an often-invisible toll. Has this decline made things work less well? Yes, but the negative change takes place over time, so we get used to the new "normal."
The Virgin Islands is an odd case in this respect. For historic reasons, and in certain key areas — government in particular — it has too many people, but they are not well-trained and work without much accountability. Thus the explanation for things working badly is different from other places. There are enough people, but they lack the skills, knowledge, management and oversight to produce high-quality outcomes. And it is far more difficult to fire them than almost anywhere else.
What is interesting is that all of these explanations tend to overlap and blend together. In the end, they become the components of an overall culture of non-performance and low standards. It is also interesting that the path to these unhappy outcomes is often paved with decent intentions or understandable choices, and that it is a long, step-by-step path. These logical explanations do not, however, in any way diminish the bad outcomes, especially when someone — in total frustration — claims "nothing works here."
Next Week: "Making Things Work — Is There a Way Out?"

Editor's note: We welcome and encourage readers to keep the dialogue going by responding to Source commentary. Letters should be e-mailed with name and place of residence to visource@gmail.com.

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