By Bashir Ashkir Muuse
On Saturday, a friend of mine dropped me a message, telling me how embarrassing office politicking became in Somalia. He authoritatively put it this way, and I quote: “We routinely work in demanding environments where stakes are determined not just in vain but in an alienating manner. Losing relationships is out of context here, while you can hardly hit objectives without sacrificing a soul.” This is expectable; but what frightened me was how acute he wanted to tip me off.
In earnest, the essence of the message was that this kind of workplace where politics dominates the environment, both performance and outcomes greatly suffer. In other words, environments where people are busy with irrelevant and inappropriate wars, promoting selfish and narrow interests, high performers and active drivers of the organization experience fatigue and low morale which lead to bad outcomes, and most importantly worrying bureaucracy.
Logically, irrespective of work environments, who does what, or who bosses around, some facts remain true: the structure of the dynamic determines who’s who and the players around. Much depends on the vision of the organization and how leaders enforce the vision. In practice, however, visions and goals are normally set at the upper echelon—especially in the public sector—and what is to be done comes down the line of leadership chains. The structured chain, as a result, puts oversight on how the organization is run. That is why evil doers who aim to sabotage the system are caught up and dealt with immediately. So regardless of who passes on the order, all managers, line supervisors included, are required to do the job right otherwise their future careers will be in jeopardy.
But how about when the system itself is ill-built or unable to spot inconsistencies? At that moment, one should get the signal that the organization is doomed. When this happens, mischievous elements in the system will take advantage of their powers, allowing more chances of uncertainty and crisis to creep in. Simply put, this is where the heck begins: orders are disregarded, and even trashed, directly or indirectly. Downward policies and executive degrees are also killed here. Soon, this creates a safe haven for incompetent servants.
Worse still, hiring amateurish servants is inherently unavoidable. Mistakes of hiring wrong people do happen. And once they assume positions of power, they become the authority of highest devil. At this point, nothing can stop them from undermining organizational existence because this gives life to poisonous bureaucracy, leading to a cynical and nervous web of workforce where outsiders are tethered out. Even visionary leaders sometimes get stuck in this shabby bureaucracy. They face tougher walls of inconsistency and awkwardness. And this is exactly what my friend was trying to communicate.
One way to deal with this vicious environment is to ruthlessly shake up the organization, plummeting bad guys in the process. It feels like sorting to pink sheets—lay-offs. And it is. However, this method appears as both radical and uncompromising even though it is economically effective. This is so because keeping bad guys on the payroll not only casts infection and mistrust in the good guys, but it puts a cost-burden on and on. In fact by not dealing with the situation fairly quickly, the status quo will only deepen itself, sowing change-resistance pillars down the road.
A sudden but brave move can bring flexibility and change the face of the environment. This is to manage the situation and the people differently, striking a healthy balance between the two. Nothing to be afraid of; managers are trained to cope with uncertainties. And managing both the victim organization and the people is part of it. Besides running the whole show with the uttermost lead, subordinates are also aligned with the vision and goals. In fact, Mary Parker, a management scholar, has defined management as “The art of getting things done through people.”
Another less radical but time-intensive method is to employ what we call “grand strategy”. In grad strategy, decisions are made in consistency with the overall goals of the organization. This means taking every small bite of measure toward satisfying attainments of strategic goals. If one’s goal is to emerge efficient and effective, for instance, there has to be sound decisions at every step. This also necessitates the use of tools and techniques to manipulate and take advantages of available opportunities and skills. After all, this looks attractive as well as being the most challenging route to organizational shake-up. It requires patience and good moral compass to stay above the heat. Here, leaders are tested in mapping out generic strategies that complement the grand strategy.
In this method, organizational workforce is downsized without sacrificing performances. And this probably does mean restructuring workflow, putting people in their places of merit, and always looking for better performers who can “…take us into places we have never been before”, as James Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote. And make no mistake, once compatibility between what is to be done, who is to do it, and the goal to be achieved is formulated, a forward-looking progress has been made. Entertainingly though, such endeavor is better explained by the following story.
This story is told of an American jet fighter pilot named John Boyd who fought in the Korean War. After becoming a skilled fighter instructor, he was assigned to the Pentagon—the world’s toughest bureaucracy—to build a streamlined jet fighter. But he had to face too many challenges: interest-oriented contractors and career-valuing leaders, to name a few. As a veteran drunken on patriotism, Boyd developed a strategy to battle with this sort of demanding environment. But it wasn’t his intention to change the bureau; he envisioned bigger ends.
And after several years of navigating between many alleys, he was able to convince defense leaders of his plan and pushed for the F-15 and F-16 outperformers through the Pentagon’s nearly unattainable process. Today, he is the father of the two most famous and effective jet fighters in military history.
In sum, this story teaches us that the world of impossibility is the territory of the foolish. With determination and strategy of some sort, visionaries can unnoticeably achieve tremendous results. And if environment is unyielding and bent to bad intentions, no problem, it can be put into a desirable order. So no matter who does what, where, and how, with the help of determined folks, top leadership can make a turn-around to our junked system.
Bashir Ashkir Muuse
Lecturer at East Africa University, Garowe Campus