Katrina was ‘Shock and Awe’
Editor Steven Else
Organizations are More than People: Lessons from Iraq and Katrina
by Bill Hall
Various kinds of business managers, knowledge managers, HR people, business process improvementexperts and many other people are all concerned to help their organizations work better. Most develop apragmatic body of knowledge based on interventions that have at least occasionally worked in the past.Case studies may be expanded into generalizations and published as ‘how to manage’ books. However,organizations are complex entities, and different organizations, or even the same organization atdifferent times, often respond differently to what seems to be the same interventions.
A few people are interested in the theory of how organizations work — i.e., “how come”, so they canapply controls with some deeper understanding as to how and why they should work. In my experience,most people are solely interested in pragmatics at the personal level — i.e., what do I do now? Some inthe latter camp are often apparently deeply immersed in the engineering paradigm.Pragmatic rules of thumb for what works for an individual will not provide the guidance we need totruly understand the dynamic behaviors of organizations. Such a purely pragmatic perspective makes itdifficult to grasp the concept that different rules may apply at different levels of focus.
The organization is beyond the control of any single individual, no matter how powerful; and behaviorsthat may seem beneficial to the individual leader may have very detrimental effects for the organizationas a whole. For example, the single powerful individual can introduce perturbations — as Gorbachev didwith Glasnost in the Soviet Union. Perturbations can be absorbed and dampened; they can also cause theorganizational activities to relax into a new “attractor basin” that leads to a permanent and hopefullybeneficial change of some kind; or they can drive the organization beyond its self-regulatory capacity —as happened in the cases of the Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and Iraq, where the organizationalstructure at the ‘government’ level of focus disintegrated completely. Without a theoretical understandingof how organizations work and survive as entities in their own rights, it may be very difficult to see thisdifference.
The results of particular perturbations are non-computable, but it may be possible to understandorganizations well enough to use controlled perturbations as constraints and attractors to lead and channel.
The late USAF Col. John Boyd’s strategic thinking (see War, Chaos and Business – http://http://www.belisarius.com, and Defense and the National Interest – http://www.d-n-i.net) was based on a verydeep understanding of complex systems. Boyd showed that an individual’s or organization’s ability torespond adaptively depends critically on its ability to observe the effects and changes due to its prioractions; then orient to the observations and prior history; and decide and act as a result of that orientationprocess faster than the environment changes. This cyclical feedback process is reasonably well known tostrategic thinkers as ‘Boyd’s OODA loop’. The bottom line is that if the entity’s environment is too oftenobserved inaccurately and/or changes so actions generated by its own OODA cycle no longer relate tothe presently existing world, its decisions will become progressively more chaotic and irrational until theentity is destroyed or disintegrates. A combatant seeks to accurately track and respond to its own effects onthe environment while perturbing its enemy’s communications and environment to create a fog of warforcing the enemy into chaos and disintegration.
My students and I have shown (seepublications on Evolutionary Biology of Species and Organizations – http://www.orgs-evolutionknowledge.net/) that knowledge and information used by organizations for organizational purposes are notidentical to knowledge and information used by individual people for personal purposes. What this means isthat where a person is filtering input from the environment to prevent information overload in order torespond rapidly and adequately to his/her own immediate environment, this may be entirely the wrong thingto do for organizational purposes where it becomes impossible for a high level decision maker to knowenough about the organization’s environment to make adequate decisions.
From the organizational point of view, the processes of orientation and decision making must be moved closer to the periphery, where the deciders and actors can react faster and more accurately within thelimits of what they are capable of observing. This suggests that central leadership must delegate thedecisions to others closer to the interface with the environment and focus more on roles of establishingimperatives; and selecting, nurturing and coordinating a distributed decision-making apparatus.
“Shock and awe”, as developed from Boyd’s strategic thinking, drives enemy organizations into states ofchaos and defeat by changing external reality faster than they can monitor and respond to it. The lesson forAmerica from Iraq and Katrina seems to be that if an organization over-centralizes decision making and thenthe high-level decision makers limit feedback from history and the consequences of their decisions to avoidinformation overload, chaos and uncertainty are fostered because decisions no longer track what is actuallyhappening.
Because executive decisions are so centralized and so far removed from the “ground truth”, critical decisionsare no longer based primarily on a close monitoring of reality. Consequently, the actions taken on thesedecisions no longer relate to the actual state of the changing world. Because feedback is too severely filtered,working assumptions are not subject to early correction when evidence from the real world demonstrates