© Copyright 1993 by Frederick Mann, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
This is the first report of the "Organization Series." The purpose of this series is to provide the reader with important guidelines, principles, and hints on how to launch a project, organization, or business (hereafter called "project") and make it successful and profitable.
Obviously, the project, must have valuable products and/or services to deliver. There must be one or more marketing methods to generate customers. There must be a system or structure to handle, control, and account for the flows of money.
Ideally, the project needs a clearly defined overall purpose. The products and/or services need to be consistent with this purpose. The purpose can be broken down into goals: "By such and such date we will achieve so and so." (For the dangers of "management by objectives" I recommend any book on the management system of W. Edwards Deming, for example: The Deming Management Method by Mary Walton; Dr. Deming: The American Who Taught the Japanese about Quality by Rafael Aguayo; and The Man Who Discovered Quality by Andrea Gabor.)
Making the project successful and profitable requires that detailed action steps be taken. Some of the steps need to be done in certain sequences. Usually there is a division of labor and related classes of action steps are handled by specific individuals.
The organization of all these detailed action steps can be called a structure or system. Most projects that fail probably do so because there is no organized system of details. Many projects never get off the ground because the principals simply can't or don't make a list of the simple steps that need to be done. They can't or don't focus on the steps that need to be done. They can't or don't complete the steps that need to be done. They don't learn from what they do, from what works and what doesn't.
Some of the participants in the project take a few more or less random steps that together can't possibly lead to any significant result. They basically operate on the basis that if they do "a few important things" the rest will somehow happen automatically by some magic. (Ironically, some projects do become spectacularly successful by operating on this basis! But how long do they stay around?) Usually the project fails and they blame factors like "not enough capital," "people just aren't ready for our product or service," etc.
Consider the following "Open Letter":
an open letter to delegates of
the LP [Libertarian Party] convention
from [Name Withheld], National Director
August 12, 1993
In less than eight months I have gone from enthusiastic new director to burned-out and cynical soon-to-be-ex activist. Some of my problems have been of my own making, but I believe my experience has been negative mostly because of systemic problems in the party.
I have found almost nobody in the party who understands these problems. In my cynical moments I imagine that they can't be explained to someone who hasn't experienced them firsthand. But in the hopes that people are willing to listen and I might actually manage to communicate some of my concerns, I have produced this letter.
What is the problem?
The issue can be summed up in one word: control. The National Director needs to feel in control of the national headquarters. I never have, and I don't see any prospect for that changing anytime soon. I am not talking about how much decision-making authority the National Director should have. I am talking about something much more fundamental.
The Director must be able to manage the different operations expected of the headquarters. It's that simple.
Why is this a Problem?
Many factors contribute to this problem. Some of the most notable are:
Libertarian Temperament. Libertarians tend to be idea-generating people rather than follow-through people. That means that we tend to focus our attention on the exciting new ideas rather than the mundane details that are essential to the operation of the party. We also grossly underestimate how much time any given project will take to complete. I have known computer programmers who underestimate by a factor of ten if not a factor of one-hundred how much effort will be required to follow-through on a given project. That is partly because "the devil is in the details" and those details don't become obvious until you get into a project. It is also partly because idea people don't generally think through all the steps necessary to complete a project. Programmers, for example, tend to think in terms of getting their code written, without allocating time for testing, debugging, documenting, installation and training. Within the party I have found many people who seem to think that once they write the text for a mailing, the major work is over, when in fact the time-consuming work generally begins there. As Libertarians, we also tend to be stubborn individuals who won't take no for an answer. Many activists ignore established procedures and search for ways around them, because we are so used to doing so to get around government bureaucracies.
Our lack of professional experience. Amateurs make two big mistakes, both of which exacerbate the problems mentioned in the previous paragraph. First, amateurs can't anticipate the pitfalls inherent in any new project. As a result, amateurs don't realize how complex seemingly simple projects can be, which means they underestimate the amount of time required to complete the project and they discover the pitfalls in process, which makes them much more difficult to handle. Second, amateurs suffer from the magic bullet syndrome. They imagine that success lies in some untried approach, when more often than not success comes from a careful and focused attention to basic details. No prospecting letter, for example, no matter how brilliantly written will be as important in the long run as making sure that those who call our 800-number receive the best possible packet of information in a timely manner.
The tragedy of the commons. It amazes me that Libertarians who understand full well the danger of shared resources would establish policies that allow project leaders to place unlimited demands on the headquarters. We budget some expenses (e.g., postage and printing), but not the most expensive resources (e.g., staff time and programming). As a result, we can do all of the tasks some of the time and some of the tasks all of the time, but we can never do all of the tasks all of the time.
Bottom-up projects. A grass-roots organization with a vast number of project leaders all across the country has many advantages. It can accomplish things that no centrally-planned organization can. But if each project leader has the ability to place demands on the national headquarters, the result is chaos. It is possible to be both organized and bottom-up, but not the way we do business currently.
Problems of scale. Most of the project leaders I have worked with have no conception of what it's like to manage a database as large and complex as ours. Even most programmers don't realize how difficult it can be to manage a database with over 120 thousand names and over 40 thousand cash entries annually. What may seem like simple operations on a small database are never simple on a database as large as ours. There is also a nonlinear relationship between complexity and staffing requirements. I don't think this can be explained easily to those who haven't experienced it firsthand (although I recommend the book The Mythical Man Month for anyone who wants to try to understand this). I will simply note what I consider an indisputable fact that as you add more details to be handled by an organization, the staff required to handle those details grows at more than a linear rate. Eventually doubling the number of details triples the staff required; another doubling might require five times the staff; and another doubling might require ten times the staff.
How do we solve the Problem?
I don't have all the answers, but I can see at least four things that must happen immediately:
End micromanagement. We should hire professionals and trust them to do their jobs without interference. A significant number of people in the party understand this problem, so I won't spend time explaining it. I would like to point out, though, that this is not the only problem or even the most important problem to be solved.
Hire more staff. The model for the 1992 budget was a full-time director with two full-time support staff. The 1993 model added a full-time intern and a Director of Communications. We need even more staff, particularly since the Director of Communications mostly works on new projects not previously handled by the headquarters. I would add at least a full-time administrative assistant to oversee routine office operations and interaction with vendors. Even though we need to increase the staff to handle the essential tasks in the headquarters, other problems have to be solved as well. I have observed a principle of "preservation of headquarters workload" that work will appear to fill any available staff time. Unless we control the amount of work asked of the headquarters, we will always be understaffed.
Focus on the basics. I have yet to hear a single candidate for national office who is saying what I think needs to be said. Our success does not depend on new ideas or new projects or changes to the platform and bylaws. We need to focus our attention on the boring but essential details of running a political party. I could tell horror stories about what I discovered when I took over as Director. It would be counterproductive to detail them here, but the opportunities we have missed are mind-boggling. And I don't blame former Director [Name Withheld]. I am honestly impressed with the amount of work he got done given the constraints placed on him. When you have project managers all pushing their own magic bullet ideas, the basic operations get lost in the shuffle. I am, therefore, suspicious of all candidates for national office who have "fresh ideas" or "new vision." We are drowning in details generated by fresh ideas. I want to hear what projects they will forgo so that we can improve the basic functions of prospecting for new members and servicing our members and state parties. I want to hear about promises that won't be made so that we can keep the promises we must make...
The problems I have outlined will be solved only with a major shift of attitude among the party leaders, and I am not optimistic about the prospects of such a change. I have outlined four important problems that I feel must be addressed immediately: end micromanagement, hire more staff, focus on the basics, and limit the range of services offered by the headquarters.
Of the current officers and other National Committee members, I know a few who understand one or two of the four, but I don't know even one current leader who understands as many as three. I also know fewer than five people in the entire party who understand the most important of these four changes: the need to limit the range of services offered by the headquarters.
Unfortunately, it is easy to agree in the abstract without really getting the point. When I explain my concerns, people generally express agreement. But then when some specific decision comes up, they object to being limited. I often joke with the staff that I have come to dread four words: "but couldn't we just." Our project leaders are tenacious individuals who want full control to implement their ideas. If they weren't that way, they probably wouldn't be Libertarians. But our leaders have to learn to take no for an answer. As long as they control the process, the National Director will fail to control the headquarters.
We cannot have a National Director who tries to say no but has no power to back it up. We also cannot have a National Director who tries to say yes to everyone. I have tried each strategy, and I know from my own painfully frustrating experiences how disastrous they both are.
The only reasonable solution I see is a strong leader who has the power to say no and who understands these problems enough to do so. Such a leader would be unpopular for a while if he or she did what I think is really needed, but the success that would follow would soon silence the opponents. That could be a National Director with not only the responsibility of running the headquarters but also the authority to do what is necessary to accomplish that goal. Or that could be a National Chair who will take a firm stand on these issues.
I predict that until we put such a person in power and go through that painful attitude adjustment, the national headquarters will continue to be unprofessional and disorganized and we will continue to burn out our National Directors, as I have been burned out." [underlined emphasis added]
A Most Important Power Principle
Let me quote a passage from Report #10: How To Achieve and Increase Personal Power:
To feel that we are worthwhile individuals, to know that we exist, we have to express our power - feel that we are in control. This imperative to express our power and experience control is central to human behavior. Every human does something to express their power creatively. If such attempts fail repeatedly, they experience themselves as powerless. They may feel helpless and hopeless, and become depressed. What they experience is that they cannot make a positive difference in the world. A cognitive breakdown occurs between their actions and the results they produce. Mentally and intellectually they cease to understand the connections between their behavior and the consequences of their behavior. Then they express their power destructively.
This phenomenon is at the root of practically all individual and societal problems.
Understanding this phenomenon and its implications leads to the solution of practically all individual and societal problems.
As National Director, mr. Name Withheld was trying to manage the Headquarters of the Libertarian Party. The system was such that he couldn't control the details of the organization. He became frustrated (possibly also sad, angry, depressed, etc.) He described it as "burnout." A cognitive breakdown occurred between his actions and the consequences of his actions. So he wrote his "open letter" which I presume he distributed to the delegates at the National LP Convention. I don't know what results his letter produced.
In any project about 80% of the problems being encountered probably stem from the system being used. Only about 20% of the problems are due to other causes such as "people problems" - refer to any book on Deming's principles (see Introduction above). Mr. Name Withheld correctly writes about "systemic problems in the party."
Important Organizational Design Principles:
You can walk from one end of a continent to the other by taking one step at a time.
It is also worthwhile to integrate control-over-the-details with coercion. In a "command-type" organization individuals have to follow orders. Their control over the details of their jobs is reduced. When keeping government records, filling out government forms, following government mandated procedures, etc., individuals suffer greatly reduced control over the details of their jobs. In the free market (as opposed to the public and private sectors) individuals are free from government coercion - but they may not be free from "command-type" management systems.