Carter: Organizational Knowledge is the New Challenge

The other day it was my good fortune to read an interesting article on a Wall Street Journal blog.  It spoke to the many problems in government at the national level.  It spoke to the problems inherent in the law which has come to be known as Obama-care.  The crux of the article spoke to the problem with "low information leaders."  One of the key points involved the elevation of so many people to critical positions within the White House Staff who just do not get it when it comes to running a government.

As Wall Street Columnist Peggy Noonan said in her blog commentary recently, "…the administration is full of young people who’ve seen the movie but (have) not read the book … They act bright, they know the reference, (and) they’re credentialed. But they’ve only seen the movie about, say, the Cuban missile crisis, and then they get into a foreign-policy question and they’re seeing movies in their heads." 

My friends, I am suggesting that far too many people have risen to the top in their respective fields by using the modern version of the old Cliff Notes to study for life's truly final exams. When I was a younger person I discovered that you could actually create book reports without reading the actual books.  You went to the store and purchased the appropriate copy of the Cliff Notes series that covered the book you had to discuss. 

These books gave you the overall ideas, but not the nuances of the subject of your report.  I usually got a grade of B and this was OK with me. It also kept mom and dad off of my case.  However is this method the best way to actually learn?  They are at the actual center of the 'doing versus learning' argument which is taking place in our nation. 

At the heart of Ms. Noonan's commentary lies a simple premise.  Things are going badly in Washington because far too many people are unprepared for the actual reality of their jobs.  Let me now take my commentary in a completely different direction.  How many of our fire departments are similarly unprepared to perform the actual nuts and bolts tasks for which people will ultimately hold us responsible?

Here are a few points of comparison I want you to ponder.  They come from Ms Noonan's description of the manner in which the current White House staff is alleged to be operating.  They are:

  • There is a great deal of chatter without a lot of solid, substantive organizational meat.
  • Meetings are being held without an actual, identified purpose.
  • There are no actual meeting agendas.
  • Events seem to ebb and flow at the whim of who ever is supposed to be in charge of the meeting.
  • People jump up and leave the meetings to handle cell phone calls, texts and tweets.  They breeze in an out never fully coming to understand what is going on around them.
  • A great deal of texting and email interaction occurs while the meeting is under way.  There is therefore a lack of concentration.
  • People speak of how things should look and not how they should work.
  • No one wants to be tied to anything of substance just in case they get stuck with the responsibility for something.
  • People seem to speak just to hear themselves speak.

Let me assure you my friends that in my nearly fifty years in the fire and emergency service world I have seen and done many different things.  A great deal of my experience has been earned at the cost of some serious mistakes.  But the key to my success has come from studying our fire service history, identifying past mistakes, and working to learn news ways of doing things which allowed us to take steps which have moved us forward into the future.  I want to assure you that I have not used any version of the Cliff Notes approach to enhance my learning curve within the fire service.  Actually there is none.

Let me assure you that it has been my misfortune to have been in trouble a great many times in my career, but that was usually because I was trying to do more than my contemporaries.  You cannot make a mistake if you never try.  Sometimes you just have to fix bayonets, jump out of the trench, and charge at the enemy, whomsoever they might be.  You lead your troops from the front.  Let me assure you that this has cost me dearly on a number of occasions and is part of the reason I retired at the rank of battalion chief.  But my reputation has been built upon my pursuit of the best way forward for the members of any department or organization which I have ever been privileged to serve.

Over the years it has been my good fortune to be allowed to serve in leadership positions for a great many organizations.  In each of those cases I tried to follow the old vision, mission, goals, and objectives approach to management and leadership.  I think you might be surprised at how many people rail against the concepts of organization and management which require us to plan, write things down, and operate according to the written plan which were conceived by actual organizational members. 

To this very day, every meeting I chair has a written agenda.  They follow a fairly straightforward format and we go from point A to point Z in a logical and consistent manner.  I learned from my time in the military that there is an actual way to solicit honest and straightforward ideas from the participants in given meeting.  You start by first asking the junior participant in the meeting to lay out their thoughts.  If your start with the senior people, the butt-smooching sycophants and toadys among you will race forward to eagerly kiss the butt of the person they think can do the most for them in advancing their careers.

Oh I do get into some awkward situations, but my task as the chair of any meeting for which I am responsible, is simple indeed.  I am supposed to sum up the sense of what I have heard and put fresh ideas on the table based upon the comments of the meeting participants.  Let me also suggest that this is a way to shine the bright light on those who are not prepared to be a positive participant in the programs at hand. 

If you have people in charge who fail to lay out agendas and tolerate people popping in and out of their meetings then you can be sure that you are watching an organization doomed to chaos and failure. 

Another one of Peggy Noonan's assertions was that among people in the White House, "(T)here’s a sense that they’re all freelancing, not really part of anything coherent."  Hmm.  Have you ever heard the term freelancing?  I do not know about you, but I have been battling the concept of freelancing for a long time now.  Whether on the fire department staff or on the fireground, freelancing of any kind has proven to be a real recipe for disaster.  The sight of people running around chasing their own tails is never a good thing.  Worse yet is the situation where you see groups of people circling in groups of individual circles. 

Sadly, there also are a lot folks out there in the fire service who are truly book smart and street stupid.  They have read the books and gotten the college degrees, but they have never had their "ass in the grass" as my old infantry buddies were so fond of saying.  I never put out a fire (actual fire or organizational chaos-type fire) by throwing a book at it.  The key to real success involves creating a marriage of knowledge and experience.  And it is a marriage like all others.  It taking blood, sweat, tears, and planning to bring it off.  Just saying so does not a good marriage make.  That, my friends, is a great deal of what is wrong in Washington, DC and in many different state, county, and local government operations right now.

You have lots of people running around spouting words, and sharing grandiose ideas.  You have very few people who have fired a shot in anger (fought a fire, solved a real-world problem) running around telling the rest of us how wrong we are. And many times these are the troops who cannot talk to others in a face-to-face manner.  These are the twits who text and tweet.  These are the people who solve all problems with emails.

Until we can turn the tide against solving our problems with media rather than human endeavor, we stand no chance of going in a more profitable direction.  Society needs to turn back to human interaction and return to placing a value on actual, boots-on-the-ground experience.  Until such time as we see that change occur, we shall continue to circle around and down the drain of human failure.  Please join me in working to change things to a more reality-based way of doing business.  Until then, take care, stay safe, and keep your head down and your smartphone at the ready.