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Saturday, October 11, 2014

'Teamwork' Loses Yet Another One

     Heard a radio interview the other morning with a former member of the federal Secret Service, the agency with the sunglass/earpiece guys you see glaring around suspiciously whenever the president is out there among us regular people.
     Well, turns out these agents are the ones who forgot to lock the front door of the White House, or even be there to greet the knife-carrying intruder who jumped the fence, crossed the front lawn, opened the door and ran around inside for a while before some off-duty agent put the nab on him.
     These agents also are the ones in the news with the hotel hallway pass-outs and loud/public arguments with women demanding payment for services rendered overnight.
     How times have changed. There used to be a different image imprinted on the public perception. We saw these grim, expressionless guys as superheroes, right there to fend off potential attackers of the President of the United States and other precious assets. We trusted them.
     Yeah, there were some horrific moments when they couldn’t prevent attack (Reagan, Jim Brady, JFK), but we knew there also were innumerable “saves” and many preventions we never heard about.
    What’s coming out these days zaps the image. Now it’s the sloppiness of today’s Secret Service. They’re missing stuff, doing not-good stuff. Being inept in a job where there is no room for error.

     How come? What happened?
     Well, that’s what the ex-Secret Service agent was talking about on NPR.
     And his conclusion illustrates a point I’ve been making for a long time. I’m not fully sure he had his finger on why the White House became so porous, but he’s got to be on to something.
     Because centralization sucks.
     When the nation’s leaders responded to the horror of the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, they acted to overcome perceived lapses in intelligence and security. If information we had in some places had been shared in certain other places, we might have been able to head off the catastrophe.
     The response was creation of the Department of Homeland Security, setting up a mega-bureaucracy to bring all the pertinent agencies under one roof. Why? Because that would magically create great synergy, communication and collaboration.
     Did it work? Of course not. The decline of the Secret Service is just the latest proof of that.
     Centralization of organization and concentration of authority, while making executives feel real good, tend to erode effectiveness at the working level.
     It gets in the way of the “customer-facing” purpose of whatever it is you’re doing. The immediacy of supervision and decision-making is overcome by the weight of higher authority.

     Executives of big organizations arrange it all to make themselves comfortable, and that eliminates customer-facing flexibility.
     It also, of course, puts the spotlight on executive decision-making. They’d better be right, often making decisions that would be better if they were handled by perfectly competent people who possess the expertise to sort through situations on the ground.
     When something awful happens, it’s not unusual for executive heads to roll. Centralization can have its price. More damaging, though, is the broad, longterm reduction of the organization’s ability to actually do its job.
     When you think about it, it’s pretty naive to assume that free-standing organizations, each with its own culture, self-image and clearly defined purpose, are going to smoothly integrate when their immediate, knowledgeable leadership has been replaced by a distant, one-way authority.
     There should be strong proof that paying that price is worth the clear benefits you’ll achieve by agglomerating unlike agencies that happen to function in the same general arena.
     Countless business mergers should have taught us this. Years after acquisitions or “partnerships” have been completed, there is active animosity, discrimination and pervasive noncooperation in many of them.
     You get the perception that none of this enters into the considerations of those who impose radical integration without hardheaded analysis.
     That’s what grievously wounded the Secret Service, the veteran agent told the NPR interviewer. The Secret Service was an important, elite unit within the Treasury Department, a relatively small organization in the U.S. government. No funding shortfalls. No image problems at all. It picked up the protection function in 1894.
     Then, in this post-9/11 era, it was transferred into the huge conglomerate of Homeland Security. Its managers now had to conduct unaccustomed fights over funding and turf, against much larger and more experienced bureaucracies. There also was that reduction of autonomy in decision-making. Morale plummeted.
     This is not to excuse what has been happening. It is to remind us all how easily and how often top decision-makers ignore or downplay important issues of human reality as they devise grand solutions to newly erupting imperatives. If you're going to do it, make sure you account for all  the important issues, not just the hierarchical chart.
     I have fulminated against such strategic failings. See “The Teamwork Myth”
     This post is about the enormous cost of such miscalculations at the human level. Where the people are also happens to be where the meaning and purpose of the organization meet reality.
     If the Secret Service indeed has lost its way and needs a major overhaul, let’s hope this reorganization arises from a wise understanding of what it takes for people to really work well.
     When the organization has its act together, individuals are motivated to perform at a high level – and behave themselves.


  1. I'm not a big fan of Homeland Security for lots of reasons but to blame the unprofessional actions of the White House Secret Service members on the big bureaucracy sounds to me like an excuse for not taking personal responsibility.

  2. I'm absolutely with you on the matter of personal responsibility, Mary-Art. I was in error to give the impression that the actual perpetrators were not part of the problem.

    Each individual in such an important organization has a high responsibility, and a number of the Secret Service agents have failed to meet theirs.

    The point of the post was to underscore the responsibility of managers to create and maintain a situation in which good people can do good work. Conversely, when things start to slip, the system must be effective in correcting and disciplining before it goes too far.

    The evidence appears to show that the top-level decision called for a grand conglomeration would be enough to solve the problem of communication failure among agencies that should have been collaborating and communicating. It looked to me like management failure was at the root of the original problem, and continued after the attempted solution.

    I believe that management all up the line included inattention to behaviors that should not have happened. When your management disappears, your bad apples thrive.