Simple competence as an overarching theme for 2009

I’m increasingly fond of Bob Sutton’s work at Stanford. Here’s a recent post of his on a critical observation from organizational theorist James March.

After working with Stanford’s bureaucracy for month and months to try to get a scholar appointed and paid (we have the money, that is not the problem), and still not having luck, I was reminded of a lovely and rather obscure article by James March   It was based on an address that he gave to academic administrators at the University of Illinois in 1980.  This excerpt seems especially appropriate at the moment:

“The importance of simple competence in the routines of organizational life is often overlooked when we sing the grand arias of management, but effective bureaucracies are rarely dramatic…. Much of what distinguishes a good bureaucracy from a bad one is how it accomplishes the trivia of day-to-day relations with clients and day-to-day problems in maintaining and operating its technology.  Accomplishing these trivia may involve considerable planning, complex coordination, and central direction, but is more commonly linked to the effectiveness of large numbers of people doing minor things competently. As a result, it is probably true that the conspicuous differences around the world in the quality of bureaucratic performance are due primarily to variance in the competence of the ordinary clerk, bureaucrat, and lower manager, and to the effectiveness of routine procedures for dealing with problems at a local level.  This appears to be true of armies, factories, postal services, hotels, and universities.”

Right now, some simple competence sounds pretty damn good to me. As you may have gathered, March is not much of a fan of heroic leaders, he believes more in well-designed systems filled with competent people.  His quote also reminds me of one I heard from the folks at the Institute for Health Improvement (they credited the Army Corp of Engineers): Strategy is for amateurs; execution is for professionals. 

The above quote is from “How We Talk and How We Act: Administrative Theory and Administrative Life,” which March published here. For a general tour of his work, check out Decisions and Organizations and The Pursuit of Organizational Intelligence.

P.S. The post is dedicated to that very patient scholar!

In Praise of Simple Competence
Bobsutton
Sat, 27 Dec 2008 00:01:14 GMT

Helping individuals and organizations operate more competently seems to be an excellent underlying goal for 2009.

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