Monday, June 20, 2011

Meaningless Activity

One of the characteristics of totalitarian regimes is the requirement that their citizens be immersed in all sorts of activities. They have government-run groups for children, workers, men, women, farmers, athletes, various professions...the list is almost endless. The idea is to keep people busy on projects the regime favors so they don't have time for other thoughts, such as replacing the regime. Activity without real authority could be the motto.

I was reminded of this while examining the behavior of one organization. Everyone was extremely busy with a wide collection of activities and yet the key levers of power were untouched by the very people who should have controlled them. They'd been so distracted by their busy schedules that they had not noticed. As a result, the power had gone by default to a group that, although well-intentioned, really should not have had it. The distracted group had experienced years of frustration with poorly executed projects; projects hobbled by a power deficit it should not have had.

One of several lessons: Don't let activities cause you to overlook the real power sources.


Dan in Philly said...

So, what are the key levers of power, and who should control them?

Michael Wade said...


Who should control the levers depends on how the organization is structured. In the example I cited, the people who were formally designated to be in control really were not. The usual levers of power are the ability to:

- set and determine funding;
- define terms and scope of operations;
- set and monitor performance goals;
- establish procedures;
- control salaries;
- control supplies and;
- control personnel.

My advice is to examine the key elements of execution. That is where bureaucracies tend to exert power by being able to slow down, dilute or ignore directives from on high.