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April 14, 2006

When Decisions Are Not Enough

A number of retired military officers are calling for the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Meanwhile, the White House continues to support Rumsfeld with the same 'doing a great job' comments we've heard many times before, perhaps most famously applied to FEMA head Mike Brown in the wake of Katrina. Rumsfeld has certainly failed the test of performance. Take any of his assigned challenges -- whether Iraq, Afghanistan, the war on terror, or his own vision of a reengineered 21st century military. Simply ask yourselves what 'success would like like' against any of those challenges. Try your best to answer in terms of real outcomes instead of endless activities. Then weigh actual performance against the outcomes and, inevitably, Rumsfeld comes up short. Drastically short.

Even reasonable folks on the Republican side of the aisle acknowledge Rumsfeld's failure. This particular post caught my eye, though, because the writer holds Rumsfeld's previous accomplishments in such high esteem. And, in doing so, the writer betrays a characteristic failure that has bedeviled all of us since 9/11: the utter lack of appreciation on the part of our elected officials, our media, and ourselves to acknowledge that profound change demands more than decisions.

There are two kinds of change faced by organizations. In one, decisions are enough. In the other, decisions are necessary but insufficient because a critical mass of already employed people must learn new skills, behaviors and ways of working with one another in order to succeed at both change and performance.

Consider, for example, three challenges that confronted Rumsfeld:

Achieving military victory in Iraq.
Nation building in Iraq following military victory.
Reengineering the military for the 21st century.

Delivering performance results against the first of these three was/is profoundly different from the second and third. The military had been thoroughly rebuilt during the Clinton years (in significant part because of true bipartisan support for the reforms). The 'already employed' folks in the military and defense and related organizations already had the skills, behaviors, and working relationships to go into Iraq and achieve military victory. Put aside the decision to take that step. Once the choice was made, that decision was enough.

Not so with the second and third challenges. Nation building in Iraq as well as reengineering the military for the 21st century cannot succeed without profound changes in skills, behaviors and working relationships among people who are already employed -- that is, human beings like you and me and everyone else who must deal with all the anxieties, uncertainties and questions about the risks that real change presents with respect to job security, career aspirations, friendships at work, and, even, our search for meaning and fulfillment.

This is why 'behavior-driven' change is so much more difficult than 'decision-driven' change. The track record for success in behavior-driven change is much worse than decision-driven change. It probably always will be harder. But, the odds of success in behavior-driven change rise dramatically when leaders understand that decisions are not enough.

Rumsfeld -- as well as Cheney, Bush, Rice and others -- do not get this. They come from the "CEO as decision maker" school of leadership. Which, again political preferences aside, is good enough when decisions will be sufficient. These folks are not alone. For example, the 9/11 Commission and its staff also failed to appreciate this difference. They worked their tails off. They did a really wonderful job under very difficult circumstances. And, the recommended decisions they shaped truly make sense.

Still, a read through of their report shows they -- and, I guess, those like Robert Mueller and Porter Goss -- who must figure out whether and why to implement such recommendations went into the challenge without recognizing when and when not decisions would be sufficient.

My guess, though, is that Mueller, a good guy who is so dedicated to doing what's right as opposed to what's only right for him and his vision (compare Rumsfeld), has learned a lot about the difference between decision versus behavior-based change. Let us hope so.

If he has, though, he separates himself from Rumsfeld.

Rumsfeld has failed. He has not delivered performance. He should resign or be fired. I share the view that such is unlikely. But, whether he goes or doesn't go, let's hope that our discourse over the many failures of this incompetent administration will begin to include insights and lessons about decision-based versus behavior-based change -- because guess what? Most of the challenges we face and will continue to face are of the second kind and most of the leaders we elect and the media who claim to inform us about them have yet to master anything but the first.

Posted by Doug Smith on April 14, 2006 12:46 PM | Permalink