Thursday, February 26, 2015

MCEO's: Types & Treatments:
Handling Special Means-Ends Conflicts

"The total motivation of a cooperative system ... hence the efficiency of a cooperative effort is dependent upon the efficiency of the marginal contribution, or is determined by the marginal contributor." -- Chester I. Barnard, The Functions of the Executive, p. 44.

Types of Mutually Cost-Enhancing Objectives, (MCEO's). How should we deal with MCEO’s, if we have to deal with them at all. Sometimes it’s wiser to ignore the “elephants in the room,” and “let sleeping dogs lie.”

But if we have to face them, it might help to sort them out in terms of how much they require of well-accepted technical resources; and, how much they require of “political support.” By “political support,” I mean negotiation with and participation of persons who would otherwise not be concerned by the problem at hand, and would likely not normally want to be bothered with it. (This rarely comes without any expectations of future reciprocity!)

Comments on the Term, “Political.” By “political” I mean to indicate behavior aimed at securing concessions about, or participation in dealing with perceived problems, e.g. with MCEO’s. No disparagement of those who engage in political behavior is intended. In fact in those positions in an organization that deal with the outside world, a good deal of political behavior is both expected and necessary.
However, Barnard’s insight above in the epigraph offers wise caution: many hats under the same tent may not be an indicator of strength -- only consider the ideological mish-mash of the present major American political parties. The sloganeering of politically active persons tends to distract from as it creates false consensus among those who are most likely to be the “marginal contributors” of support for more centrally important objectives. Size, diversity and unity tend to be MCEO's in the pursuit of organizational power!

Political-Technical Contrasts. Political behavior contrasts with technical behavior in that the former is important in contexts where consensus is (feared to be) lacking. It is an attempt to get people “calmed down” or “on board” with a proposed action. Technical behavior can only be employed within a context of consensus, or at least, of no anticipated resistance.

The two types of behavior, technical and political, are easily recognized by their language. Technically engaged people “deal with problems.” Politically engaged people “confront challenges.” Political language is generally euphemistic, cajoling, ambiguous and runs a high risk of creating a false consensus effect..

For technical purposes, bad news is not disregarded -- it may still contain important information. Technical statements tend to be unambiguous. There is every effort expended to found a decision consensus on carefully considered understandings.

Freedom of Action. Another way to think about the technical-political distinction is this: Can you just go ahead and deal with the MCEO with the resources you have at hand? Do you have the authority to define your goals and the means to effectively pursue them? Can you rely on your superiors' agreement with your actions, should you have to inform them?

Or, are you going to have to inveigle others’ (reluctant) assistance and thereby have to share information you would otherwise have kept to yourself? And also, might you end up having to return the favor at high exchange cost? (Will you fall into an unbounded decision fractal out of your control?)

The approach we will offer here is that you sort out your MCEO’s this way:
1) Logistic-tactical MCEO’s;
2) Structural MCEO’s; and,
3) Criterion-based MCEO’s.
Let's see how they differ in important dimensions.

Logistic-Tactical MCEO’s. These are everyday kinds of conflicts, easily recognized with very familiar ways of handling: for example, increasing the budget, or reallocating resources. Such solution-ideas are so familiar that off-beat problems tend to get pigeon-holed as logistic-tactical, sometimes causing failure. But, when all you have is a “logistic-tactical-hammer,“ every MCEO is a “nail.”

Example A: Your department has a scheduling and space conflict with another department, planning, as you are, to do some staff development next Tuesday at 2PM on December 20th. There are both space and time options, but not the most convenient ones for both parties. This is an easily recognizable, mostly technical problem. Some politics may be involved in dealing with the convenience issue.

Example B: Your department has a scheduling and space conflict with another department, planning, as you are, to do some staff development next Tuesday at 2PM on December 20th. There are no space and time options during the work day any day next week . This is an easily recognizable, but, likely, a much more political problem than in example A and harder to deal with. There may be not only a holiday issue, but a comp-time issue, among others, e.g. building access and security.

Structure-Related MCEO’s . There are four commonly recognized types, This kind of MCEO is familiar but most often considered idiosyncratic rather than a common structural fault. Individual people are blamed for foul-ups actually precipitated by organizational practices and structures.

Summarizing the work of several researchers, March & Simon in Organizations (NY, Wiley, 1958) write the that by mere virtue of their complexity, complex organizations run up against
Four Basic Internal Conflicts. These are
• (Merton) Following policy vs. sensitivity to individual differences, e.g. disregarding special circumstances or applying policy inappropriately.

• (Selznick) Delegating authority vs. pursuing authorized goals, e.g. disagreements over unanticipated costs incurred from the exercise of the authority delegated.

• (Gulick) Process vs. product, e.g. production is speeded up and quality control is relaxed. Corporate merger generates exit of top management.

• (Gouldner) Power vs. morale, e.g. The desire to hide power-relations -- “your boss is your confidant” -- may conflict with getting more than minimal cooperation from organization members. If you don't fume, they don't work!

This situation may arise when there is a great disparity between what workers and their superiors expect the job to be, especially if the workers are professionals who expect a certain right of decision-making participation. (See Leadership: One Size Fits All? Do goals, means and organization even matter?)

Because the MCEO’s generated by these basic conflict types tend to be highly political, they often are treated as blameworthy technical foul-ups. Unless structural influences are recognized as such, these MCEO’s are very difficult to deal with, and may be brushed off as, merely, “personal politics.”

All structure-related MCEO’s are political: they touch not only on chain-of-command issues, but also on the adequacy of policy formation and implementation; and, likely, on a host of long seated organizational traditions. For such reasons, it is rational, although sometimes narrowly selfish, for well-ensconced organizational leaders to protect their position by using the pidgeon-holing opportunities offered by the logistic-tactical model of MCEO.

Criterion-based MCEO’s. These are most likely the “elephants in the room.” These are conflicts based on perceived (and often, real) impossibilities, deriving from our linguistic usage, from legal and other traditions, or from our scientific practices. Here are some examples:
1. You can’t be physically present to represent your company both in New York and San Francisco at the same time. (Think about sales presentation scheduling.)

2. You can’t drive your car at the highest possible speed and, at the same time, reduce fuel consumption to its idling minumum. (Automotive science cannot overcome this.)

3. You can’t win a chess game on the second move and at the same time not violate the rules of the game. (Compare this with insider trading.)

4. Only in an old punning riddle is a newspaper black and white and “red” all over. There are, still, no married bachelors. (Based on accepted language standards.)

These example show that some MCEO’s may not be able to be reconciled. That is why people avoid mentioning one or the other competitor in a criterion-based MCEO relationship. A solution cannot be concocted by ingenuity or effort because it is ruled out by, perhaps, physical law, or legal practice, or by common linguistic usage, among other things.

Imagine this situation: You, a person of much experience, acquire a position in Company X in its Department of Publicity and Promotion. You discover in short order that your boss, recently appointed, is the favorite, much indulged son of the owner (and CEO). Your boss’ lack of experience and skill is only outdone by his mania for micromanagement. You suspect that Sonny Boy is well-buffered (shielded) from much criticism or complaint.

Sonny Boy micromanages, and messes up. Several staff quit. Sales start to drop; clients fail to renew. What in the world is the matter? asks the CEO in a series of memos. But who would dare treat the CEO’s question as a technical inquiry, unless he or she were willing to risk losing their job. Would you bet that the CEO’s son is not buffered from criticism and go ahead to complain about his unprofessional interference? Or would you take extreme care to be very politic?

To examine these issues further, see Buffering: Enhancing Moral Hazard in Decision-Making?

--- EGR