Wednesday, September 30, 2015

When the Means Become the Ends

The Linda Vista central office still had a Western Electric person. I was working the frame, which meant I worked for "the phone company" and had to ask the Western person should I need a volt meter. He brought me the meter and stood by while I tested the circuit. It was dead; too dead. There is always a slight bit of a background reading even on a line with no signal. Zero movement meant the volt meter was broken.

So I asked, "Is this meter working?"

"No" came his matter-of-fact reply.

"Why didn't you send it to be repaired," I asked.

"Because then we would not have a volt meter." Apparently, the rules required that we always have a volt meter. And the rules - the means by which we try to accomplish our ends - had become the ends.

OK, that was a while ago. Since then, many things have changed. We broke up the phone company and renamed Western Electric. I got fired. The iron curtain fell. We deregulated the telephone industry. My beard went grey. We invented smart phones. Yes, a lot has changed. But one thing remains the same: People allow the means to become the ends.

The iconic study of such "goal displacement" was by the political sociologist Robert Michels, whose 1911 book Political Parties documented the German Social Democratic Party's use of non-democratic means to pursue democratic ends. From this example he coined the term "iron law of oligarchy."

A century later goal displacement is still going strong. You see it every day all around you: I know an enterprise software company that developed a product a customer really wanted, but refused to sell it because it had not gone through the right approval procedure. In another case, one company's "key performance indicators" encouraged employees to push a service that harmed the company's performance. In such cases, the means have become the ends.

There is a simple solution to the problem, albeit one that is hard to put into practice: Make sure everyone knows the real "ends". That's why you have strategy; so people will know why they are working to begin with. If you're at a university, make sure the housing policies get you the right students - not the students who fit the housing policies. If you're a software company, make sure your development procedures create the best products - not just the products that conform to policy. If you're in accounting, make sure your procedures encourage employees to work toward your company's real goals.

And when you see the means displacing the ends, fix the problem. If the means have become the ends, what does that say about your leadership?

Robert Michels' book is still worth reading.