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Managing as Coordination

September 28, 2009

In a commentary in the October issue of Scientific American magazine, Columbia University Earth Institute director Jeffrey D. Sachs asserts that public management in the United States is in crisis, particularly at the federal level.  Coinciding as it does with the worldwide economic crisis, he seems to suggest, the situation begs the question whether we  have forgotten how to manage our affairs.

Henry Mintzberg, the noted McGill University academic must have been wondering pretty much the same thing lately, as evidenced by his latest book, Managing.  Like his previous works, which challenged conventional wisdom in their own ways, Mintzberg seeks to remind us that managing is every bit as important as leading.

Sachs focuses on four failings: privatization of regulatory functions, collapse of planning functions, chronic underfunding of government, and institutional designs that inhibit coordination.  The cross-cutting nature of contemporary challenges, Sachs holds, require input from multiple disciplines and perspectives.

Mintzberg reminds us that it has become increasingly fashionable to distinguish between leading and managing: “One does the right things, copes with change; the other does things right, copes with complexity.”  But these elements, change and complexity, often present as fellow-travelers, forcing us to deal with both at once.  The resulting dilemmas often leave us without right or wrong answers, only better and worse options each of which leaves some need unsatisfied or alienates someone in some way.

Clearly, it matters very little whether we do things right if what we’re doing doesn’t matter.  At the same time, doing the right things wrongly is often worse than doing nothing at all.

Leadership, practiced as the art of influence, has increasingly been seen as something accessible to all, rather than an attribute of position or authority.  Those at the very top and very bottom of an organization — its boundaries — often find themselves in the best positions to wield such influence in so far as it involves leveraging the organization’s resources and interacting with its environment.

Managing, though, largely remains the province of those caught in the middle, as it were between the organization’s internal and external stakeholders.  No matter how adept they become at the art of influence, they cannot escape the overburden of responsibility they have for shepherding the organization’s resources and processes.

These responsibilities and the authorities that come with them do not, however, translate into control.  It has been my experience, that at best managers exert some influence on others through coordination (cf. Mintzberg’s covert versus overt control).

Like a traffic cop metering flow through a gridlocked intersection, managers spend most of their time trying to prevent accidents.  The best managers find it possible to do this while also ensuring that pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and mass transit all get a fair go at unimpeded access.

Connecting dots, maintaining communication, mediating conflict, and monitoring progress all play important roles in managing successfully.  Coordination requires managers to focus their efforts on clarification, competition, commitment, and creativity.  Each of these competencies, in its own way, contributes to overcoming one of the failures noted by Sachs.  Over the next few days, I will address each of these managerial competencies in more detail.

For now, suffice it to say, I am more with Mintzberg than Sachs.  While I see evidence of widespread managerial failings in both the public and private sectors, I remain hopeful that something short of radical reform can restore confidence in our ability to attend our own needs and build a better future for all.

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