I’ve been both a participant and a student of large organizations for nearly 60 years – for better and for worse. The story sounds ordinary at the beginning, but it gets more interesting toward the present if you stick with me.
After I graduated from college in 1957, I enlisted in the US Army, went through the Defense Language Institute, where I learned rudimentary Chinese Mandarin, and was stationed in Taiwan as a translator. From there I went to the East Asian Institute at Columbia University, where I added history, economics, and politics of China to my language skills, and ultimately passed the exams for the Foreign Service.
As a junior Foreign Service Officer I was assigned to be the Executive Assistant to the American ambassador to China, at the time in Taipei, Taiwan. I was tasked with mapping the efforts of all the agencies into the unified American policy objectives that had been laid out the previous year. It wasn’t much of a job, and no one cared about the outcome.
But I got to see, from the center of the web, the workings of the embassy and the much larger American Mission, including AID, CIA, Military Attaches, the 13th Air Force, the 6th Fleet, and a few other agencies’ overseas arms, and I attended and recorded for the ambassador the weekly meetings of the chiefs of all those agencies, the Country Team. I also read most of the telegraphic traffic from Saigon to Washington in addition to the ambassador’s messages.
My next assignment was in Washington, where we wrote up the results of trying to manage all those agencies in one country under one foreign policy and one ambassador. Then I was moved to the Bureau of Intelligence and Research where my job was to summarize the daily intelligence reports on the People’s Republic of China for the Secretary of State.
Result? I got to know how the State Department worked (and didn’t) more intensely than many senior officers – and I could see that I didn’t want to spend my life doing what I saw my seniors doing.
So I went to Stanford, on the surface to earn a Ph.D., but really to write up in my dissertation my answer to the question: what was the flaw in what I had seen in the way the State Department worked. What was wrong there? What could be done to improve it?
I ended up in deep water – way over my head. They gave me the Ph.D. all right. Some of the best organizational and policy professors in the business passed on my dissertation. But they knew – and I knew – that is was a hollow victory. I had bitten into a subject so much bigger than the ostensible topic I chose that I couldn’t grasp the underlying principles, much to the disappointment of my advisors – who included the great James March, by the way.
it was only decades later, after I had studied whole systems and information theory and then read what I could about living systems and how they pass and store information, that the underlying patterns that I had been unable to perceive in my dissertation began to emerge. In other words, I didn’t understand my own dissertation until some 40 years passed, and I read about the operations of living systems.
By that time I had been defrocked from university teaching owing to my participation in anti-war (Vietnam era) student actions and breaking some important norms of teaching, and I had helped start a series of small enterprises, most of them geared to help local businesses get into China to buy or sell products there.
Having read The Limits to Growth when it was first published in 1972, I had also long ago realized that the multitude of environmental crises were threatening human life even more fundamentally than war. I had assigned the book to my students in international relations, and subsequently as a businessman I had participated in The Natural Step, a business organization for sustainability, and I had served as Executive Director of the Washington State Recycling Association as a way of putting my oar in where it might do some practical good.
Back in Portland, I started a business recycling wood. I bought timbers from demolition sites and transformed them into flooring, complete with old nail holes and distress marks. After three years I sold out to a larger company and became their marketing manager. By the time that company folded, despite rapidly growing sales, I had learned to write killer business plans and to be suspicious of impulsive senior managers.
I had also, in the meanwhile, completed an MA program in Organizational Development at Antioch University, Seattle, and yearned to get into consulting. And that’s where I have been ever since, taking some time on the side to teach Sustainable Business in the MBA program at Marylhurst University. I’m now retired and, for the first time, I’m beginning to understand what I was trying to say about the State Department – and all other large organizations, as it turns out – in my dissertation.
This blog is a culmination of nearly 10 years of research and reading. It is the third draft – or will be – of the book I have wanted to write. In it I will analyze the issues that hold large organizations – and all us of – back.
It is vital that we make progress in understanding human organizations. For if we are to make the drastic adjustments to our lives that will be required, if we are to get through the culmination of global warming without setting off one or more of the non-linear multiplying effects that lurk in unknowable recesses of rising temperature, we will do it through the large organizations that act effectively in the world. The prospect of overshoot or of setting off an uncheckable, positive feedback loop that would carry us way beyond the limits to life on our planet terrifies me – and, I hope, you too.
So I invite you to come along with me as I explore and experiment with this topic. When you start reading, I suggest you start with the entry at the bottom of the column on the right of the page. “Hello!”, it reads. Then read the next entry above it in that column, which is numbered 1. Then go to 2, and so forth up the column. That way you’ll get them in the sequence I wrote them and in which they should appear if this ever becomes a book.
And subscribe. That would be good for both you and me.