Form Follows Function, Except …

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law.

Louis Sullivan

We’ve all heard the old rubric, “Form follows function,” apparently first coined by Sullivan discussing the design of large buildings.  But it is just as true of our bureaucracies.  As I’ve ranted discussed in a previous post (see Bureaucracy and Community Resilience), “bureaucracies exist to carry out routine functions efficiently and in a consistent manner.”

What I didn’t say (and probably should have!) is that bureaucracies usually are tuned to be efficient under normal conditions.  Thus, the bureaucracy’s structure – its form – reflects business as usual.  The bureaucracy works because its structure is consistent with the tasks it must perform.

Sullivan goes on to say, “Where function does not change, form does not change.”  But what happens when a bureaucracy is faced with a significant change in its working environment – during a crisis, for example – that forces changes in how it functions?

The short answer, of course, is that it tries to handle the unusual in its usual manner.  Its organizational structure – the bureaucracy’s form, hopefully well-tuned to normal conditions – now governs its functioning.  If the organization’s form does not change, then its ability to function efficiently and consistently may well suffer.  On the other hand, if the bureaucracy adapts quickly to the new set of conditions, it may find an opportunity in change to reach a higher level of performance.

Let me look at some very disparate examples to illustrate this.  Hurricane Katrina had a major impact on the forest enterprise in the impacted regions (esp. in lower Mississippi).  In the most affected areas, 40% of the forests were damaged.  According to the Forest Service, the downed or damaged timber could have produced 800,000 single family homes and 25 million tons of paper products.  The EPA and Mississippi’s Department of Environmental Quality had no plans for dealing with this massive amount of solid debris.  It took several months before the owners of downed timber could gain permits for wet storage areas to preserve their timber, primarily because the regulators involved did not change their bureaucratic structures (and thus not their processes) to deal with this unusual situation.  While the permit process was expedited, this was accomplished by simply adding more people, not through restructuring to better handle the problem.  As a result, over half of the timber was lost with major repercussions on the entire forest products enterprise.  In addition, the downed timber led to a situation in which there was literally a new forest fire in Mississippi every day during the spring, summer and fall of the following year.  In short, regulatory functions were dictated by organizational structures tuned to “normal” circumstances; i.e., form dictated function, and resulted in poor performance.  Unfortunately, the regulators have not really learned anything from this – in the face of another Katrina, it would still take months before storage sites for downed timber would obtain permits.

Waffle House provides a very different example.  It plans for surprises, and is organized so that it can function under almost any set of circumstances.  It clearly has learned from past experience and has adapted itself so that restaurants impacted by disasters can open with restricted menus.  If workers can’t get to a Waffle House location (as happened to my community in January, 2014, because of an ice storm), workers can be temporarily brought in from other locations to minimize service interruptions.

WalMart provides an excellent example of finding opportunity in change.  In the ‘90’s, virtually every corporation in America spent huge amounts on information technology.  For most companies, the gains in productivity (i.e., the return on investment) were modest.  However, WalMart used this technological change to reorganize its supply chains so that it quickly gained a tremendous competitive advantage.  In other words, it altered its form to improve functioning.

Form follows function, except when changing circumstances demand changes in how an organization functions.  In the earlier blog on bureaucracies, I pointed out the factors that determine how rapidly an organization can change:  its history, its age, its ability to collaborate, its ability to innovate, and, most importantly, its leadership.  The resilience of an organization, or a community, is manifested in how rapidly it adapts – how quickly it changes its form – so that it can function effectively in a new environment.


Bureaucracy and Community Resilience

The purpose of bureaucracy is to compensate for incompetence and lack of vision.

Jim Collins

Bureaucracies are inherently anti-democratic. Bureaucrats derive their power from their position in the structure, not from their relations with the people they are supposed to serve. The people are not masters of the bureaucracy, but its clients.

Alan Keyes

I’ve had way too much experience with bureaucracies in my almost fifty years working with the federal government.  In the next couple of blogs, I’ll be looking at bureaucracy through the lens of community resilience.

First, a word of disclaimer.  My view of bureaucracy is well summarized in some of Moore’s laws of bureaucracy:

  • Bureaucracies have no heart.
  • Bureaucracies are perverse.
  • Bureaucracies will thrash about, causing much cost, pain and destruction.

If I (and so many others) feel this way, why do we still have bureaucracies?  There are two reasons for this that more or less mirror the quotes above.

  1. Most importantly, bureaucracies exist to carry out routine functions efficiently and in a consistent manner – bureaucracies are the wheels that keep organizations (governments, businesses…) running more or less smoothly.  But this also implies a more fundamental role for bureaucracies.  Their rules, regulations, and procedures encapsulate the organization’s corporate memory of what works, at least within a bureaucracy’s domain.  However, the more rigid this procedural structure, the more resistant the bureaucracy is to change.
  2. Bureaucracies tend to be self-perpetuating.  As formulated in Jerry Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy:  In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to the benefit of the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.  In other words, in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representatives who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.

Larger organizations – and communities – tend to be more bureaucratic because they tend to do more things on a routine basis. All too often, however, their bureaucracies are rigid and resistant to change. But resilience is all about managing and adapting to change.  Achieving resilience thus means tearing down the walls between balkanized bureaucracies that are busily making their silos into fortresses.  This leads to a paradox:  if a community is working to become more resilient, it will try to take action through its tried and proven bureaucratic channels, the ones least prone to change.  Further, since adapting to major disruptions (e.g., pandemics, recessions) generally does not neatly fit into a single bureaucracy’s purview, it forces bureaucracies to interact with one another in non-routine ways.  If the community’s bureaucracies are flexible, the community is likely to be more resilient; if not, any efforts to enhance the community’s resilience become much more difficult. 

Of course, these are general thoughts.  However, they lead to some specific things to consider in determining whether a community’s bureaucracies will help or hinder efforts to become more resilient.

  • History.  If a bureaucracy is a sort of corporate memory container, then look at the challenges the community, esp. the bureaucracy, has faced.  Were they varied?  Were some of them relatively recent?  Were they successfully met?  “No” answers may indicate that the bureaucracy is too rigid.
  • The age of the bureaucracy.  Just like people, a bureaucracy can get “hardening of the arteries” with age.  It can accrete documentation requirements, for example, that continue on long after the need for a document has disappeared.  In a crisis, these will sow frustration in both the public and the bureaucracy and slow down recovery.
  • Collaboration.  Has the bureaucracy worked with others outside their domain to solve crosscutting problems?  City governments such as San Diego and Baltimore that are managed in a fashion that forces bureaucracies to work together toward common crosscutting goals are likely to be more resilient than ones that are managed in a more stovepiped manner.
  • Leadership.  Is the leadership of the bureaucracy open to new ideas?  Does the leadership have experience working outside the bureaucracy?  Has any of the leadership come from outside the bureaucracy?  Again, “No” answers raise red flags.
  • Innovation.  Has the bureaucracy periodically changed how it does business?  Is continuous improvement a part of its culture?
  • Number.  More bureaucracies imply more organizations that must be aligned to actually make something happen.
  • Accountability. Do community leaders hold their bureaucrats accountable for how they have served the people?

Bureaucracy can be a boon or a bane to community resilience. It’s up to the community – through its leaders – to determine which it is to be.