During a college job at an Air Force weapons lab in New Mexico, [Robert Mercer, co-CEO Renaissance Technologies] says, he found a life’s calling. “I loved everything about computers,” he said. “I Loved the solitude of the computer lab late at night. I loved the air-conditioned smell of the place. I loved the sound of the disk whirring and the printers clacking.” His time at the lab also gave him an early taste of government bureaucracy. One day he figured out how to increase his computer’s speed by 100 times. “Then a strange thing happened. Instead of running the old computations in 1/100 the time, the powers that be at the lab ran computations that were 100 times bigger. I took this as an indication that one of the most important goals of government-financed research is not so much to get answers as it is to consume the computer budget ….” The Money Behind Ted Cruz, Bloomberg Businessweek, January 25, 2016.
For my first job in the United States Air Force they trained me up as a “signals analyst” and sent me to the National Security Agency. My job was to look at signal data emanating from foreign military units so we could track who and where that unit was. However, the NSA was a huge building and chocked full of computers — including some of the largest and fastest computers in the world. I loved it. My supervisors humoured me when I taught myself COBOL and spent all my off hours learning more about computer programming by programming “Dungeons & Dragons” games. They then assigned me to work on a project that was automating the record keeping at the NSA by having a large database for all intelligence analysts to keep, manage and analyze their data. It was a phenomenal experience for this young airman who had joined the Air Force because he could see no way to get to college.
But this experience, and my next 20+ years in the Air Force, taught me a lot about government bureaucracy and culture. When I got out of the Air Force and jumped into corporate life, I was amazed and surprised to find much of the same bureaucracy and culture existed there too. Many things were better, but the core organizations had mostly the same challenges as did the federal bureaucracy I had just finished. The good news was that I was familiar with how to get a big entrenched bureaucracy to improve. The bad news was that I once again had to give up on my first love of computers and programming and to again focus on managing the conflict of egos and ambitions that cared little for how well the organization performed so long as they got recognition and promotions or at least protected their jobs.
For insight in how to work a bureaucracy Know When Not To Fight
The lesson learned in all this was that a bureaucracy was a bureaucracy and it produced and reinforced similar cultures. Bringing about change had to do with understanding such an organization and then patiently and persistently working to get things to improve. The amazing thing, it often seemed, was that we could get things to improve. Those self serving bureaucracies were also chocked full of people with a sense of pride who if given the chance really did want to do a good job and to improve how they and their organizations performed. The trick I found was to find the courage to not be assimilated by the culture but instead to continue to focus on doing the best job possible.
More on moving an organization forward It’s The Idea, Not The Money That Brings Success
What are you doing to ensure that your team works to its potential and not be caught up in the games bureaucracies play to keep themselves alive?