Bureaucracy: Machines & Pilots

Bureaucracy, as described by the sociologist Max Weber, is rational. Bureaucracy is how we logically create standardized and efficient systems of exchange, of competition, of distribution of labor at scale. It is rational in an abstract sense, when you abstract it away from the human, when you average people out and line them up and remove the outliers at the margins (one way or another).

Because of its rationality, bureaucracy demands and depends on standardization, and if you don’t happen to be a standard square peg, then forcing you into the square opening of that rational system is going to take a little flesh off.

Bureaucracy is rational in the way that machines are, and machines are rational when they’re operating in a knowable environment, in which all relevant factors can and have been either controlled or accounted for. Vacuum cleaners are highly rational in the context of a house, a contained system whose flooring is manufactured perhaps specifically with vacuums in mind, whose doors and walls keep the system well controlled.

Vacuums stop being rational when you take them outside of the strictly controlled and contained confines of rigidly codified systems of housing. They make little sense in a forest or a desert, or other natural environments where we can’t account for or control relevant factors. When rational systems make contact with complex natural ones that aren’t controlled or fully accounted for, they stop seeming so rational. Rationality is conditional.

Bureaucracy can be described as rational, on the condition that the domain that bureaucracy is operating on is not so complex that its rate of change outpaces the bureaucracy’s capacity to adapt to that change. Take the machine of bureaucracy outside the bounds of the knowable environment, and it will make about as much sense as a Roomba in a parking lot. 

Let’s extend this analogy to one of our favorite kinds of machines in the Air Force- Aircraft

Aircraft are very much machines, and their rationality is also conditional. Where the rate of change in the operation of aircraft reaches a certain threshold, that’s where the machine stops and the pilot begins. At the threshold of observation, decision, and action, these machines no longer cut it. John Boyd’s OODA loop describes a human process, not a mechanical one.

Bureaucracy can be described as rational, but it is not relational.

Bureaucracy stops making sense when our non-standardization as humans starts to disrupt expectations. Because humans aren’t purely rational. Our minds, interactions, perceptions, contexts, and lives are complex. We are not easily contained or controlled. We are not easily standardized.

It should tell us something that roles exist at the unit level for someone whose job is essentially human intervention–the first sergeant, the chaplain–whose primary purpose is to sense when the machine is taking too much flesh off of the Airman or their family. Personally I would prefer if this was every leader…

Perhaps they could be seen as the pilots of these machines–where the rate of change reaches a certain threshold–the messy human threshold–that’s where the machine stops and the pilot begins. At a certain threshold of rapid and dynamic observation, orientation, decision, and action, it doesn’t make sense to rely on or trust the machine. We need a pilot.

Throughout my Air Force career, I have been in need of intervention or accommodation of some sort almost perpetually. We had a severely disabled daughter and struggles with the Exceptional Family Medical Program for the 14 years she was alive. We’ve had school issues, mental health struggles, financial difficulties, isolation and medical emergencies and our daughter died and… we have had a lot of life that was somehow at odds with standardized expectations of the system. A lot of messy, unknowable complexity that continues to emerge. A lot of need for accommodation, for seeing us, orienting, and acting based on our needs…

If the bureaucracy is the machine, and then someone is the pilot… 

Well I’ve seen too many times when either those pilots mistook their role for simply keeper of the machine–they just let it do what it was gonna do, not seeing or caring where we fell outside the margins… or they saw that our situation wasn’t protected in policy and felt helpless themselves. They weren’t piloting the machine. They were just operators.

Often, I’d say the machine was driving them.

Or they attempted to take the stick and maneuver it — and the machine wasn’t actually responsive to their signals. They might be in a pilot seat, but it turned out they were never pilots all along.

There is a threshold at which bureaucracy is no longer rational. It is an impediment to this machine being responsive to complex, changing, human conditions… and looking at this through the simple analogy of a machine and a pilot, I have just two recommendations to offer:

The first is to change leaders- they’re only going to be pilots of this machine if they feel it’s their role to be, and a lot don’t. This should be every leader down to the front-line supervisor. Don’t reduce them to simply managers or petty bureaucrats. Give them what they need to be pilots. Give them ownership and align them to the values and practices of human-centered, dialogic, intent-driven, facilitative leadership.

The second is to make that machine in turn actually responsive to the signals of those OODA looping pilots. 

In my view, Mission Command, now a part of official Air Force doctrine, should be the fly-by-wire upgrade to our organizational operating system. It should be.

Whether that turns out to actually be the case is still up to us. 

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