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Tuesday, July 07, 2015

“Machines, Democracies, and Teams” - Metaphors for Academic Governance

Two relatively unrelated events provoked what I was thinking about on the dog walk this morning (possibly the most dangerous forty-five minutes of my typical day). The first was the recent resignation of a law dean owing to “major policy differences with a vocal segment of the faculty.” The second was realizing how “un-Prawf” I am when I looked at our school’s periodic review schedule for tenured faculty: I will not undergo such a review until 2019, when I am sixty-five years old.

Chaplin_-_Modern_TimesLet me be clear that this is a reflection in a blog post and not rigorous theory, even if others have done pretty rigorous thinking on the metaphors I’m about to propose. But I have spent considerable time in at least three organizational models – big law, public corporation, and law school faculty – and a good part of my brief in at least one of them was to think about organizational effectiveness.

I want to propose three idealized metaphors for organizations, recognizing that they are ideals and that no real organization is a perfect prototype of any of them. The first is “organization as machine.” The second is “organization as democracy.” The third is “organization as team.” One of the key differentials in the three conceptions is the nature of accountability of the individual to the organization, and in turn the developmental obligation of the organization to the individual. My thesis is that, for better or worse, the second metaphor is the most powerful one for academic governance. Whether it works (whatever “working” means) is another question.

More follows the break.

Organization as machine. The essence of accountability here is authoritarian command-and-control. You do what you are told to do. You are accountable to the authority. You are a cog in the machine. The organization’s only obligation is to make sure you run well.

This is an Alfred Sloan/Henry Ford/Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times conception. I love listening to David McCulloch’s narration about Ford at the beginning of the movie Seabiscuit: “Of course, the real invention wasn’t the car; it was the assembly line that built it. Pretty soon, other businesses had borrowed the same techniques. Seamstresses became button sewers. Furniture makers became knob turners.” Or the "Henry Ford" song from Ragtime: “Even people who ain’t too clever/ Can learn to tighten a nut forever,/ Attach one pedal/ Or pull one lever.”

“Every worker a cog in motion” (also Ragtime) certainly describes the most deflating aspect of my some fifteen plus years in big law as associate, partner, and “of counsel.” If you lack passion about what you are actually doing as a lawyer, and your primary obligation is to turn out a certain number of billable hours, you really can see yourself as a button sewer or knob turner, albeit well compensated. (There’s a nice critique of organization as machine in a book by a highly regarded organizational theorist, James Champy: Reengineering Management.)

Organizations in which the machine metaphor predominates have the benefit, generally, of being able to accomplish things quickly at the cost of buy-in and engagement. Unless you are at the top of the heap and enjoy wielding autocratic power, I suggest it’s not very satisfying to be part of the organization as machine.

Organization as democracy. There are no accountabilities. There are only factions, interests, and relative power. Whether governance occurs by consensus or beat-down is a matter of culture and individual idiosyncrasy. On one hand, there are no command-and-control authorities. On the other hand, there are no coaches and no developmental obligations of the organization to the individual.

The two best analogs I can come up with other than actual governments (or homeowners’ associations) are law firms and faculties. Citizenship means partnership or tenure, respectively, and accountability and organizational development, if any, exists only in the pre-citizenship years as a means of achieving citizenship. Once you are a citizen, how, when, and if you participate in government is entirely up to you, and your relationship with the organization is roughly equivalent to your relationship with democratic government. (This is, of course, why these are idealized. If you are a worker bee law firm partner and not a rainmaker, your putative citizenship might not be worth much, and you still might feel that it’s organization as machine.) Organizations as democracy accomplish things from time to time (witness: health care reform), but it’s slow and grudging (witness: health care reform). Everybody has a say, but it really takes a long time.

In organizations as democracy, presidents stop being effective when they lose their political bases in the legislature, and deans resign when they get frustrated by major policy differences with vocal members of the faculty (or with the university administration, as the case may be). As to individual development, it’s the YOYO principle (“you’re on your own”).

Organization as team. The essence of accountability in a team is to the team and its other members. I will avoid sports analogies here, and instead focus on something I once called the ultimate team sport: theater. Correct cues are the most obvious example. A less obvious one to the audience is dealing with props. My daughter is the theater professional in our family, but I used to help backstage in her youth and community theater efforts. There is a prop table in each wing, and if you don’t set the prop in the place it’s supposed to be after you use it, it won’t be there for the next actor to pick up.

Are there leaders in the theater? Of course there are. Directors, stage managers, etc. But best leaders in the team context are as coaches, seeking to help develop the team member so as to be most helpful in accomplishing the team’s goals. (My philosophy as a coach was based on the Coach’s Paradox: we develop our team members so well that we run the risk of losing them to somebody else.) The classic study of the transformation of an industry whose primary organizational metaphor is machine to one whose primary metaphor is team is Womack, Jones, & Roos, The Machine That Changed the World, the story of the decline of Sloan and Ford style mass production and the rise of lean production in Japan. I’m not sure I can cite to a source for organizational transformation from democracy to team.

* * *

Let me pose two thought experiments.

1. For years, the first year doctrinal curriculum at the Ginormous State Law School has been a full year of contracts (6 credits), a full year of civil procedure (6 credits), and one semester of torts, property, criminal law, and constitutional law (4 credits each). Someone proposes that contracts and civ pro be cut back to 4 credits each, and that the 6 credits now available in the second semester be devoted to two of the following courses as electives: intro to tax, business associations, criminal procedure, administrative law, accounting for lawyers, or federal jurisdiction.

2. Every year, you meet with the dean for an “annual review.”

How differently, if at all, would organizations as machines, democracies, or teams handle each of these two situations?

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on July 7, 2015 at 07:25 PM | Permalink


Let me just add a third thought experiment. You discover that the law school leadership has begun doing something that you consider fundamentally wrong -- for example, the law school (a) begins accepting students whose entering credentials demonstrate a less-than-5% likelihood of ever passing the bar, or (b) switches from a scholarship-distribution system in which students are awarded three-year scholarships before they matriculate to a system in which nearly all students are awarded generous first-year scholarships but then only the top 5% of 2Ls keep their scholarship. What obligations, if any, do you have to oppose such practices? What mechanisms exist for you to do so?

Posted by: Rick Bales | Jul 8, 2015 2:49:17 AM

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