I appreciate people taking the time to give me feedback. The branding piece last week evoked some strong feelings.
I cannot claim that a large number of readers resonated with my piece; I can only say that the people who responded to me by and large shared my expressed sentiment. One of the suggestions that struck me – and I have heard this view repeatedly since we moved here in 2002 – is that this town takes forever to make decisions.
Based on my brief sojourn at the Lab, as well as the steady stream of stories I have been hearing for more than a decade, it is not a coincidence that there are strong parallels between LANL and the town.
I worked at the lab for a couple of years, pre-LANS. I noted one of the characteristics was that managers were always inclined toward discussions and studies, hesitant in making decisions and extremely slow in taking actions. We all suffer from “not acting on knowledge” malady, some more so than others (please refer to my earlier piece on “Acting on Knowledge,” link below.) This affliction seems to be particularly strong at LANL. (sidebar: Busywork is not the same as “action.”)
Many have said — and I agree — that this is due to the scientist mentality. What this means is that scientists take time to think things through and reflect upon problems. While there are plenty of egos among scientists (“My work is more important than others.”), most of them believe and would like to uphold the “egalitarian” principles where all are equal and therefore, all opinions deserve equal considerations. Similar to professors’ allergic reaction to the hierarchy at universities, lab scientists have deeply rooted disdain for management. (From my perspective, much of this disdain is justified, especially under LANS. I will, at some point, compose a more detailed review on this topic.)
As a result of a deep distrust of management, every decision deserves to be examined and criticized. Decisions that result in more busywork are not real decision-making and should be especially critically scrutinized. And people who have to make decisions feel compelled to think four times before making decisions … and still get criticized. In a small town, the parallel process, where conflicts originating in one area are manifested elsewhere e.g. what goes on at LANL and what goes on in town, become acutely apparent. (For a refresher course on parallel process, please refer to my earlier writing on “Fix the Women,” link below.)
One of the typical symptoms of the inability to make a decisive move is calling for studies, surveys, committees, or meetings. The opposite isn’t necessarily true: Doing a survey or forming a committee isn’t automatically an indicator of indecision. A closer examination of the history of an entity would reveal if doing surveys, conducting studies, or forming committee after committee has become a pattern. In addition, it is worth examining whether survey or study is just a façade to cover what the decision-makers have always wanted to do; they just use these tools to justify their intentions. They reason this would minimize criticism; in reality, the criticism comes no matter what.
The problem for Los Alamos town and LANL is that they have not genuinely defined their identity. Is LANL only a nuclear lab? Or, something more? Some people want it to be just a nuclear lab, and others want more. But there has not been a healthy, honest, and open debate about it. The same is true for the town. Is it an “Atomic City?” Or, is it a science community and then some? But it definitely is not, and will not be, a shopping Mecca, not in this or the next century. And seriously, how much of our community wants our town to be a magnet for shopping?
If we want to pursue egalitarian principles, let’s study and learn from some examples. There aren’t that many; however, Israel’s Kibbutz could be an interesting study. Perhaps some peaceful tribes in Africa or remote Asian regions? Once again, I would like to tap into our younger generation for their creativity, energy, and visions. Request them to do some digging and studying; ask them to provide comparisons and analysis. I wager that their surveys and/or interviews would yield more interesting, revealing, and thoughtful results.
The process of finding and defining identity is wickedly difficult. That’s why many individuals prefer not getting into it and many organizational entities shy away from it. Further, inevitably, in the process of searching and defining identity, we need to make changes. We always talk about needing changes … but generally, we mean for others to change. One of the reasons that a full, open, candid debate on identity hasn’t taken place, is that we all fear our own preferred identity affiliation will lose. (Not unlike Schroedinger’s Cat, our identity preference can survive indefinitely in limbo, undisturbed. Whereas our ID, like the Cat, is terrifyingly likely to be dead if we let it be examined.)
Next week, I will address some fundamental philosophical principles of changes. Advance warning: It’s not for faint-hearted. Have a peaceful week. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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Editor’s note: Dr. Yang has a PhD in Management from the Wharton Business School of the University of Pennsylvania. She taught at Wharton for a number of years, and consulted for small groups and small organizations and on cross-cultural issues. Her professional worldview comprises three pillars: 1. All organizations are social systems in which elements are inter-related. 2. To improve organizations, the focus should be on the positive dimensions on which to build. This philosophical foundation is Appreciative Inquiry. 3. Yang subscribes to the methodological perspective that she is part of the instrument from which to gain quality data from respondents, and with which to compare and contrast with others’ realities.