Cover of The Caine Mutiny (Collector’s Edition)
Growing up one of my favorite books was The Caine Mutiny by Herman Wouk. He wrote it shortly after the Second World War and it was pretty much his first best-seller.
It tells the story of Willie Keith a pampered young man, and a bit of a momma’s boy, as he joins the Navy during the war, and becomes a pretty good officer. Like everybody coming out of officer’s school he wants to be on a shiny new battleship or aircraft carrier, but he’s assign to the Caine, a rusty old 4 pipe destroyer now converted to a destroyer minesweeper. He’s pretty surly, and has a lot of trouble adapting to serving in a ship that looks like a wreck, and he therefore runs afoul of his CO, Captain de Vriess, usually over silly stuff.
He does notice though, that while it seems to him that a lot of Naval Regulations get ignored the Caine is always where it needs to be to do the job. He credits this to the executive officer, Steve Maryk, who before the war was a fisherman. But he still longs for the spit and polish navy of his dreams. When the Captain is promoted out, he is overjoyed to find that the new captain is a spit and polish and follow all the regulations guy. Funny part is that it doesn’t work all that well, and morale gets very bad. Eventually the ship is caught, along with the rest of the 3d Fleet, in a typhoon off Okinawa, and they are having a great deal of trouble with the ship.
Finally the Exec relieves the captain and turns the bow into the wind, with Keith concurring presumably saving the ship at the cost of a mutiny. Following on this the ship is off the line while Maryk is court-martialed for Mutiny. Keith ends up with a letter of reprimand and command of the ship with orders to return to the east coast after the war so the ship can be scrapped.
It’s a good yarn, and I recommend it highly, and like all good yarns it has a moral.
At some point on of the other officers tells Keith the secret:
“The navy is a master plan designed by geniuses for execution by idiots.”
Think about that for a while. Isn’t that pretty much what any large organization is? If it works at all, a large organization doesn’t necessarily have to be efficient but, it cannot be allowed to fail (in the organization’s terms) in any catastrophic way. In the Navy’s case, it must win battles. It doesn’t have to promote the best man, it doesn’t even have to keep everybody alive but, It must win battles and the war. That is it’s whole reason for being.
If you’ve ever been around the military, you know there are at least 4 ways to do anything, 1) The right way; 2) The wrong way; 3) The Navy way; and 4) my way, and that comes from experience. What Capt. de Vriess was doing along with LT Maryk was doing what had to be done to remain operational while ignoring most of the rest, and it worked very well as long as they had people who understood the goals and aspirations of their unit (The Caine).
So what is my point, other than a book review of a book published in about 1948? This is how all large organizations act if they are more concerned about something other than executing their mission. They write all the details down so that a computer can do every job, but nobody has any allowance for common sense.
To me it sound a lot like suspending a kindergarten student for eating his Pop-tart into the shape of a gun and saying “bang”. Not to mention a lot of the other stories that come out of American life lately.
Mark Esposito, writing on Jonathon Turley’s blog has thought and written about this as well, and done a better job of researching it than I have, here is some of his thinking
In Maryland, a seven-year-old boy is suspended from his school under its “zero tolerance” policy because he nibbles a pastry into the shape of a handgun and says “Bang!” “Bang!” (Here). In California, a high school principal refuses to let an ambulance come onto a football filed to tend to a seriously injured player citing school board rules. (Here). A nurse at a home for the aged ignores the furtive pleas of a 911 dispatcher and refuses to perform CPR on a woman dying of cardiac arrest because she says its policy not to do it. (Here). She won’t even get someone else to do it.
These grotesque examples of indifference to any form of reason are becoming all too common as we find ourselves governed more by rules than by the judgment of people. These stories got me thinking about the need for rules in a complicated society and their limitations. It also got me wondering why wisdom and its country cousin, common sense, have been banished from most every discussion of decision making. Here’s John Maynard Keynes in his famous treatise on decision making, Treatise of Probability, discussing how to make the right decision:
If, therefore, the question of right action is under all circumstances a determinate problem, it must be in virtue of an intuitive judgment directed to the situation as a whole, and not in virtue of an arithmetical deduction derived from a series of separate judgments directed to the individual alternatives each treated in isolation.
Armed with that little tidbit, I searched the entire work and found exactly zero uses of the word “wisdom” in Professor Keynes’ detailed analysis of doing the right thing. How can that be?
Wisdom is a an old-fashioned word. It hearkens back to Solomon and Solon. To Plato and Socrates. Aristotle explained that practical wisdom is one part moral will and one part moral skill. It means a human action premised on experience or intuition that achieves the best possible moral result. Not efficient. Not effective. Not even the most profitable. But the most moral result.
At its core, it is about the time and thought necessary to achieve deep understanding. Both are in short supply these days as we measure our progress by how far we’ve gotten or by how much we have obtained and how fast we did it. The process by which we achieved these things is less important that the result. And it is this philosophy that has laid waste to ethics, judgment, and most importantly wisdom. In this race to “Just Win Baby,” we have ossified our capacity for wisdom under a steady stream of rules, regulations, guidelines, and protocols. But why?
Speaking at a TED conference in 2009, Professor Barry Schwartz examined the problem and offered an explanation in the context of a study done of hospital janitors. Schwartz looked at the job descriptions of the janitors. The explanations of employment were big on such rudimentary tasks as cleaning, restocking, and sanitation, but not one mention of anything involving human interaction. As professor Schwartz remarked “the job could just as easily have been done in a mortuary as in a hospital.” But that assessment did not match what the janitors considered the most important aspect of their jobs. In responses to questioning from researchers, one janitor, Mike, explained the most important thing about his job was caring for patients. Like the time he stopped mopping a floor because Mr. Jones was finally up and around from surgery and had just left his bed to get some exercise. Another custodian, Charlene, told of ignoring the orders of a supervisor to vacuum the visitors lounge because family members of a patient who dutifully arrived every day to be with their loved one were finally getting a chance to take a nap. And, Luke, who scrubbed the floor of a comatose patient’s room twice because the emotionally drained father at the bedside didn’t see it the first time and insisted it be done. No argument. No rebuttal. No peevishness of any sort. Just compassion. [..]
Continue reading Shackling Our Wisdom With Rules
Do you see his point? It’s pretty obvious isn’t it? Or is it?
Let’s take the schools for an example. What is the mission of a public school?
- To educate our young in the basics they need to survive?
- To indoctrinate our young to be dependent on government all their life?
- To provide jobs for teachers
- To provide jobs for administrators
- To provide union dues for union leadership
- To provide union dues for political lobbying
Or some combination.
Maybe that is part (maybe even a large part) of the problems we see in our society, is the mission of the organization what we think it is, or has it mutated into something that was not anticipated.
How do we, if this is the problem, get these organizations back to their original mission?