Confusing Ends and Means

Posted: May 1, 2007 in Powerful Ideas

Bureaucracy can be viewed as the art of focusing on means rather than ends. I was reading through a government request for proposal (RFP in government lingo) a few days ago. A certain government department claims to want new approaches for training and educating managers and executives. Now, this is an area I know all about, because I spent four years managing and creating professional development programs for the Canadian Army, most of which involved leadership programs. I’ve also been consulting in that field for the last year.

You would think this government department would have the humility to realize they might need a different point of view. Unfortunately, that’s not the impression I got in reading the RFP. Everything is specified down to the last detail: how many surveys to do, how to do them, how many questionnaires, what methodology to use, what the schedule is, a detailed breakdown of the work plan, etc., etc. The obvious question to me is this. If they know so much about training and developing their managers and executives, why on earth do they need the services of an outside consulting firm?

The real issue here, of course, is that whoever is responsible for creating this RFP is focused almost exclusively on means rather than ends. Instead of specifying an end-state, the document assumes that training is required and that the only thing left to consider is the content and sequencing. Having experienced training and development from both ends of the stick, I can attest to the fact that training is only one aspect of the issue. How on earth can an outside firm provide reasonable and rational advice to this government department about what type of training is needed, and how to structure its proposal, if it doesn’t even have a decent idea of the organization’s objectives, characteristics and HR processes? Maybe the RFP should have contained that information instead of a laundry list of steps and procedures.

It would be easy to say this is reflective of government bureaucracy, but government managers aren’t the only people who focus on means rather than ends. For instance, performance measurement has become a mantra in recent years. Everyone wants it. This is fine, but we have to know why we want it. This is because performance measurement (or management – whichever you prefer) is really only a means to an end, a method rather than a goal. Performance measurement exists to provide relevant information to enable rational decision-making and management, nothing more and nothing less.

Other hot items are the ubiquitous mission statement and the strategic vision. Once again, this is fine, but the real issue is what you want to achieve (i.e. what are your goals?) and what you are prepared to do to make it happen. Too often we can read a wall plaque with some platitudes about how such and such is important (usually the customer and employees). A colleague of mine was fond of saying a vision without resources are a hallucination. I would add that a mission without values is a lie. Walk in to any hospital and they will claim that the patient comes first. Talk to any long-time patient with a chronic illness that must practically live at the hospital to get treatment and you will get a considerably different vision of the real state of affairs.

All of this stems from an inordinate focus on means rather than ends, process rather than content, the organization rather than its customers. The only way to ensure that such bureaucratization and self-centred behaviour is minimized is by a relentless focus on objectives, goals and markets, no matter what type of organization. Only then does it make sense to ask what tools (yes, quality assurance, performance measurement, strategic planning, training, etc. are all just tools) are needed to achieve the aim.

Richard Martin is President of Alcera Consulting Inc., a management consulting firm that helps excellent executives become world-class leaders and that assists individuals and organizations to thrive in the face of risks, threats and uncertainty. He is known for his intellectual breadth and has led teams in critical and sometimes life-threatening situations as an infantry officer in the Canadian Army. Areas of expertise include crisis leadership, strategy, risk management, disaster preparedness, coaching, mentoring, speaking, and training.

Richard Martin is President of Alcera Consulting Inc., a management consulting firm that helps excellent executives become world-class leaders and that assists individuals and organizations to thrive in the face of risks, threats and uncertainty. He is known for his intellectual breadth and has led teams in critical and sometimes life-threatening situations as an infantry officer in the Canadian Army. Areas of expertise include crisis leadership, strategy, risk management, disaster preparedness, coaching, mentoring, speaking, and training.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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