Stovepipes! The Musical

Once upon a time – actually not so long ago – in a place – not really that far away – there lived a stovepiped organization. It was exceedingly large, and exceptionally stovepiped, and extremely miserable. The individual stovepipes themselves were meticulously cared for. Each was in mint condition. But the barriers separating divisions within the organization were impenetrable. No one had been able to break them down. Even the most revered and respected management consultants, however optimistic they might be when they arrived, would walk away shaking their heads. Communication across the stovepipes was minimal – and dysfunctional. There was jealousy. The not-invented-here syndrome? Rampant. Misunderstanding, mistrust, and frustration were the rule. The organization was a large one, and rigidly hierarchial. Stovepiping was evident at the top, across the major divisions. But it was also pervasive within the respective divisions, where it extended even down to the office and branch level. Lines of report were extensive – where information and opportunity went to die.

Truth be told, there were many stovepiped organizations across the countryside. The land was dismal, dark, and silent. The situation grew worse for years. It was a time of despair.

Then – one day – came The Organist.

She allowed herself a moment to appreciate the beauty and the majesty of the pipes. How splendidly they were arrayed! How exquisite the construction; how magnificent the structure! She seated herself at the manuals (one keyboard for each division and the ranks within those divisions) and the pedalboard. She lovingly stroked the actions and the stops. She turned on the electricity and got the wind turbines going, building up the needed 0.1 psi overpressure.

Finally she began to play – first a few scales, then chords, then bits and pieces of the hymns she had known since childhood, then progressing to the preludes and fugues of Bach, then a range of work both sacred and secular.

Never had there been such music in the land. The stovepiped organization was recognized for what it was, and what it could be. It hadn’t been dysfunctional after all! It had simply been misunderstood, and misused. It could drop the humiliating adjective, and the opprobrium that came with it! It could go back to being – an organization.

From time to time other organists would arrive, at other organizations, and they too would find their purpose and be fulfilled. The land didn’t live happily ever after – but it was much happier than it had been.

Please don’t get me wrong. Improved communication and coordination across organizations and institutions is vital to the human prospect. We can and should do better! In fact, the next few posts will focus on policy challenges associated with working across interfaces: interfaces dividing disciplines, institutions; interfaces separating science and policy, the public- and the private sectors, etc.

But for years I’ve sat in on talks, and been at meetings, and been uncomfortable each time I hear the term “stovepiping.” The term is scornful; it’s dismissive. It’s easy to say – maybe even makes the speaker and audience feel good – but only for a moment. It’s not always that constructive or helpful. Start to be alert to its use yourself. The next time you hear someone say it, ask yourself what you think. Did it move the ball forward?

The fact of the matter? Compartmentalization, specialization, and division of labor are less a matter of organizational dysfunction than they are a wonderful invention for accomplishing complicated tasks and for achieving growth and innovation. To the extent there is a failure, it’s often a failure of leadership and management at every level. We’re the problem! Leaders and managers typically come from a particular discipline or profession, and typically find it easier and more natural – and therefore tempting – to micro-manage their own organizations (in effect, polish and maintain the organ pipes) than work externally with others to collaborate and actually play the organ – make beautiful music at their level. Often, especially in government, leaders come from outside with an attitude of “it was broke until I got here.” They forget the Robert Frost adage, “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up.”

[John F. Kennedy quoted a similar idea from G. K. Chesterton’s 1929 book, The Thing, in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”:

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”]

Imagine that the management consultants in our musical had been successful. Then, when our organist arrived, she’d have found not an organ but a foghorn. Try as she might, she’d have only been able to sound a single, monotonous note.

Leaders should seek to harmonize differences rather than eliminate them.

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3 Responses to Stovepipes! The Musical

  1. Billy McPherson says:

    As another musical example of organization, cooperation, and communication, I remember playing in a youth handbell choir some number of decades ago. Unlike the organist who alone is responsible for playing the whole instrument, handbells require the cooperation of several people all responsible for their few bells (with some bells shared by adjacent players during more complex passages). The individual bells were not the instrument but rather all the bells working together made up the instrument. No bell was more or less important than any other bell nor was any player more or less important than any other player. Each person was responsible for playing the correct notes at the correct time to produce the desired melody and harmonies. Only by cooperation was the song played correctly. And the satisfaction from making music with handbells was unlike any other instrument I ever played.

    • William Hooke says:

      Thanks, Billy. Great example. And just to reinforce your point. That responsibility and cooperation is more than just the performance. It’s every rehearsal! Every ringer has to show up for the practices, or else the music can’t be played.

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