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Is Your Business a “Benghazi”?

So by now most of you are aware of the incident that occurred at the US Embassy in Benghazi on September 11th 2012. An independent panel was established by the U.S. Government to further investigate how the attack occurred, how it was handled, and what can be done to prevent such future issues from taking place. More details released this week highlight that much of what they found relates to issues of organizational development – structure, process and leadership (I know, I know…shocking in a bureaucracy.)

“The biggest human resources challenge we face in Government is changing its culture,” stated Morley Winograd, Senior Policy Advisor to the Vice President and Director of the National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR) in a speech to Office of Personnel Management (OPM) managers and supervisors. “The current culture is hierarchical, process-driven, internally focused, ‘stovepiped.’ We need to create a culture that is more empowering, results-oriented, integrated across boundaries, and, above all else, externally focused…. we’re interested in changing the culture of Government by changing its conversation — when you change what people talk about, you change the culture.”

The panel determined that “…systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.” Granted – your business is not the State Department; however, there are lessons one can learn to ensure your organization doesn’t sustain some of the same systematic failures.

How can you make your organization high performing and prevent your business from becoming a “Benghazi”?

Structure: Many different types of organizational structures exist (product, functional, virtual etc.). The structure of your organization should help support and execute the strategy, and align to the mission and vision. The Benghazi incident was precipitated by overly rigid and complex organizational structures that inhibited free flowing communication, and negatively impacted the ability to coordinate preventative measures. Though the Department of State was the primary organization involved, this incident also involved the CIA, FBI and others. Each of these organizations has overly rigid and complex structures, and these types of complex and hierarchical and bureaucratic structures often hinder the success of the organization and well being of the employees – not help.

  • The solution: Design a structure that not only supports the strategy and service execution, but that also supports connecting and communicating with employees and stakeholder and partner organizations on deeper-lying levels. Often, this may mean creating a flatter, less hierarchal structure. Organizational structures often require changes over time as organizations increase in size, change service offerings, and respond to internal and external environmental factors. Remain flexible and open to adapting the structure as needed.

Process: The government is often known for having complex, rigid, redundant and difficult to change policies and processes, though this is not true for all government organizations; it does hold true as a contributing factor in the case of Benghazi. Process issues relating to requests for funding and additional security deployment played a role in the occurrence of the incident. As stated in the report, for many years the State Department has been engaged in a struggle to obtain and allocate the resources necessary to carry out its work.

  • The solution: To become a high performing organization, flexible and adaptable processes must be in place. Processes should support the organization in developing the ability of the organization to change and adapt (flexibility, speed and ability to learn). Processes should support a culture of openness, innovation, increased communication and continuous improvement. Processes should be continuously adapted to make achieving goals and objectives easier, simplified and coordinated to support the organizations’ strategy. The processes you have in place should help relevant and correct information be rapidly reported and implemented, increasing the speed of decision-making and response time. Processes shouldn’t just be designed to achieve product or service development, they should also help identify symptoms of organizational problems that may hinder performance and support actions to address them.

Leadership: Leadership is a driving force behind creating and maintaining a high performing organization. Depending on the type of industry, leaders may have more influence, authority, and ability to implement changes than others – however they always have a responsibility to try. In the panel report, it is stated several times that systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels contributed to the incident. Notice the word systematic.” The State Department is a system, and no system can be high performing in a vacuum or a silo. Leadership is only one part of an organization, and those in leadership roles lead within the confines of the structure, processes and culture to which they operate. When organizations have rigid and complex structures, processes that are often not understood or easily implemented and a culture where speaking up and persistence is not always encouraged – high performance is inhibited. Although this incident specifically called out the Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the Bureau of Near East Affairs for criticism, it stated some of the reasons as a lack of cooperation and confusion over protection at the mission in Benghazi, this is not just a leadership issue. Though the report did trigger resignations (scapegoats really) the Accountability Review Board determined that no individual officials ignored or violated their duties and recommended no disciplinary action now; however it did say poor performance by senior managers should be grounds for disciplinary recommendations in the future.

  • Solution: Even in instances when even leaders have to ‘work with what they’ve got’ they serve as role models through their actions and behaviors. They should still be personally involved in organizational planning, communications, employee development and coaching, development of future leaders, employee engagement and recognition and overall organizational performance strategies. In most cases leaders of high performing organizations also need to be expert communicators with employees and stakeholders– communicate in all directions and communicate frequently – and persistently drive process, structural and policy changes for the greater good of the organization.

Benghazi was a horrific incident – not just because of the sad loss of life – but because of the larger organizational issues that played a contributing role leading to the attack. The department has already begun to implement some of the recommendations in the report. They include increasing by several hundred the number of Marine guards stationed at diplomatic missions throughout the world, relying less on local security forces for protection at embassies, consulates and other offices, and increasing hiring and deployment of highly trained Diplomatic Security agents at at-risk posts…but how and where they are addressing the larger organizational issues that played a role in the incident remains to be seen.

Here’s hoping you prevent systemic failures that may negatively impact your business from becoming a high performing organization!

About Scott Span, MSOD: is President of Tolero Solutions an Organizational Improvement & Strategy consulting firm. He helps clients to facilitate sustainable growth by developing people and organizations to be more responsive, focused, productive and profitable.

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