Sunday, March 04, 2012

The Order of Maria Theresa

Today's idea is embodied in a medal established in Austria. According to Wikipedia, the military order of Maria Theresa. "It was specifically given for 'successful military acts of essential impact to a campaign that were undertaken on [the officer's] own initiative, and might have been omitted by an honorable officer without reproach.' This gave rise to a popular myth that it was awarded for (successfully) acting against an explicit order."

The Order of Maria Theresa is a marvel of bureaucratic invention, but it's not unique. Every successful organization—nation, business, or neighborhood kite club—has rules for breaking its own rules. The only unusual aspect of the Order of Maria Theresa is that the rule was written down and officially recognized.

When Jefferson was drafting the United States Constitution, he naturally wrote an article concerning amendments. But when asked to write something granting the people the right to throw out the Constitution entirely and start afresh, Jefferson refused. He argued—correctly, I think—that the people had such a right whether or not it was written in the Constitution. It was a right superseding any government and any written rules of government. It was, in effect, a tautology, for without the consent of the governed, there is no government. A shadow, perhaps, but no government.

The same is true in any modern bureaucracy. Rules are not made to be broken, but neither are they made to be not broken. Rules are made so that the organization operates more effectively. The rule above all other rules is "Do what is necessary to operate effectively." You ultimately get punished for not operating effectively, but not for breaking the rules.

It seems to me the problem with bureaucracies is this: the obverse side of this coin isn't so shiny. If you obey the rules and things turn out badly, you don't get punished. In war, the problem may be easier, because if things turn out badly you may be dead and not have to face the Empress. In the XYZ Pork and Bean Factory, your life is not usually at risk—even if your customers are taking their lives in their hands every time they pick up a pork fork.

I'd be interested in pursuing the biographies of Maria Theresa winners after they won the medal. I know that in the United States—where the Medal of Honor is often given under similar circumstances—many winners wind up, as civilians, trying to get a few cents for their medals in a pawn shop. Even medal-winning is a short-lived glory in the best of circumstances.

When I started to write this essay, I hoped to conclude by recommending each organization install an Order of Maria Theresa to counteract the conformist tendencies infecting even the best-managed organizations. But as my thoughts developed, I realized medals are not the answer. If you're on top of a large organizational pyramid and want protection from your own mistaken orders, you're going to have to work harder than Maria Theresa.

You can start by ensuring nobody is punished merely for discussing the merits of a particular order of yours. Even if you don't punish discussion, you'll need a long time to overcome the fears people have learned throughout their long careers in other organizations. But the long wait will be worth it, for then you will be relieved of the burden of perfection—a burden no person and no nation can long endure.

You might think your next step would be to encourage people to disobey orders they think are wrong or foolish, but they won't need any encouragement if the climate for talking is right. At least some of them won't, and the others will be watching to see what happens to the pioneers. 

So your second problem comes when someone disobeys—and fails! Now you have the perfect opportunity to play "I told you so," but if you do, there won't be any further games. Instead, you must convince the person to tell you why the order was disobeyed. It might have been a stupid order, destined to fail even if it had been carried out. Or it might have been misunderstood—a most likely alternative.

And once you've understood the reasons for the disobedience, drop the whole matter! Everyone is entitled to make a mistake now and then. If people never make mistakes, it means they're never trying and never thinking, which is the most horrible fate a bureaucracy can contemplate. Only if the same person disobeys orders over and over will you have to take any action—and by then your course of action should be obvious.

But won't the repeated failures create a disaster? Perhaps, but then you can take comfort from the Austrian motto: The situation is hopeless but not serious.

In the programming business, we have the comfort of a large cushion of safety in what we do. We make many mistakes, but we have procedures designed to detect them and remove them before they cause too much harm. If those procedures are working well, it gives us some breathing room in which to make mistakes—the same room we need in order to learn. In such situations, we shouldn't need medals to keep us disobeying foolish orders.

This essay is adapted from a chapter in the book, Understanding the Professional Programmer. The book is actually a series of such essays, all aimed at the often difficult task mentioned in the title.

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