The Main Objective: Legitimacy

When it comes to organizing humans, the only thing that matters is legitimacy.

How Google Works devotes a little time to the business of org design, and it’s all well worth your attention. One bit stood out, though. The following is a snippet of an anecdote about a Google Sales team redesign, highlighting a Google re-org principle: “Do all re-orgs in a day.” The idea is that emphasizing speed over perfection leads to higher engagement…not because of the speed, but because legitimacy is the only thing that matters.

The key was doing the re-org quickly, and launching it before it was complete. As a result, the organization design was stronger than initially conceived, and the team was more invested in its success because it helped create the end result. Since there is no perfect organizational design, don’t try to find one. Get as close as you can, and let your Smart Creatives figure out the rest.

That’s exactly the idea. A decent organizational design that is created by its inhabitants is better than a perfect organizational design pushed down from senior leadership. Worse is better.

There’s a fun connection between this organizing principle at Google and a portion of the Counterinsurgency Field Manual:

The primary objective of any COIN operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government. Counterinsurgents achieve this objective by the balanced application of both military and nonmilitary means. All governments rule through a combination of consent and coercion. Governments described as “legitimate” rule primarily with the consent of the governed; those described as “illegitimate” tend to rely mainly on coercion. Citizens of the latter obey the state for fear of the consequences of doing otherwise, rather than because they voluntarily accept its rule. A government that derives its powers from the governed tends to be accepted by its citizens as legitimate. It still uses coercion — for example, against criminals — but most of its citizens voluntarily accept its governance.

And this one, too.

The host nation doing something tolerably is normally better than us doing it well

It is just as important to consider who performs an operation as to assess how well it is done. Where the United States is supporting a host nation [HN], long-term success requires establishing viable HN leaders and institutions that can carry on without significant U.S. support. The longer that process takes, the more U.S. public support will wane and the more the local populace will question the legitimacy of their own forces and government. General Creighton Abrams, the U.S. commander in Vietnam in 1971, recognized this fact when he said, “There’s very clear evidence, … in some things, that we helped too much. And we retarded the Vietnamese by doing it. … We can’t run this thing. … They’ve got to run it. The nearer we get to that the better off they are and the better off we are.” T.E. Lawrence made a similar observation while leading the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in 1917: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the locals do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.” However, a key word in Lawrence’s advice is “tolerably.” If the host nation cannot perform tolerably, counterinsurgents supporting it may have to act. Experience, knowledge of the [Area of Operations], and cultural sensitivity are essential to deciding when such action is necessary.

I use that first line — the “tolerably” bit — all the time.

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