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Complex institutions: Too big to manage?

The Washington Post's On Leadership forum this week asked participants to consider the findings of the "Top Secret America" series and asked, "Can an organization get so big and so complex that it just can't be managed effectively? Or is 'too-big-to-manage' just a cop-out for flawed structure and lack of leadership?"

Army Col. (Ret.) Charles D. Allen, a professor of cultural science at the U.S. Army War College, said that the concept of a military or intelligence infrastructure that is too big to manage is one that is frightening -- and that a new mode of leadership is required to cope with the complexity and size of today's intelligence-gathering world.

"I have to wonder what we are thinking with expressions such as 'too big to manage' or 'too big to lead.' Frankly, it scares me," he wrote. "I have been associated with the uniformed side of the Department of Defense for the past four decades. While DOD is smaller in sheer numbers than when I entered an Army ROTC program in 1973, it is still massive by any measure."

And if the military can find a way to manage its enormous size and complexity, why can't the intelligence community, too?

"Organizations that may be considered 'too big to lead' require leaders who are big enough to lead with others," Allen wrote. "Such organizations need leaders who are temperamentally suited to handle complexity and, more importantly, who can develop teams of capable individuals to pull and push constituents towards their vision."

Read his whole response»

Read the rest of the On Leadership responses to this question»

By Garance Franke-Ruta  |  July 22, 2010; 1:05 PM ET
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With all respect, the army analogy is imperfect and possibly misleading.

Compared to the intelligence and secret security sector, it is relatively uniform, unified, and open.

Uniform: There's a certain commonality of structure, management, and doctorine among the army's operational units. Officers have relatively similar backgrounds and can transfer with ease. There are many venues for conversation among the units and functional divisions.

Unified: There's a chain of command, a hierarchy, a home office, regional offices. The intel sector answers to dozens of agencies which only approximate talking to each other or coordinating efforts. Military contractors have relatively well-defined roles providing goods and services; intelligence contractors are more often pushing the envelope on methods and practices.

Open. We have a rough idea how many bases and personnel there are and what they are doing in the Army, and that information is accessible to interested members of the public. Can anyone in this country claim to have an overview of the intelligence sector?

No, managing this hidden world is beyond current practice and art. It's a bit like a centipede with no coordination between the legs.

Posted by: j3hess | July 24, 2010 5:59 PM | Report abuse

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