Conjuring "yes" in Virgil's Upside Down bureacracy

30 years ago, I was part of an interesting adventure in management called Sweet's Mill. Sweet's Mill was a folk music camp in the mountains above Fresno California, owned and operated for decades by Virgil Byxbe, and it was managed in a manner unlike any other business I have ever seen.

If you are old enough to remember the high-school civics class, you surely remember the theoretical form of goverment that was ruled by the "benevolent despot." Sweets Mill was run by a benevolent despot, and Virgil had built a rich and powerful meritocracy based on an upside down form of bureacracy.

First and foremost, his organizational model presumed that we had yet to discover the best way to do things, and so his management system had to be one that rewarded innovation. Most bureacracies are top-down structures where the people at the bottom have to sheild those above them from having to work or make difficult decisions. Inevitably these organizations resist innovation. People at all levels from the front desk to the executive director are armed with well-thumbed code manuals and directives and are empowered to cite chapter and verse to support saying "no "to whatever anyone comes in asking to know or wanting to do. Because their core job is not to do work, but to sheild their superiors from having to deal with anything that can be deflected at their level. They function like foot soldiers in an army. The procedures book is their Marshall's badge or the bible in their pocket, the thing that stops the bullet and sheilds their heart.

Thus, they are empowered to say "no " and forbidden to say "yes", unless the proponent can prove that they do not have the authority to say "no "to the proposal. Such bureacracies are extremely resistant to change and the systems they protect are almost proof against innovation or meaningful change. If the front-desk person can't figure out a basis for saying "no", the supervisor is called in who has more experience, and they deliver the needed " no". And so on, up the chain. Negativity falls from above like hail, and this negativity seeps into every crevice of the organization.

Virgil's bureacracy was different. Everyone's job was to make it happen - to say "yes" to good ideas and to make way for innovation. If we were not already doing something, the mere fact that we were not doing it, or not doing it in a particular way, was not sufficient reason not to start doing it - the problem was to figure out why we were not already doing it, and if there was no clear reason not to be doing it, then our job was to see if we could make it happen.

Here is how it worked: nearly every day someone came into the tool-crib with a new idea, something they wanted to do or wanted see happen, and an important part of my job was to see if I could facilitate it. And if I could not figure out how to make it happen for them on the spot, then I would go find someone with more experience than I had to see if they knew how to make it happen, and if they didn't know how how to do it, they would surely know how to find find someone who did. Until finally, the unsolvable problem would get to Virgil, who could look at it through the eyes of the gang of wizards who had all tried unsucessfully to make it happen and he could ask a few more questions and then, knowing that his best people had all tried and that no one had been able to figure out how to make it happen, he could say "no" without anxiety or regret. But he did not have to say "no" very often, because we were all pretty good at figuring out how to condition things so that we could say "yes" to good ideas.

There were still problems that needed to be solved, though, and the most serious problems involved middle and long-range planning.
©Joe Breskin, July - September 2002
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