The Myth of Corporate-Style Governing 5: The State v Commerce Turf War

No one who has ever worked for a corporation could fail to be aware of a certain “turf consciousness” as various departments – and individuals within those departments – compete for attention and power. There are two myths involved in turf consciousness.

1. The “team concept”

That’s the one that portrays corporate life as a sports metaphor, where every individual has a specific job to do but works seamlessly with everyone else as part of a unit with the same goal: winning the game (read: “making a lot of money”). According to the myth, “teamwork” increases efficiency and corporate harmony by honoring the value of everyone’s contribution equally, and subsuming private goals to the overall good of the team. The idea is expressed in one of two ways:

  1. The only “turf” that matters is the turf of the playing field where the game is being fought. It is common to everyone and no single individual or group controls it. Therefore, fighting over control of it is counter-productive and inefficient.
  2. The game can only be won if the team works together. Fighting over prerogatives, perks, and power serves to fragment the team effort, weakening it with jealousy, internal strife, and hurt feelings, effectively sabotaging the team’s efforts.

There are a number of corporate fads swirling around the concept of building teamwork. My sister-in-law, for example, runs corporate Team-Building Weekends on ropes-challenge courses in which junior executives learn to work together on an obstacle course consisting of rope-ladders, rope bridges, trapezes, and simulated cliffs. Most of it happens in trees, 20 feet or more above the ground. The course is designed to make it difficult or even impossible for an individual to succeed alone but a snap if the group works together. It’s a very sophisticated version of the kind of obstacle course the military uses during basic training. She makes a good deal of money running these weekends.

Then there was the “dragon boat racing” craze of a few years ago. Adapted from the Chinese, dragon boat racing requires participants to row and steer together. If they argue, they lose.

The latest of these fads was adapted, believe it or not, from acting and improvisational exercises. Two of these exercises were on view last year in tv programs, an episode of What About Brian? and a teaser for Donald Trump’s new Apprentice.

The point of all these is to build trust between the participants and break down the walls of competitive ego by forcing the subjects to co-operate with each other. Does it work?

The short answer is, of course, No.

2. The virtues of competition

One of the reasons it doesn’t work is the second myth: that cut-throat competition is the lifeblood of corporate success, inside or outside the company. Competition means everybody’s trying to out-do each other thinking up ways to make the company more efficient, more profitable, more economical, and better organized.

Corporate hierarchies are based on compartmentalization, and each compartment has its own turf – sales, marketing, production, whatever. Within the departments each team is encouraged by a system of rewards – money, usually, but not always – to out-perform every other team, and within the teams each individual is pushed by another reward system to be contribute more to the company’s success than any other member of the team.

If it has just occurred to you that these myths are mutually exclusive, give yourself a Gold Star. You’re right. If you have one, you can’t have the other. Cut-throat competition and mutual trust cannot exist in the same space. These are myths both because each one makes the other impossible and because neither produces the effect it’s supposed to. Teamwork could but the reward/punishment system undercuts it so badly it can’t function. Competition could if supervisors and managers were trained to be objective judges of merit but they aren’t. So the whole structure comes to be held together by a single over-riding dynamic: office politics.

Politics in the office ranges from petty silliness to scorched-earth destruction but however poisonous the atmosphere there is one abiding constant: turf wars. Protecting your turf becomes paramount, synonymous with protecting your job and/or your career. Territories are staked out, defended, attacked. Alliances are made, broken, switched around. Any attempt to “help” is seen as a subterfuge aimed at “taking over”.

The result is that the goals of the company are often forgotten. At a minimum, they become an irrelevancy or a distraction from the main goal: increasing – or at least maintaining – your turf. The most debilitating turf wars are the ones where the goals coming down from top management are either unrealistic or unclear. If you can’t tell what they want done, or what they want done is undoable, your only option is to step up the intensity of the turf war to convince the Boss you’re moving heaven and earth to meet your goals despite all this opposition from other departments.

All of which brings us to this report in today’s WaPo about an on-going turf war between the Depts of Commerce and State over who’s going to call the economic shots in Iraq.

The dispute between Commerce and State illuminates the rivalries that have cropped up within the U.S. government as the White House seeks to involve more parts of the federal bureaucracy in the reconstruction of Iraq. Instead of collaborating, agencies have often found themselves split by the gulf between idealistic officials in Washington, some of whom have never been to Iraq, and embassy staffers whose ambition to promote change has been attenuated by the violence and dysfunction they witness every day.

The disagreements often center on arcane subjects — such as tariff policy or the rehabilitation of state-owned enterprises — but the impact can be profound, according to people on both sides of the fights. Embassy staffers said they have wasted countless hours squabbling with Washington instead of focusing on more urgent initiatives to stabilize Iraq. In one incident, as the bickering between Commerce and State intensified, the embassy blocked a team of Commerce officials from entering the country.

Some at Commerce regard embassy staffers and their bosses at the State Department as ungrateful and unwilling to embrace others’ ideas — even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pleads with other federal agencies to send more people to Iraq. “We were willing to help, as the president asked us to do, but the State Department feels that it has control of the situation,” said a senior Commerce official involved in the food-ration policy.

Officials at State contend that they do want other federal departments to assist in Iraq, but they said they are less interested in policies that are developed by those agencies in Washington and imposed on Baghdad.


The war between the two federal agencies began when Bush the Boob Manager insisted that everybody had to be involved in the reconstruction.

As violence in Iraq crescendoed last year, President Bush summoned his secretaries of agriculture, commerce and energy to Camp David in June to meet with his national security team. During a two-hour afternoon discussion in the main lodge, the president urged the three secretaries to become more involved in the Iraq reconstruction effort.

Note that he apparently gave them no direction whatever and offered no explanation as to how they were to be involved without stepping on each other’s toes. It did not seem to occur to him that that might be an issue. The upshot was that Commerce Sec Carlos Gutierrez came up with an idea that sent State into a frenzy.

When Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez got back to his office, he asked his staff members to develop a list of Iraq-related projects for the agency. They did, and two months later, they shared it with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, expecting that diplomats on the ground would welcome a little help from Washington.

Instead, the document, “Secretary Gutierrez’s Five Priority Areas for Economic Reform in Iraq,” set off a bureaucratic grenade in Baghdad’s Green Zone. The second item on the list called for the United States to pressure Iraq’s government to cease providing people with monthly food rations, which more than half of Iraq’s population relies on for sustenance.

Embassy officials were incensed.

This is what happens when bad corporate managers throw out orders they haven’t bothered to think through. Bush has said over and over again that he “goes by his gut”, that he’s not someone who examines an idea carefully. If it feels good to him, he goes with it. The result of this half-baked order of his was to put State and Commerce at each other’s throats.

“The problem stems from this view at the White House that the whole Cabinet has to be involved,” the senior State Department official said.

The result, an embassy official with direct knowledge of the food-ration debate said, is that “there are too many cooks in the kitchen.”

And they’ve all got knives….

This is the reality behind the myth of corporate-style governance: inject it somewhere it doesn’t belong and it’s like spraying water on a motherboard – you short-circuit the whole deal. In this case, State would certainly seem to have been right about rejecting Commerce’s neocon, Social Darwinist plan to let the Iraqis starve in a war zone in order to promote the Free Market.

The proposal surfaced in late 2003, when L. Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority was running Iraq. Bremer’s economic team believed that the monthly handouts embodied socialism at its worst, that they promoted corruption, wasted government money, discouraged domestic agriculture and interfered with the CPA’s plans to promote capitalism.

Starvation was obviously preferable to impeding the growth of capitalism.

But if that fight was about keeping people fed, what was this one about?

Although embassy economists thought they had won that round, they found themselves in other battles. There was a tiff between the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and USAID over the advice that U.S. contractors were providing to the Iraqis about setting tariff rates. More significant, however, was a dispute with Pentagon official Paul A. Brinkley over his plans to resuscitate shuttered government-owned businesses.

Brinkley wanted to get thousands of Iraqis back to work, on the assumption that keeping them busy would keep them from engaging in violence. But staffers in the economic section deemed it bad economic policy.

“We feel that private enterprise is a superior way to develop the economy of Iraq,” one of the embassy’s economic officers said. “We shouldn’t be resurrecting these dinosaurs.”

The first turf battle may have centered around pragmatic and even humanitarian considerations but this one clearly is ideological. NeoCondi has filled State with people extremely sensitive to her personal neoconservative beliefs. They know which side their bread is buttered on and who provides both. Brinkley is clearly on the right track (even if he is 3 years or so too late) but State is going to do everything it can to obstruct him because the Boss doesn’t believe in “govt solutions”.

So whether or not the people of Iraq starve isn’t really the priority they said it was. The priority was making sure Commerce didn’t appropriate any of their responsibilities (read: territory). If Gutierrez had come up with a better plan, one that wasn’t as flaky or as dangerous, State would have shot it down anyway because it didn’t come from them.

I don’t want to overstate this. Bureaucracies are also subject to turf wars, as we all know. They can lead to delays, confusion, and massive mistakes. But there is a primal difference between the global character of corporate turf wars and the more limited turf wars of the bureaucracy. The effects of the latter tend to be annoying rather than destructive, irritating rather than dangerous. The effects of the former could, literally, cause starvation, disease, and death.

What if Gutierrez had won instead of Rice?

One response to “The Myth of Corporate-Style Governing 5: The State v Commerce Turf War

  1. kabababrubarta

    Cool! kabababrubarta

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