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Resourcing the Force in the Midst of Complexity: The Need to Deflate the ‘ppb’ in PPBE

In a 1969 article in Public Administration Review, Frederick C. Mosher, a professor of government at the University of Virginia, offered a compelling critique of the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) that was then being touted as the forerunner of the “millennium for rationality and efficiency in public management.” [PPBS is now called the Department of Defense (DOD) Planning, Programming, and Budgeting Execution (PPBE) process.] Mosher’s list of PPBS flaws and defects included these points—

  • The effectiveness of PPBS is oversold, narrow, and often misrepresented.
  • The managerial engineering approach (reminiscent of Frederick Taylor, an American efficiency expert noted for his innovations in industrial engineering and management) oversimplifies the complexities of the real world.
  • It is a fallacy to assume that the objectives decisionmakers state up front can be determined quantifiably and will remain stable independent of competing political interests
  • PPBS relies too much on “medieval models of hierarchy” without regard to the “cumulative process” of collaborative decisionmaking, where the executors of policy (public service professionals) interact with their clients (political decisionmakers).

I submit that these criticisms may be even more valid today than they were almost 40 years ago. We need to consider a more transformational view—a post-positivist perspective—of the complexities associated with resourcing the force in a world full of highly complex, or “wicked,” problems.

Faith in Rationality

The modern concept of rationality is relatively new in history. The 17th century French scholar René Descartes was an important framer of the “enlightenment” idea that the world can be objectified through the emerging philosophy of Newtonian science. The central idea of Cartesian scientific (or technical) rationality is that objectivity can be verified and that positive knowledge can be determined empirically (hence the concept of “positivism”). The Newtonian-based assumptions behind DOD strategic planning include a belief that predicting pathways to achieving goals will bring finality to solving problems.

PPBE and its associated processes (based in the “logical positivism” that underpins operations research and systems analysis) have become manifestations of a cultural ideology of strategic planning in DOD. This ideology reflects an unquestioned belief in the merit of applying numeric values, or metrics, to cause-and-effect relationships that can be isolated, predicted, and tested in ways that can be reproduced. The discovery of these relationships through technical analyses (such as the Joint Strategic Planning System, Quadrennial Defense Review [QDR], and the Defense logistics and acquisition systems) is believed to be unbiased by emotions and minimally affected by ethical, political, cultural, and psychological preferences.

Assumptions Behind PPBE

Although Defense strategic planning has evolved into a very intricate series of programmed events, process offshoots, and an ever-growing pile of planning and programming documents, PPBE and its associated analytical technologies have always been rooted in the linear steps of the generic rational decisionmaking process. These steps include—

  • Define the problem (reduce the complicated to a manageable dependent variable) and present all facts and assumptions bearing on the problem (determine what affects the dependent variable).
  • Develop courses of action (COAs) to solve the problem (search for the correct independent variable).
  • Select the best COA based on objective criteria for analyses (find ways to make the independent variable more powerful in a reproducible way).
  • Implement and provide feedback (analyze and report the results in preparation for the next cycle).

The technically rational paradigm in which PPBE resides assumes that problems can be defined unilaterally in relative independence from other conditions through a process called “reductionism.” For example, in DOD force management, the current practice is to reduce and categorize problems (treated as dependent variables) and associate them with potential funding of solutions in doctrine, organizations, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities (DOD’s list of standing independent variables). The fundamental belief is that the outcomes of PPBE unemotionally present the case for obtaining and using public resources.

Through the PPBE lens, managers also assume that Defense problems are relatively stable; the problems we have now generally will be the same ones we routinely solve in 5 to 7 years. Other assumptions are that those at the top of the governmental hierarchy perceive no better way to control spending; that the President and Congress unconditionally expect DOD to propose the most efficient single COA for spending; and that the PPBE approach is the most influential way to obtain consensus and use resources in our system of government. These assumptions are so ingrained in the fabric of the DOD culture that they have the quality of tacit knowledge. However, there is evidence that these assumptions are vulnerable to criticism.

For example, the 1993 Report of the Bottom-Up Review (the precursor to the QDR) envisioned only one force structure counterterrorism task during “peace enforcement and intervention operations.” The task—”securing protected zones from internal threats, such as snipers, terrorist attacks, or sabotage”—was too vague to tie to any specific program or budget. A later example is found in A National Security Strategy for a New Century, published in 1998. This plan had a section on “Transnational Threats” that grouped terrorism with drug trafficking and international crime. Counterterrorism goals were addressed as follows—

Our policy to counter international terrorists rests on the following principles: (1) make no concessions to terrorists; (2) bring all pressure to bear on all state sponsors of terrorism; (3) fully exploit all available legal mechanisms to punish international terrorists; and (4) help other governments improve their capabilities to combat terrorism.

Conspicuously absent was the need to prosecute a global war on terrorism of the magnitude we face today. The Army Vision, published in 1999, emphasized air mobility and speed and did not use the words “expeditionary” or “modularity,” nor did it allude to the current Army movement toward a brigade-based force structure. Another strategic document, Joint Vision 2020, published in 2000, focused on a force protection, antiterrorism goal without mentioning a major DOD role in combating terrorism offensively.

Knowing what we know today, it is clear that these strategy documents hardly guided the creation and acquisition of DOD capabilities for countering terrorism. The documents were insufficiently visionary to mobilize the military toward the Global War on Terrorism that emerged within future-year defense planning. None of these documents foresaw the need for large-scale military support for stability, security, transition, and reconstruction operations.

Complexity Challenges the Myth of Rationality

Episodic strategic planning under complex conditions is analogous to trying to play chess with all the moves planned out in advanced. Modelers of complexity have calculated that there are 10120 variations of chess moves possible in a single game. John H. Holland, in his 1998 book, Emergence, proposes that chess has “. . . enough emergent properties that [it] continues to intrigue us and offer new discoveries after centuries of study. And it’s not just the sheer number of possibilities. There are lines of play and regularities that continue to emerge after years of study, enough so that a master of this century would handily beat a master of the previous century.” The point is that chess, with only a dozen or so rules, creates extraordinary complexity that defies prediction. In the much more dynamic situations involving national defense, how can planners expect to map strategies when the rules not only are difficult to discern but small changes in the environment can cause dramatic change in a short period?

More recently, post-Newtonian scientists (or “post-positivists”) have challenged the Cartesian assumptions associated with predicting the future. As the chess analogy implies, post-positivists maintain that the world is far too complex for our conceptualizations of it to be objective. The common sense associated with the Cartesian concept, “I think, therefore I am,” is replaced with the less commonsense premise, “I think, therefore I imagine.” The rise of post-positivism reflects a growing awareness that objective reality is only partially explained by our professional diagnoses and theories for action. Unless we understand the limits of our knowledge, we will be continuously disappointed when our predictions and solutions fail in a world full of surprises.

To be more specific, I see at least four problems with belief in the Cartesian paradigm—

PPBE creates myopic learning. Plans, programs, and budgets (PPBs) spawn specified expectations. As a result, they can blind managers who focus too much on confirming predictions rather than on updating their thinking and that of their organizations, especially when they face ambiguous conditions. For example, when large programs (as “buckets of resources”) are emphasized, they gain precedence over emergent solutions to emergent problems because those solutions do not logically fall into the existing buckets. This issue is more evident as we integrate practices with potential interstate, interagency, and international solutions in the midst of complex globalization.

PPBE undercuts organizational creativity and improvisation. Although PPBs seem to provide some contingent actions (such as plans for branches and sequels) based on present views of required capability, managers tend to shun ad hoc ways of dealing with the unexpected and yearn for standard ways of reestablishing stability. However, in a troubling, puzzling, and unstable world, “adhocracy” may serve them and their clients better than institutionalized or newly programmed solutions. Creativity and improvisation are required to bounce back from errors and cope with surprises in the moment.

PPBE fosters “mindless” decision traps. Regulatory approaches to budgeting make even the smartest executives prone to repeat actions that worked in the past. (Metaphorically, they are trapped in a “psychic prison.”) On the other hand, focusing on the uniqueness of situations can make the pursuit of so-called best practices, benchmarks, doctrines, organizations, and off-the-shelf technologies seem like high-risk propositions. The PPBE process, by not recognizing important contextual differences, leads managers to discover the solution while assuming the accuracy of the decision. Social psychologist Karl E. Weick, in his 1995 book, Sensemaking in Organizations (Foundations for Organizational Science), suggests focusing more mindfulness on defining the question using the inventive process of “plausible speculation.”

PPBE has characteristics of a mythical rite to power.
PPBE may serve as a ritualistic activity where, as Russ Marion portrays in his book, The Edge of Organization, “Strategic planning can provide leadership with an opportunity to reinforce its position in the pecking order. It is a statement that says management—like the shaman at primitive rain dances—is potent and in control.” Witness the plethora of strategy and planning documents that permeate the Pentagon, creating well-intended pockets of technical rationality. When I read and compare them, they add to my confusion and reveal irreconcilable, competing interpretations. These often loosely coupled interpretations cannot be addressed by simply tightening the PPBE process. The organizational hierarchy, no matter how powerful, cannot, through strategic communications generated from the top down, simply change the assumptions that went into each document. In the minds of those who produced them, the documents seem right at the time; in light of the ambiguity and randomness of the environment the producers are trying to deal with, these strategies all have an equal chance of being wrong, no matter from which level of the hierarchy they are generated.

Contemporary Operational Environment

The contemporary operational environment (COE) that DOD faces is best described as turbulent and characterized by our perceptions of unstable and maladaptive patterns. One convincing alternative to the positivistic worldview associated with PPBE is explained in Horst Rittel’s and Melvin Webber’s article, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” published in a 1973 issue of Policy Sciences. They observe, “Social problems are never solved . . . at best they are only resolved—over and over again.” According to Rittel and Webber, wicked problems share a number of characteristics. As I interpret their findings in the context of PPBE, they are—

No definitive formulation.
This includes the recognition that complex problems are ill defined and that more information does not make complex problems less ambiguous.

No stopping rule. Past solutions or best practices may continue even if conditions change, and the conditions of the problem change so rapidly that PPB changes cannot keep up. So the solution becomes disconnected from the problem as the problem morphs in relation to others. Turnover of participants in the affected organization further confounds the process.

Not true or false, but bad or good solutions. Solutions are politically, culturally, and psychologically charged. They are infused with the sometimes-hidden values of those who have power. Unseen value judgments and intuition—not Cartesian reasoning—can and will dominate.

No immediate or ultimate test for unintended consequences.
Because matters of national policy are so complex and have variables that exhibit the dynamics of mutual causality, no individual or group can predict what will happen. The future-year defense plan approach will likely solve the wrong problems with the myth of precision.

May have only one shot because of irreversible consequences.
Even if a top-level manager commits resources to a single COA, the dynamics of taking action will change the environment and the previous conditions will be impossible to retrieve.

No enumerable or exhaustive set of solutions.
COAs can seem like “bad or worse,” or the lesser of two evils, or may even be incomprehensible. I have overheard military planners metaphorically call this phenomenon the “solving world hunger” kind of impossible challenge, which is not unlike the intractable messes associated with prosecuting “irregular” warfare with the conventional PPBE-like analytical model associated with the military decision-making process.

Contextual uniqueness. It is hard to find benchmarks or best practices from the past because each case is unique.

Probably a symptom of another problem. It is impossible to develop a single problem statement because the systemic network of interactive and inter-dependent problems is too complex to unravel.

Ambiguous discrepancies.
The perceived gap between the ideal end and the current situation can be explained in many ways, and there is no systematic procedure to get to the right answer. This makes Cartesian processes fruitless and solutions spurious.

No right for the planner, programmer, or budgeter to be wrong.
Top-level Defense managers who subscribe to the Cartesian paradigm are hardly allowed to complain about being wrong. However, they constantly deal with the reality of a large, complex, adaptive system—an organized anarchy—that experiences dynamic, unpredictable trajectories fraught with ambiguity and complex causal webs that defy the articulation of an “end state.” Evidence that managers do not have the right to focus on failure can be found by studying how many goals stated in past strategy documents were realized and how often DOD strategy documents are replaced with qualitatively new ones. It would be interesting to see how fast old strategy documents disappear from official Web sites when new ones are published.

The process of making sense in the midst of wicked problems reveals that the nature of the COE is not something managers have to deal with as external to their daily lives and the routine workings of DOD. Indeed, both managers and their organizations inter-act within the interconnected workings of the COE in a dynamic, never-ending way. It is implausible, if not impossible, to separate the world of PPBE and its as-sociated, technically rational processes from the backdrop of the COE and the intervening world of the technically irrational political players.

Yet some people believe, often quite passionately, that it is essential to disconnect these worlds. Making sense (“sensemaking”) of the COE only in a context framed by the technical rationality assumptions of PPBE is a naïve undertaking if we perceive the COE also to be politically dynamic. As Russ Marion states, “Rationality, of course, is a moot issue when causality is poorly understood.”

Professional-Client Collaborative Sensemaking

Although PPBE is based on the idea of being technically rational about the future, Defense professionals must contend with the world of their clients—the policymakers (and the American people they represent). In his book, The Reflective Practitioner: How professionals think in action, Donald Schön said that technical rationality is the belief that all problems can be solved “by the application of scientific theory and technique.” Those who believe in the worldview of technical rationality tend to disparage political reasoning, which takes place in a world of complex social systems, ambiguous causal relationships, and emotions. Hence, technical rationalists view political reasoning as irrational.

To contend with wicked problems, professionals must realize that the myth of technical rationality is the ability to frame knowledge about a future that no one can foretell. In that regard, PPBE rests on the thin-ice assumption of predictability when the world is viewed by politicians. Although the world of politics has no irrefutable assumptions of technical rationality, political reasoning can be better viewed by Defense professionals as a sensemaking bridge between the illusion of predictability framed by PPBE and the reality of uncertainty framed in the context of the COE. In short, clients try to imagine something indefinable as something that is a workable subject for research. (For example, will going to war eventually lead to a more stable and economically sound global economy?) The astute Defense professional should work beyond the presumed isolated context of the PPBE process and be willing to share insights with his clients. As Karl Weick has proposed, this can be accomplished by “comprehending, redressing, constructing meaning, interacting in pursuit of mutual understanding, and patterning.”

By following Weick’s proposal, Defense professionals and their clients also may find new ways to think beyond the sense of clarity assumed to be the result of PPBE. They may have to consider the possibility that PPBE is DOD’s cultural construction of reality that serves not to predict the future but to lower anxiety and bring a false sense of clarity in the fog of chaos. In Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis, Richard Bernstein proposes that those who are inculcated with technical rationality can suffer from “Cartesian anxiety”—that is, the pain and suffering associated with rejecting the Newtonian assumptions of cause and effect. Rather than developing symptoms of Cartesian anxiety (cynicism and distrust) from observing the political process, professionals should participate in the political reasoning process to create collaborative, mindful relationships with their clients.

If Defense professionals and their clients both embrace the need for collaborative inquiry, strategic framing (usually associated with the PPB aspects of PPBE) can no longer be the sole responsibility of those at the top. Any attempts to communicate planning strategically from the top down without strong participation from the public service professional may be perceived by the more enlightened as a form of propaganda. It could reflect from those in powerful positions a Machiavellian desire for the subordinate to accept mindlessly the superior’s approved construction of reality. Top-down framing force-fed to the more passive professional will, at best, instill cynicism. Activist professionals will learn to operate as “heroes under a tent,” doing what they perceive they need to do despite top-down orders and espoused strategies to the contrary. (The term “heroes under a tent” was coined by Donald Schön.)

In this light, the unchallenged, top-down framing associated with the PPB in PPBE can create “psychic prisons,” in which organizational power is configured to suppress differences and increase hierarchical dependency rather than to accept variations in professional opinions as part of a collaborative process of cumulative decisionmaking. The Marine Corps (in my mind the most post-positivistic service) makes this abundantly clear in Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication 6, Command and Control—

As with decision making, we should decentralize execution planning to the lowest possible levels so that those who must execute have the freedom to develop their own plans. [Italics printed in original.] A plan should dictate a subordinate’s actions only to the minimum degree essential to provide necessary coordination unattainable any other way. Ideally, rather than dictating a subordinate’s actions, a good plan should actually create opportunities for the subordinate to act with initiative.

Transforming Beyond PPBE

In the midst of complexity, professionals must be permitted to emerge more naturally as leaders, with significantly less emphasis on formal, hierarchical appointments. In the sensemaking about the COE, which is undeterminable and fraught with mutually causal variables, the need for shared leadership among professionals and their clients is better described as heterarchical (networked) rather than hierarchical (pyramidal). Ironically, Al Qaeda and other terrorist networks seem to have already realized this to their strategic advantage.

We must help future public service professionals learn to use a collaborative sensemaking approach with their clients. We should emphasize professional inquiry with more effective metaphors (fewer mechanical images and more organic ones), a variety of mental models (those derived from systems thinking, complexity and chaos theories, and competing political theories of the policy process), and multiple interpretive schemes (those rooted in various post-positivist perspectives that transcend the Cartesian paradigm associated with PPBE). We have to deemphasize lessons learned, instantly obsolete doctrine and techniques, and other formal assertions that falsely convey a sense of known cause-and-effect relationships.

We must create opportunities for inventive thinking within the larger context of shared professional-and-client sensemaking about the COE, and be cautious about mechanical processes that can lead to bureaucratic mindlessness. For example, Donald Schön compares the philosophy of educating based on “action-research” with that of the traditional model of education as follows—

Complexity, instability and uncertainty are not removed or resolved by applying specialized knowledge to well-defined tasks. If anything, the effective use of specialized knowledge depends on a prior restructuring of situations [through action-research] that are complex and uncertain. An artful practice of the unique case appears anomalous when professional competence is modeled in terms of application of established techniques to recurrent events . . . . It is difficult for them to imagine how to describe and teach what might be meant by making sense of uncertainty, performing artistically, setting problems, and choosing among competing professional paradigms, when these processes seem mysterious in light of the prevailing model of professional knowledge.

In short, DOD managers and educators need to be equipped to facilitate adaptive learning rather than teach forms of reductionism inherent in to Newtonian science.

We must recognize that the traditional distinction between training and education is a cultural invention that is no longer important. The distinction may not be helpful because both categories of learning should deal with unique cases in the wake of wicked problems. Training, like educating, should stress more individual and group experiential learning and shared sensemaking under realistic and interactive free-playing scenarios and less scripted exercises. Training is continuous and is neither episodic nor curtailed during any phase of operations. We need to deemphasize the determinism associated with the task, condition, and standard model of success. The notion of success comes instead from valuing resilience, creatively forming new ways to accomplish things with what is at hand.

We must learn ways to reframe tasks, conditions, and standards as we learn to conceive of them as be-ing constantly in flux within the COE. For example, the “orchestration” metaphor for command and control of operations and training should change to the “jazz” metaphor associated with network fluidity, impromptu leadership, and improvisation. In short, we should train and educate for ambiguity and find ways to promote the value of improvisation and adhocracy.

Training and educating with this new mindset should make the “ppb” in PPBE seem less valuable to planners. We especially need to address the ritual of planning (of which programming and budgeting are merely different aspects). Margaret J. Wheatley, in her 1994 book, Leadership and the New Science, put it this way—

The search for new shamans has begun in earnest. Our seventeenth-century organizations are crumbling. We have prided ourselves, in all these centuries since Newton and Descartes, on the triumphs of reason, on the absence of magic. Yet we, like the best magicians of old, have been hooked on manipulation. For three centuries, we’ve been planning predicting and analyzing the world. We’ve held on to an intense belief in cause and effect. We’ve raised planning to the highest of priestcrafts and imbued numbers with absolute power. We look to numbers to describe our economic health, our productivity, our physical well-being. We’ve developed our graphs and charts and plans to take us into the future, revering them as ancient mariners did their chart books. Without them, we’d be lost adrift among the dragons. We have been, after all, no more than sorcerers, the master magicians of our time.

A transformed professional-client sensemaking should be based on executing budgets while exploring ill-defined, intractable issues and acknowledging the existence of wicked problems. In the COE context, executing budgets must be viewed as a continuous and collaborative sensemaking process rather than the episodic output of a top-down PPB process accompanied by the overvalued Cartesian quest for certainty. The plan for allocating resources should become a “plan to learn” model under normal conditions of surprise and uncertainty rather than a “plan to know” process based on a myth of creating top-down control. DOD professionals must learn to treat their leaders as clients with whom they must have open and honest dialog to build sensemaking bridges as they walk on them. Through this sensemaking-centered partnering, the façade of Cartesian rationality is removed and the culture is transformed.

The dialog will lead purposefully to a political acceptance of significantly less orientation on the performance-based government codified by Cartesian laws and rules and the PPBE process. (This is exemplified by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993). Such a cultural transformation would constitute a real paradigm shift toward rewarding invention and learning and collectively realizing that today’s successes are short lived as the COE continues to be dynamic and as our organizations face unpredictable trajectories. Together, professionals and their client community should work to find ways to deemphasize the “ppb”in PPBE and be attentive to learning while executing resource management.

To achieve maximum collaboration, the concept of hierarchical authority must transform to heterarchical leadership, characterized less by symbols of rank and position and more by the quality of sense-making. Collaboration becomes the ability to communicate to others new ways to pay attention to emergent patterns and embrace inevitable surprises. Investing in the ability of a heterarchical organization to be sensitive to weak signals of emergent patterns in the COE is far superior to allocating resources based on the short attention span of those at the top of the hierarchy.

A prominent characteristic of complex sensemaking is less reliance on hierarchical decisionmaking and more deference to sharing expertise with those who are artful framers of the reality of the COE. Authority should be given to people with a humble attitude toward learning and with the imagination and shared ethical values needed to deal with an emergent threat or opportunity. The paradox is that experience alone is no guarantee of expertise; experienced people may be trapped in dysfunctional cultural patterns of repeating what has worked in the past.

Building more elaborate heterarchical communications networks can enable more enlightened and improvisational forms of sensemaking by facilitating new sources of expertise, both inside and outside the cultural boundaries of DOD. In a flexible communications environment (like that exploited by Al Qaeda), it is fruitless to try to predict where leadership might emerge. The primary role of the postmodern professional organization is no longer to be a producer of knowledge, stability, and certainty; rather, it is to be a constant organizer in a never-ending condition of complexity—spawning a spontaneous approach to replacing tools that are not working.

A more holistic and collaborative intra-organizational and interorganizational approach to sensemaking signals a transformed, looped pattern of acting and learning (mutual, real-time, interdependent responsiveness during execution) from the more familiar unidirectional cause-and-effect paradigm associated with the PPBE and the rain dances of “ppb”.

Dr. Christopher R. Paparone is an associate professor in the Army Command and General Staff College’s (CGSC’s) Department of Logistics and Resource Operations at Fort Lee, Virginia. A retired Army colonel, he has a Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University. This article was awarded the Silver Pen Award by CGSC in November 2006.