The concept of Administrative vs. Operational reality comes from a 2005 memorandum, which turned into a white paper, that I submitted while I was working at the Federal Air Marshal Service. I will not disclose the subject of the paper but it is important to know that I coined the term to illustrate the fundamental differences between the Administrative or “top down” approach to something and the Operational or “bottom up” approach. The conflict presented by the opposing approaches is often the struggle between theory and application. Theory often dies in the face of application. The advent of the scientific method defined hypothesis as “a supposition or proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence as a starting point for further investigation”. Often what we see on an operational level is that not all good ideas bear fruit.
I used to watch this dynamic often, as I was growing up, working with and learning from my Dad. My Dad was a fire fighter and a builder, working long days over three decades building things from the ground up with his hands while working other long days over the same timeframe keeping them from burning down. I used to sit at the kitchen table and stare in fascination at a set of blue prints from the site – ideas on a page that he was charged with bringing to life. Early on in school I started drawing, taking drafting classes every year until by graduation I was completing sets of prints on my own. I used to show them to my Dad and he would look at the squared corners and blocked letters and grand designs with that trained professional eye and say, “These look good. Will it work?” Of course it works, I would think to myself, all the corners are square, and the letters are blocked, and all the designs are grand. It took long hours of my own to come to know what he meant. The more and more I worked with him at construction sites the more I began to realize what is drawn on the page is often not possible to make. For every building ever made there exists that final set of prints – the set marked “as built” – covered in carpenter pencil, ink, and grease, that bear witness to the final product. The markings and notes show the changes that needed to be made to an idea in order to bring it to life. The changes chart the path between the Administrative reality of the architect and the Operational reality of the builder. Pen and ink yields to boots and hammers every time.
I have brought this lesson with me in everything that I do. For those of you that work with me you hear me say frequently that I’m not married to my ideas – they are just ideas. Ideas are free. Ideas that bear fruit stay, ideas that yield barren ground must go. If you don’t already use a similar approach I would encourage you to begin looking at your world through the optic of the administrative v. operational reality, because where they meet in the middle is often where we find our lives taking shape.