Complex Problems & Measuring Success


All this week, TTLA runs an archival interview with Michael D. Rich. Rich is the executive vice president at the Santa Monica-based RAND Corporation, the region's preeminent public policy institute.

Friday: An Introduction

Monday: A Brief History of RAND

Tuesday: Is RAND a Think Tank?

Wednesday: Complex Problems & Measuring Success

Thursday: From Santa Monica to Qatar

Friday: Success, Shareholders, and Wrestlers

TTLA: In terms of the researchers and administrators who wind up working here, do you compete for talent with McKinsey & Co and the like?

MR: Yeah, all of the above, actually. It's a great question. One of the things that is tough, even for a trustee, they'll ask the simple question like, "Who's your competitor?" It's very hard to answer, because in some areas we're competing with McKinsey, no doubt about it. But in other areas, we are not competing with McKinsey over looking for people whose other options are university professorships. And in some cases its government service. So it's really a very diverse group. It's a highly educated staff, but I don't think it stands out that way in terms of numbers of PhD's or those sorts of things. What's very distinctive is the mix of disciplines represented on the staff. I think just about every single discipline is represented. And a lot of professional specialties like law. I started as a lawyer, and there's an architect and, you know, a physician, and so on.

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TTLA: Could you elaborate on what I've been hearing about during my tour earlier today "? about the interdisciplinary work teams, if that's the phrase you use?

MR: Yeah, it is. RAND, I think, was one of the very first that recognized that for complex problems it was preferable to attack from different perspectives "? meaning people with very different backgrounds. I don't think we're the only ones that do that. But we were certainly one of the first and we still think we do it among the best. And it just produces, we think, the most creative and practical, approaches to some complex problems. And so it's something I really enjoyed when I came to RAND. [Although] I didn't add much in the way of diversity to, in terms of background, with a law degree and no sort of advanced academic degree. And when some of my first projects, I was with an economist and historian and an engineer, I realized there really are very different ways of looking at something. And I think over time, people's original training, it doesn't disappear, but people just become great problem solvers here. And you often kind of forget what was their degree "? psychology or engineering "? because they just become known as great problem solvers able to use multiple techniques.

Thinking of our pie chart, I think economics, if you just take disciplines, that's the most plentiful one, but I think it's only like 13%. It's low teens "? 12, 13, 14%. And so there's a lot of breadth in terms of the background here. And it's rare to find a four- or five- or an eight-person project where everybody comes from the same discipline. That would be an unusual kind of project here, very rare. Most times you've got a scientist and somebody from the humanities, somebody from social science, working together.

TTLA: Is that cross-fertilization something you wouldn't find in government?

MR: It's a good question, I don't know. I would be surprised if you'd find the breadth that you have at RAND at another organization. And the absence of barriers to working together. I mean, obviously they have all these disciplines on a university campus. But there's tradition and other barriers that sort of make it hard, apparently, for them to work together on research. And work together on teaching .You know they're pretty much in their departmental categories. And here it's just very easy to combine different types of talent.

TTLA: Locally or beyond, private or public, which are some of the other institutions that this blog might want to keep track of?

MR: Well, the great bulk of these are going to be either non-profit organizations or university-affiliated centers. A major one that I haven't mentioned is the Urban Institute, which is in Washington DC. And then there's a whole host of relatively
small, more ideologically based [organizations]: Heritage, Hoover, AEI, the Manhattan Institute, Brookings, of course. The Carnegie Endowment. What else? The Progressive Policy Institute which is kind of a Democratic party response to Heritage. Here there's the Milken Institute, which now is probably a hot commodity "? they've got kind of a narrow but important research focus on capital markets and financial institutions and so on. They're a completely different business model. I don't think they have any contracts or grants, but it's funded by the Milken family fortune. And then there are the various universities' Centers, but my impression is that many of them come and go. That they're financed by donors or by multi-year grants.

I think it'd be interesting, as you go through [other organizations], to keep in mind what the revenue, or some measure of size and activity? Revenue or output or number of people or something. So at least you'll be able to keep track of categories, you know, big and medium and small. A lot of them are really quite, quite small. Now we believe the scale is important for us. I mean, we do think size is important and the reason kind of has different parts.

One has to do with our kind of view that we should be focusing on complex, enduring problems. For that, we realize you've got to have an enduring assault; you're not going to solve something in a three-month study or even a year study. It's going to take multiple years of work from different angles. So the more ability you have to come at it, the better. Also, our commitment to being non-partisan and being objective "? I think size helps us do that. I think it's just impossible for a particular ideological leaning to take "? I mean, there's a thousand researchers. I think it'd be much tougher to maintain this balance if we were 30 people. So I think size is important. You don't necessarily have to be a thousand people strong, but I think you have to be fairly large.

TTLA: Could you circle back to one of those complex, enduring problems that RAND aims to solve, and give an example of your progress?

MR: We have a test for how well we perform our mission. We've got a lot of financial measures and that sort of thing, but about 15 years or so ago, we thought we needed a test for mission success. And it's basically "? one that I gave you is -- are we working on the most important problems? And are we doing work that meets or exceeds our quality and objectivity standards? So when we can say we're doing that well, we're happy, not satisfied. And the second is, are we reaching people with that work who can make a difference? Do that well, we're happy, not satisfied. And the third is, can we point to changes? And so every year "? we actually do it five times a year, but once a year we sort of come up for air and answer those questions for the year just concluded. And we don't just look at the 2007 research. [We see if] there's been a change in policy or practice coming from our research from an earlier year, then we'll note it.

Thursday: From Santa Monica to Qatar

Photo of RAND HQ in Santa Monica copyright and courtesy Brett Van Ort, 2008

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