Posts Tagged ‘Organizations’

The stupidity theory of organizations

June 13, 2015

This was originally posted on April 30, 2013.

dilbert1

Stupidity in big organizations is not a bug. It’s a feature. So say two scholars, Mats Alvesson of Lund University in Sweden and Andre Spicer of City University in England, in their recent paper, The Stupidity Factor in Organizations.

They say organizations need “functional stupidity,” which is a willful lack of recognition of the incompleteness of knowledge and a willful refusal to question the organization’s goals and policies. This builds confidence and loyalty which helps the organization to function smoothly.

Alvesson and Spicer discuss how managers use vision statements, motivational meetings and corporate culture as “stupidity management” to develop loyalty and suppress critical thinking. They discuss how employees use “stupidity self-management” to suppress doubt and get with the program.

In Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny, a recruit decides that the U.S. Navy is an organization designed by geniuses to be operated by idiots. When in doubt, he asks himself, “What would I do if I were a idiot?” That is a gross exaggeration, but an exaggeration of truth.

Managers want employees who are intelligent enough to carry out orders competently, but not so intelligent that they question the orders. Critical thinking creates friction that prevents the organization from running smoothly. Over time the organization’s tendency is eliminate that friction, and become more disconnected from reality.

You can see this in how Washington officials and journalists understand public policy. They treat the processes of government, such as the 60-vote rule in the Senate or the revolving door between corporate and government employment, as if they were objective and unchangeable facts, like the laws of thermodynamics. They treat actual problems, such as unemployment or global climate change, as if they were matters of personal preference.

The trouble with ignoring reality is that sooner or later it catches up with you. Then crisis generates what Alvesson and Spicer call the “How could I have been so stupid?” syndrome.

Click on A Stupidity Based Theory of Organizations for a PDF of Alvesson’s and Spicer’s paper. If you read it with close attention, I think you will see the dry humor beneath their social science jargon.

Click on Understanding Organizational Stupidity for Dmitry Orlov’s summary of their paper and his comments.

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Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy

April 22, 2014

Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people”:

Jerry Pournelle

Jerry Pournelle

  • First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisers in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.
  • Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself.  Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization .

via Report Template.

This rule of thumb applies equally to government bureaucracies, corporations and other private organizations.  I saw a good example of this during the 24 years I worked as a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, N.Y.   Many of us reporters were (or thought we were) dedicated to the profession of journalism, and to the professional goals of good writing, accurate reporting and fearless investigation of wrongdoing.  Many people in the business departments of the newspaper resented our indifference to the goals of increasing the newspaper’s circulation and advertising revenue.

This is not a case that we in the newspaper department were righteous and the people in the circulation and advertising departments were not.   If people didn’t buy the newspaper, and businesses didn’t advertise in it, we reporters and editors would not have had a means to do our work.  You need a balance between both — those devoted to professional excellence and those devoted to making the organization flourish.

Click on Saving Labor From Itself for another example.

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Jerry Pournelle is, among other things, a best-selling science-fiction writer.

Click on Chaos Manor for his home page and web log.

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The stupidity theory of organizations

April 30, 2013

dilbert1

Stupidity in big organizations is not a bug.  It’s a feature.   So say two scholars, Mats Alvesson of Lund University in Sweden and Andre Spicer of City University in England, in their recent paper, The Stupidity Factor in Organizations.

They say organizations need “functional stupidity,” which is a willful lack of recognition of the incompleteness of knowledge and a willful refusal to question the organization’s goals and policies.  This builds confidence and loyalty which helps the organization to function smoothly.

Alvesson and Spicer discuss how managers use vision statements, motivational meetings and corporate culture as “stupidity management” to develop loyalty and suppress critical thinking.  They discuss how employees use “stupidity self-management” to suppress doubt and get with the program.

In Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny, a recruit decides that the U.S. Navy is an organization designed by geniuses to be operated by idiots.  When in doubt, he asks himself, “What would I do if I were a idiot?”   That is a gross exaggeration, but an exaggeration of truth.

Managers want employees who are intelligent enough to carry out orders competently, but not so intelligent that they question the orders.   Critical thinking creates friction that prevents the organization from running smoothly.  Over time the organization’s tendency is eliminate that friction, and become more disconnected from reality.

You can see this in how Washington officials and journalists understand politics.   They treat the processes of government, such as the 60-vote rule in the Senate or the revolving door between corporate and government employment, as if they were objective and unchangeable facts, like the laws of thermodynamics.  They treat actual problems, such as unemployment or global climate change, as if they were matters of personal preference.

The trouble with ignoring reality is that sooner or later it catches up with you.  Then crisis generates what Alvesson and Spicer call the “How could I have been so stupid?” syndrome.

Click on A Stupidity Based Theory of Organizations for a PDF of Alvesson’s and Spicer’s paper. If you read it with close attention, I think you will see the dry humor beneath their social science jargon.

Click on Understanding Organizational Stupidity for Dmitry Orlov’s summary of their paper and his comments.

(more…)

Eleven truths about U.S. airports

January 29, 2013

Seth’s Blog says U.S. airports provide the following negative lessons for managers of organizations.

  1. No one is in charge.  The airport doesn’t appear to have a CEO, and if it does, you never see her, hear about her or interact with her in any way.  When the person at the top doesn’t care, it filters down.
  2. Problems persist because organizations defend their turf instead of embrace the problem.  The TSA blames the facilities people, who blame someone else, and around and around.  Only when the user’s problem is the driver of behavior (as opposed to maintaining power or the status quo) things change.
  3. airport.skedThe food is aimed squarely at the (disappearing) middle of the market.  People who like steamed meat and bags of chips never have a problem finding something to eat at an airport.  Apparently, profit-maximizing vendors haven’t realized that we’re all a lot weirder than we used to be.
  4. Like colleges, airports see customers as powerless transients.  Hey, you’re going to be gone tomorrow, but they’ll still be here.
  5. By removing slack, airlines create failure.  In order to increase profit, airlines work hard to get the maximum number of flights out of each plane, each day.  As a result, there are no spares, no downtime and no resilience.  By assuming that their customer base prefers to save money, not anxiety, they create an anxiety-filled system.
  6. t1larg.tsa.cnnThe TSA is ruled by superstition, not fact.  They act without data and put on a quite serious but ultimately useless bit of theater.  Ten years later, the theater is now becoming an entrenched status quo, one that gets ever worse.
  7. The ad hoc is forbidden.  Imagine an airplane employee bringing in an extension cord and a power strip to deal with the daily occurrence of travelers hunched in the corner around a single outlet.  Impossible.  There is a bias toward permanent and improved, not quick and effective.
  8. Everyone is treated the same.  Effective organizations treat different people differently.  While there’s some window dressing at the edges (I’m thinking of slightly faster first class lines and slightly more convenient motorized cars for seniors), in general, airports insist that the one size they’ve chosen to offer fit all.
  9. There are plenty of potential bad surprises, but no good ones.  You can have a flight be cancelled, be strip searched or even go to the wrong airport.  But all possibility for delight has been removed.  It wouldn’t take much to completely transform the experience from a chore to a delight.
  10. They are sterile.  Everyone who passes through leaves no trace, every morning starts anew.  There are no connections between people, either fellow passengers or the staff.  No one says, “welcome back,” and that’s honest, because no one feels particularly welcome.
  11. No one is having any fun.  Most people who work at airports have precisely the same demeanor as people who work at a cemetery.  The system has become so industrialized that personal expression is apparently forbidden.

via Seth’s Blog.  Hat tip to Boing Boing.