The Stupidity Paradox

“There's a worldwide conspiracy for the preservation of mediocrity—and we're all co-conspirators.” That's one of my key take-aways from about 40 years in the workforce. Whenever I say it, people tend to assume that it's based on my 30+ years in government, although actually this particular realization didn't strike me until post-retirement as I gained more experience with the private sector. (I came to realize that so many of the problems that I thought were unique to government were really symptoms of what I now call Large Organization Disease.)

But it wasn't until I read the new book The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work that I came to understand how the conspiracy maintains itself, both in the private and public sectors. The authors, Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer, are business professors based in Sweden and the UK respectively. They were inspired to collaborate on the book when they realized, as they write in their introduction, that “many of our most well-known chief organizations have become engines of stupidity.” As soon as I read those words I knew I was in for an honest discussion of why it was that “organizations which employed so many smart people could foster so much stupidity.”

I expected to gain many valuable lessons and insights for you valiant Rebels at Work. And I was not disappointed.

The Stupidity Paradox carefully explains why “functional stupidity” is actually an important survival strategy for many organizations. “Functional stupidity is an organized attempt to stop people from thinking seriously about what they do at work.” Why do companies do this, you may ask? Alvesson and Spicer offer this explanation:

By ignoring the many uncertainties, contradictions and downright illogical claims that are rife at work, people are able to ensure that things run relatively smoothly. We often value convenience over confronting the inconvenient truth.” (Emphasis mine.)

This is an important consideration for Rebels at Work. We often despair when ideas we KNOW to be CORRECT are ignored by leadership. And so we accuse leaders of being stupid, cowards, or perhaps even evil. But what The Stupidity Paradox tells us is that many organizations value consistency over excellence and existing practices over innovation. As the authors write: “Most decisions made in organizations are about coming up with satisfactory outcomes, not optimal ones.”

stupidityOuch! The entire book is full of such blunt assertions. It was fun reading a no-holds barred critique of the cultures of large organizations. Lois and I are always counseling Rebels at Work to restrain themselves and employ Ninja moves, so it was refreshing to read someone say what so many of us actually think.

But don't imagine that the worker bees get off scot-free!!! I actually looked up the origins of that phrase to make sure it wasn't an inappropriate ethnic characterization. Indeed it is not—scot comes from an old Scandinavian and Middle English word for taxes.

But I digress! The authors of The Stupidity Paradox have plenty of blame to spread around. Strategic ignorance is a common condition among today's knowledge workers. “Knowing what to know—but also what not to know—is a crucial skill that people working in any organization pick up rather quickly.” And the authors observe, in one of my favorite lines, that “living a happy life in an organization often requires a capacity to avoid trying to learn too much.”

Sound familiar? Again I think it's important for Rebels at Work to realize that, for many of their colleagues, laying low is a survival strategy. Overcoming such inertia requires constant communication and careful consideration of what might motivate their colleagues on an emotional and/or personal level.

There's much more of interest for Rebels at Work in The Stupidity Paradox. It's a fast read that will help you understand better how organizational culture usually impedes efforts for improvement, whether they come from management or the grass roots. Alvesson and Spicer skewer just about every modern business strategy, from total quality management to branding. But they seem to take particular delight in puncturing the cult of leadership. As they note casually, “We have spoken with many individuals who have devoted their careers to delusional ideas about leadership.” They continue:

Leaders often encourage followers to avoid thinking too much. They ask them to buy into narrow assumptions, not ask too many questions and avoid reflecting on the broader meaning of their actions. By corralling followers' cognitive capacities, leaders try to limit how followers define, think and act.

And that's precisely why the world needs more Rebels at Work!

Train Wrecks

Train wreckAfter hearing about the release of "Rebels at Work" next month a friend told me that we should write a prequel called "Train Wrecks." "There are so many stories about messes at work that could have been avoided if managers had listened to employees.  It never fails to amaze me at how long managers can deny a problem."

You don't have to look far to find train wrecks at work -- where good rebels warned that the train was going to go off the rails.

  • Financial train wrecks: How have big banks been able to get away with outrageous behavior, creating rippling financial shitstorms? The New York Fed, the chief U.S. bank regulator, created a culture where raising problems and asking questions was shunned. When Carmen Segarra, one of its regulators assigned to Goldman Sachs, actually went about doing her job -- thinking that her and her employer's  job was to fix the financial system -- she got fired.  This September 26, 2014 ProPublica article is a great read about how culture, consensus, and discrediting good rebels have allowed our financial system to become a train wreck: Inside the New York Fed: Secret Recordings and a Culture Clash.
  • Automotive train wrecks: Yesterday General Motors issued its 76th recall of 2014, calling back 7,600 police vehicles because they could roll away when drivers thought they were in park.  Following an internal GM investigation earlier this year,  CEO Mary Barra said, "The lack of action was a result of broad bureaucratic problems and the failure of individual employees in several departments to address a safety problem.… Repeatedly, individuals failed to disclose critical pieces of information that could have fundamentally changed the lives of those impacted by a faulty ignition switch.”  GM knew about the ignition switch safety issue for 10 years before they issued a recall. My guess is that good rebels in GM raised the problems -- and their bosses failed to act on that information.
  • Health care train wrecks: As reported by Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit, there were many instances where nurses at Rhode Island Hospital warned surgeons about patient issues and procedures only to be told to shut up.  "If I want your damn  opinion I'll ask for it. Don't ever question my authority again," a doctor said to a nurse who questioned the appropriateness of a surgical procedure. "If you can't do your job, get the hell out of my OR."  Only after several reported incidences of surgical errors, like operating on the wrong side of a patient's head, did the hospital address its corrosive culture, a culture where good rebel nurses were habitually dismissed by surgeons. Talk about a modern day caste system.

Being an optimistic type who likes to create solutions rather than muck around in problems, I'll probably never write a book about train wrecks.  One reason is that it would a really long book to write.

The real reason, though, is that I think my time is better spent helping positive people inside organizations band together and get their ideas heard before the emerging problems cause real damage. Plenty of researchers, academics, books, and consultants help executives. Not many help employees on the front lines.

Here at Rebels at Work, we're all about supporting the people who care enough to say,  "Houston, we have a problem."

 

 

 

 

 

The Many Faces of Bureaucratic Black Belts

We've written about Bureaucratic Black Belts over the years, and even distinguished one subtype--the benevolent bureaucratic black belt. But we're thinking there's a lot more to be said about BBB's and more subtypes to discover. We'll start by identifying three archetypes we've been thinking about but we know there's many more. We welcome your contributions. First, let's remind ourselves of who BBB's are and what they do. Bureaucratic Black Belts are those individuals in an organization who have mastered all the ins and outs of both its bureaucratic rules and bureaucratic culture. They are frequently the Professor Moriarty to the Rebel Sherlock, a clever operator, a bureaucratic mastermind, who understands the bureaucracy much better than the Rebel at Work. Asked to figure out how to accomplish a particular goal, they can, like an excellent navigation system, identify multiple routes through the bureaucracy. What they're usually not so good at is coming up with an original destination. Many BBB’s act as if maneuvering the bureaucracy is its own reward, like solving an English garden maze where, when you’re done, you’re right back where you started from. Most BBB's believe, almost without thinking, that preservation, sameness, and symmetry are the ultimate purposes of organizational life.

Three BBB archetypes we've been thinking about:

The Wind-Surfers. Wind-Surfers are somewhat rare, we think, because they pair strong personal ambition with bureaucratic finesse. Unlike many BBBs who are support/administrative specialists, Wind-Surfers usually directly execute the organization’s mission. Their strong personal ambitions have led them to figure out every possible angle to ascend the hierarchy. Although early in their careers they often held convictions about how the organization could improve, over time and usually, in our estimation, without conscious awareness, their instincts for climbing to the top sublimated their desire to improve mission execution. Of course, they would deny this if confronted and insist they are just playing for the right time and opportunity. But the opportunity clock never seems to strike. And in the meantime their views on what the organization needs to do shifts with the prevailing leadership winds.

The organizational astuteness of Wind-Surfers is always prized by more adventurous leaders in the organization, who need the support of BBBs to get their own initiatives implemented. Wind-Surfers are always happy to do the bidding of those above them in the hierarchy, but are reluctant to back any new ideas that came from below them in the organization.

The Tugboat Pilots. These BBB’s make their mark in the organization through their ability to navigate any difficult organizational terrain, whether it be new leadership, bad publicity, or new administrations.  Like mountain goats, their first step, i.e. their first bureaucratic response, is always spot-on. They can recall every detail of the organization’s history and leverage it to their advantage.

Tugboat Pilots are masters of context and of reading people. They seem to have recognized early on in their careers that their innate skills were best suited to guiding others, and they embraced that mission with enthusiasm and sincerity. Tugboat Pilots are motivated to arrange productive meetings for the organization, thus Rebels at Work should always consider their advice. Unlike Wind-Surfers, Tugboat Pilots do not become BBBs because of their desire to advance their careers; most of them see themselves as the guardians of the organization’s well-being. They have watched several leaders come and go and so understand the damage that even good intentions could cause and know not to get too caught up in any one change agenda. Tugboat Pilots are among the best BBB’s for rebels at work to befriend. If they believe your intentions are good, that you too are motivated more by helping the organization than by ego, there’s a good chance they will try to help you. But beware, the instincts of Tugboat pilots are likely to be more conservative than yours. Taking a chance in dangerous waters is just not their style. Keep that in mind when deciding how much of their advice to take on board.

Bureaucratic Green Belts. We think this type of BBB, actually a BGB, can do more good than harm. We call them green belts because, while they are masters of one particular set of bureaucratic processes, they are not defenders of the entire bureaucracy and have not yet adopted a complete organizational mindset. In fact some bureaucratic green belts never become BBBs, and instead devote their careers to defending just the particular processes they own, sometimes from the rest of the organization.

Rebels at Work can too easily dismiss Bureaucratic Green Belts, who often can have important insight into the implementation risks of their proposals. Rebels at Work can assume that green belts won't understand their vision but instead we've found that they can relish applying their knowledge and skills to an entirely new set of puzzles. If a rebel change agenda touches upon some of the processes that a green belt owns, some early conversations with that individual can win you some important insights and warn you of problematic aspects of your ideas.

OK--now it's your turn. What types of BBBs have you encountered?

Obsession and Controversy: One is a Rebel's Friend; the Other his Enemy

Can you guess which is which? I was reflecting the other day about how, once we become seized with the need for an important change in our organizations, the issue can become all-encompassing. You can't stop thinking it about. You become obsessed.

You start bringing up the topic in almost any conversation at work. Any meeting that doesn't address it just seems like a colossal waste of time. I know when I was a rebel at my old agency I had a tendency to bring up my existential angst at what really where the most inappropriate moments. Perhaps we were having a modest conversation about reforming the performance appraisal system. It didn't matter. I would find a way to inject some comment about the need for fundamental change.

Sigh...

You know, people can get pretty tired of that. They start avoiding you. Before you know it, you have a reputation for being cynical and negative. This is not a guess. It's a fact. I lived it.

Here is my depiction of The Rebel Arc--the stages of being a rebel. (This is a Beta version, so all ideas, as always, welcomed.) The line between advocacy and obsession is admittedly a fine one, but only for the rebel herself.  Her audience immediately senses the difference between the two, and reacts accordingly.

So be sensitive to how often you talk about your big idea. Rebels will have more credibility if they are seen as still functioning members of the team, and not as one-trick ponies. Choose your opportunities to talk about your ideas judiciously.

Now to the topic of controversy. It's not up on the chart because it's a consequence of rebel actions--not a rebel stage itself. I've often spoken about how rebels need to understand that handling conflict well is a necessary skill they must develop. The precursor of conflict is, of course, controversy. As soon, if not before, you reach the top of the Rebel Arc, you will, if you have an idea that is truly challenging to the Ways Things Always Are Done, engender controversy.

Controversy is your friend! Honest! It means people have begun to pay attention.

But how rebels handle this controversy will be a key determinant of how their proposals and careers will fare. These moments of controversy offer rebels opportunities to gain new allies (and new opponents) and will help temper their ideas. Just like the status quo, your ideas are imperfect. Dismissing others' suggestions is the first step toward obsession.

One last word on the Rebel Arc. OK, so it makes being a rebel look pretty miserable. I know, I rode it all the way down during the middle part of my career.

But there are several exit ramps available.  The ideal takeoff point is just at that moment when your proposals become controversial, i.e. you have captured the attention of your organization and people are energized negatively or positively. Like anything important in life, not every factor determining the outcome is under your direct or even indirect control. Rebels that have surveyed the bureaucratic landscape will be better equipped to take advantage of the controversy by, for example, having anticipated some of the issues and by lining up key supporters who can make the rebel's argument on their behalf.  But rebels need to realize that if their ideas don't begin to gain traction, the rebels will be viewed as obsessive. That's not fatal, but negativity usually is.

Working in a bureaucracy trains us to give up on our ideas prematurely. But the danger for rebels is the opposite: hanging on to your ideas long after they no longer have a future, at least for now, in your organization. There is nothing as weak as an idea whose time has not yet come.

 

Love order, hate bureaucracy

One of the great misperceptions about rebels at work is that we are trying to change everything. Not so. Most of us focus on the things that get in the way of  achieving things that matter, and suggest better ways. We are not anarchists or people who want to reinvent every wheel.  We're much too practical to change what's working well.

We do, however, put a lot of effort against eliminating bureaucratic rules and widely accepted business practices that slow down progress without adding any value.

Bureaucracy creeps in slowly. Consensus bloats processes.  The "need to know" inflates what needs to be included in standard reports. Legal and quality control "extra safeguards" minimize risk and maximize time to completion, often putting companies at competitive risk.  Insecure  or inexperienced people add more layers instead of revising what exists.  Some duplicitous types create bureaucracy to confuse and hide unscrupulous business practices.

After a while few people inside the organization can see what's dragging things down or maybe can't even understand what the regulation or rule means.  Or, they don't know how to fix it.  That's where the value of rebels comes in.  Unlike troublemakers who rail and rant about how screwed up things are, we are often bureaucratic fixers.

Create clarity from complexity. Love order, hate bureaucracy.

As a lifelong rebel, one of my personal mantras has been, "Create clarity from complexity."  With clarity you can better see what matters, clear away the extraneous bureaucracy and useless processes, and get to valued outcomes faster.  When I look back over my career as a rebel at work this is the thing I do best: creating clarity.

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure to spend a couple of hours talking about rebels with Lars Bjork, the CEO of QlikTech. (FYI: Lars considers himself a rebel and is a CEO who values rebels.) His mantra: "Love order, hate bureaucracy."

"Order is where you put a process into place because you want to scale the business to a different level," he says.  "Bureaucracy is where nobody understands why you do it."

Order is necessary for organizations and systems to function. But what we need is provisional order.  In other words, the order works for now but will be changed as circumstances evolve and change as they always do.

One role of rebels is of simplicity analyst, diagnosing how the order -- rules, processes, regulations, systems, cultural norms -- needs to change to serve the organization's desired outcomes, and recommending new types of order that can help rather than hinder desired outcomes.

Who you gonna call?

This morning I was thinking of the "Ghostbusters" soundtrack and started to think of rebels and bureaucracy.

If there’s something strange In your neighborhood company Who you gonna call (Ghostbusters)  Your rebels If there’s something weird And it don’t look good Who you gonna call (Ghostbusters)  Your rebels

I ain’t afraid of no ghost  bureaucracy I ain’t afraid of no ghost bureaucracy

 

 

Befriending Bureaucratic Black Belts

Never, ever publicly embarrass, threaten or upstage a Bureaucratic Black Belt (BBB), those protectors of the status quo, upholders of processes and procedures, fighters for following the rules without exceptions, righteous minimizers of risk. Similarly never start a fight with them. You will lose.

BBB’s can be formidable foes. You may never win them over or convince them to approve your idea.  The best case is to befriend them so that they don’t fight you and your rebel ideas.  By befriending you’ll have a better chance of finding a way to work around them.

This is an important lesson for rebels, mavericks, change agents and innovators. The BBB’s are often our greatest obstacles. Not necessarily the official decision makers, but the people who can drain our energy and derail our plans. Selectively involving these gatekeepers is a necessary step in removing obstacles.

BBB’s hold all kinds of positions, though you will find more in Legal, Finance, and Human Resources, Customer Service, IT, Quality Management, and Environmental departments.  If a person’s job involves any sort of regulations, compliance, product quality or public reputation risks, they are more likely to be a BBB of some degree.  They have to, really. Don’t blame them for doing their jobs.

Which brings us to the first technique for befriending BBB’s.

Understand what it’s like to be them.

Put yourself in their position. What are they held accountable for?  What happens if they make a mistake? Don’t properly enforce a government regulation?  Not follow a standard procedure and get audited?  They succeed by being fearful of what could go wrong. If they mess up, public humiliation for the entire organization is at risk.

If they’re not born that way, they become wired to say “No” to anything even slightly out of the norm.

We rebels see opportunities, they see danger.

So empathize with them. Feel their pain. (We know this can be challenging especially if you’ve been foiled continually by BBB’s, which is likely.)

Bring this empathy to your conversations with them, letting them know that you get how difficult it must be to be them.  “It must get frustrating and lonely being the person who has to always remind people of the risks,” you might say.  All people want to be seen, to know that people understand what it’s like to be them.  Especially BBBs, who may have an even more difficult role at work than rebels.

This empathy is likely to ease the tension, perhaps put them at slightly more ease with you.

Who is The Person Most Revered?

Also helpful is to understand who in the organization the BBB respects, fears, wants to please. There is always someone.  Find out who that person is, what’s important to him or her, and who or what influences him or her.

Then  invoke the name of the Person Who Is Revered when dealing with the BBB. Better yet, figure out how to get support from the Person Who Is Revered, and tell the BBB that so and so supports your idea.  The tiger is likely to back down a bit. Not entirely, but enough that you’ll find more space to navigate.

Ask questions vs. sell your ideas

BBB’s, like most of us, like to be recognized as smart and influential, so do feed this need by asking the BBB for advice. (This also helps you figure out what this person most wants or fears, more data points to factor into your neutralizing strategy.)  You might say, “Diane (The Revered One) is interested in seeing how we might be able to make this idea work. If you were in my shoes, what would you do?  What advice can you give me that might be helpful?”

If the BBB says something annoying and unhelpful like, “Diane should know better. That idea will never work here,” The next question to ask,  “What would have to be in place for the idea to have any outside chance of working?”   This data will help inform what you need to do, or how to position the idea.  Questions are your friends in dealing with BBBs, as is listening. 

Selective disclosure and conversation goals

Know, too, that you have won some points by involving the BBB. These people get angry and become stronger foes when you ignore them. Which is what we’d like to do because they can be so unpleasant and FRUSTRATING.  Understand when and how to keep them in the loop. Disclose what you must, but not everything.

It’s also important to not wing it when going into meetings: Have a goal in mind whenever you have a conversation with a BBB. What do you want them to do, or not to do, after the conversation happens?  The more clear and precise your goal, the more likely you’ll achieve it.

Free flowing, unstructured conversations with BBBs can be dangerous because we rebels tend to get passionate and excited about what’s possible.  Passionate possibilities send warning signals to the BBB. “Danger! Danger!  This person is not staying inside the lines; they are even talking about painting the lines orange instead of regulation blue. Beware of what she is saying. Stop thinking about what she is saying and launch into why this is not possible. Shut her down. Now.”

Lastly, thank BBBs when they are helpful. Public recognition for their efforts, especially with The Person Most Revered, will go a long way in making sure that they leave you alone.

Remember, BBB’s  are unlikely to EVER fully support you. You just don’t want them to stop you.

 

You cannot win over Bureaucratic Black Belts.

Your job is to befriend them so they don’t try to kill your idea.