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!

The Stability Trap

Given my long career at the CIA, I still read widely on international relations and politics. One of the most interesting articles I've read in some time just appeared in Foreign Affairs--The Calm Before the Storm--Why Volatility Signals Stability, and Vice Versa.   Trying to figure out when and how a society becomes unstable is the bread and butter work of a political analyst in the Intelligence Community.  Nassim Taleb's and Greg Treverton's article is wonderfully contrarian, arguing that in fact the most stable societies have a history of healthy volatility in their recent past.

The best indicator of a country's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past.

Reflecting on my own career, I can remember many countries that I knew were going to implode at any moment, and yet somehow never did. And when there was a surprise--or, in other words, an intelligence failure--it was often because a pillar of the international community had suddenly--or so we thought--gone all wobbly on us.

And then I wondered whether this nifty piece of analysis could have broader implications.

Wait a Minute! Could this apply to companies as well? Could it in fact be the case that:

The best indicator of an organization's future stability is not past stability but moderate volatility in the relatively recent past?

Rebels at Work know that one of the main reasons why their ideas don't get a fair hearing is because most management teams prefer, indeed they crave, stability. My experience in government and the private sector is that one of the real reasons people avoid change is because they dislike disruption. Changing an organization is like staying in your house when you're remodeling your kitchen. It's messy and uncomfortable. As a result, people in an organization often will agree that the future end state is much preferable to the Status Quo, but nevertheless get grumpy at the thought of any disruption of their daily routines.

Organizations and managers need to rethink this aversion to messiness, to moderate volatility. And one of the best ways for a company to inject a healthy dose of ideational volatility into its operations is to be more tolerant, perhaps even welcoming, of its rebels, mavericks, and heretics. I can promise you that we rebels are very good at stirring things up if you just let us. Injecting new ideas into the tired debate about next year's strategic direction would make all organizations stronger. Encouraging dissent from the prevailing wisdom in organizations is analogous to the "political variability" that characterizes countries that enjoy genuine political stability. As Taleb and Treverton point out, decentralization and political changeability makes countries stronger; authoritarian rule tends to only make them brittle.

Many companies and organizations today are brittle. They look strong but that strength is untested. The absence of diversity in their strategy and tactics leaves them vulnerable to any changes in the environment they fail to anticipate. Rebels at Work can serve as the anticipation engine of your organization.

But only if you let them!

 

A Rebel Handbook

Have you heard that Lois and I have a book coming out this fall, published by O'Reilly Media, called Rebels at Work: A Handbook for Leading Change from Within? Needless to say, we're trying to act really cool about it. I, for one, only bring it up three or four times a day in the course of ordinary conversation. RAW cover

When I mention it, I get some interesting reactions. Just this weekend a friend of a friend and  I were chatting about it; he's a successful businessman and lawyer. When I told him the title  and described the content he looked confused and said:

"And so you think corporations would actually pay you to come in and teach their employees  to be rebels?"

After thinking about it for a bit he offered me a new title: "Provocateurs at Work."

I'm not sure that's any less scary to large organizations than Rebels at Work. But what  interested me most about the conversation is the fact that my interlocutor, who would  probably describe himself as a libertarian, would get so queasy about the idea of helping  rebels inside large organizations. There it is again--that, to my knowledge unproven,  assertion that corporations operate best when employees conform.

There's clearly a lot of work to be done.

Another conversation was with a friend whom I mention in the book, Clark, who has always been much more comfortable with conflict than I have ever been. Learning to deal with conflict in the workplace is such an important developmental for rebels that Lois and I devote an entire chapter to it. Although Clark never really thought of himself as a Rebel at Work, he does acknowledge that his honesty in the workplace probably cost him some plum jobs in his career, assignments he wanted and deserved. Honesty at work is not career-enhancing, he said. But a need to be honest and say what needs to be said is a key driver for rebels in the workplace. As Lois and I write in our introduction:

Every day people in all kinds of jobs at all kinds of workplaces reach the point where they say, “Enough.” While every rebel’s reason for stepping up differs, almost all start with the same uncomfortable realization: “I have to do something about this.”

Rebels at Work Make their own Categories!!

I've been in a thinking mood lately.....Well, I'm always in a thinking mood but lately I've been thinking about "thinking" a lot. During my first career in the Intelligence Community I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how analysts could satisfy the policymaker's desire for insight. Now that I'm in the consulting profession, I find that clients want the very same thing: Give me a way of thinking about the problem that is new to me and that I will find useful, i.e. a perspective that will open up new options for me on how I should act, make decisions, respond. I would say to some analysts: "We need more insight here!"

And they would rightfully challenge me: "Well what do you mean by insight?"

Good question!! I could describe to them the outcomes insight should produce (see above.) but I needed to describe the process by which one generated insight--that was harder. I finally concluded that all analysis involves early on the "slotting" of information into categories. Most of the time analysts are sorting information into predetermined categories. In other words, prevailing or conventional wisdom. Insight therefore is coming up with new ways of categorizing information that others find useful. That last part's a little tricky because it's still subjective, but until we decide on the absolute meaning of life and understand completely the laws of the universe, pretty much all knowledge will remain subjective. As in subject to further review and modification. (Indeed, I'm tempted to think humans are destined to live in a universe without explanation, but that's a completely different blog post.)

There are two ways I know of to categorize differently.

  • Slotting information into different categories than everyone else. You're still using the same categories, but you can make the argument that X event actually means the government of Y is getting stronger, not weaker, for example.

or, and I think this is the highest or hardest form of "insight":

  • Developing an entirely new set of categories. What we think of as a paradigm shift is also a Category Reset.

Individuals often become rebels at work as a result of doing one of the above...or both. They can process information differently and they can also invent whole new modes of categorization.  The latter usually implies a significant change in how an organization does business. The trick of course is to persuade the rest of the organization that this new way of categorization--this unconventional thinking--will in fact  not only be useful but better.

On my other blog, recoveringfed.com, I wrote earlier this week about the 10 habits of non-conventional thinkers. Check that out if you want a little more on the habits that can lead to new ways of categorization.

Be the one to speak up

The guru on the stage was demonstrating his executive coaching approach with an audience volunteer so that the other 800 of us could learn his technique. I knew little about coaching and was curious. This Ivy League university conference seemed like a good place to learn.

The guru started interrogating the woman on the stage with him, cutting her off before she could fully answer his questions, barking that she wasn’t answering his questions, and flippantly responding, “Really? Really?” when she tried to answer the questions.

I couldn’t believe the meanness of it all. So I raised my hand.

Mr. Guru took questions from two people before acknowledging me, both people praising his technique and asking softball questions like, “Do you use the same approach in phone sessions as in-person sessions?”

I stood up and simply said, “ How was that helpful?  It seemed intimidating and mean to me.”

Silence grabbed the giant hotel ballroom. Even Mr. Guru was at a loss for words.

He glared at me and gave some innocuous response, adding that he’d be happy to speak to me privately later.  He then turned to the sea of people and said that this woman, meaning me, was in error.  Because we were so far from the stage we couldn’t observe his body language correctly. If we could see better, we would know that the “young lady’s” comments were off base.  (Calling a middle-aged woman a young lady also made my skin crawl; it seemed so condescending.)

There was a break after the role-modeling session. As I made my way to the snacks table people came up to me and said, “Thanks for saying what you did. I felt the same way.”

Conversations ensued and I would guess that’s where some real learning happened.

It’s hard to speak up, especially in a huge crowd, especially when you’re not a “subject matter expert” or you’re early in your career or new with an organization.

What if my questions are dumb, we think.

What if they’re not?  What if no one speaks up challenging people who treat others meanly, who use professional practices that seem ill founded, who close down learning and thinking by being smug and sure?

Being a rebel in the workplace doesn’t mean that you need to reinvent your company, create new business models or solve other major challenges.

Sometimes we just need to be the people who are willing to raise our hands and put words to what we and others are feeling.

If not we, who?