Four organisational myths
One of the ways we make sense of the world is by organising our experiences into stories. More often than not our narratives gloss over complexities, emphasising only those aspects or events that we want to. For example, I might tell a tale of my involvement in a successful project, talking up things I did that worked well while ignoring those that didn’t. The message implicitly conveyed by such a story is that my actions were responsible for the success of the project. Many stories in organisations are built on a similar theme: that success is a consequence of reasoned actions. This is an example of the myth of rationality.
In this post I look at a few myths that are common in organisations, highlighting how they mislead because they overlook other important factors. My discussion draws upon a brilliant (and short!) book by James March entitled, The Ambiguities of Experience.
According to March, organisational stories frequently contain one or more of the following mythic themes:
Rationality: This is theme described earlier, that successes are consequences of reasoned actions. Most folks who work in organisations tacitly subscribe to this myth. One can see this myth at work when people are asked to justify why they took certain actions. Their answers are usually framed in terms of rational expectations of the consequences – i.e. that they rationally expected certain outcomes to follow from their actions. This is true regardless of whether the actions were actually thought through or not. Think about it: what was the answer you gave your manager the last time he or she questioned an action you took?
Hierarchy: This refers to the way in which problems and challenges are analysed. Typically problems are assumed to be decomposable into constituent sub-problems. Solving a problem is thus reduced to tackling the sub-problems. In organisations, this scientific-rational approach is more or less taken for granted as being the only way to solve problems. In reality, however, many organizational issues are wicked – they are difficult to define unambiguously, let alone solve. As an example, see this paper by John Camillus which discusses how the formulation of an organisation’s strategy has elements of wickedness. In our recently published book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices, Paul Culmsee and I discuss how such issues can be tackled using a range of collaborative techniques.
Leadership: Another persistent theme in organizational lore is that of the significance of leaders. One indicator of this is the number of hagiographies of successful CEOs in the management section of bookshops. Another is the number of management school case studies that attempt to link the successes of organisations to the actions of their leaders. In truth, although the actions of a CEO may set the overall direction for an organisation, success or failure depends on a host of other factors that executives have no control over, including the actions of many other people internal and external to the organisation.
Historical efficiency: This is the idea that organisations and ideas compete with each other, and those that come out on top are the best. This myth is commonly seen in the literature of vendors who peddle “good” or “best” organisational practices. In many cases, however, the popularity of these practices has more to do with relentless marketing than inherent quality. Other, possibly better practices may not succeed in gaining mindshare simply because they lack the means to get the message out. Similar myths are common in official histories of organisations: those that do well generally tell their stories in terms of their “unique characteristics” that enabled them to do well in the competitive marketplace. This myth also gets a fair bit of airtime in our book.
These myths are so pervasive in management and marketing literature that we accept them unquestioningly. Now that you know them, you will see them crop up in all kinds of places: marketing brochures, management case studies, biographies of business leaders and even on company web sites (the “About us” page is a good place to start). The point is that the stories we tell about ourselves are only a facet of the truth. Reality is always more nuanced and messier than can ever be captured in stories based on myths.