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Patterns of miscommunication in organisations

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The hierarchical structure of many workplaces tends to constrain or even stifle open exchange of ideas and information. This is particularly apparent in communication between employees who are at different levels in a hierarchy: people are generally reluctant to speak their minds in front of their managers, even when assured that it is perfectly OK to do so.   There is good reason for this: managers often “talk the talk” about being open to other points of view but contradict their words subsequently (see my article entitled, the paradox of the learning organization, for an example of this).

In this post I draw on this paper by Max Visser to describe some of the tactics or patterns of miscommunication which managers employ to sideline, devalue or even completely dismiss employee viewpoints.


Those who toil in the lower echelons of an organisation’s hierarchy can easily sense the gap between managerial talk and intent.  One setting in which this gap becomes particularly evident is in group meetings, where a manager’s words may say, “speak freely” but his body language or responses may append an unspoken “be aware of the consequences”   clause.

As I have discussed in this post, communication is just as much about context (e.g. manager-subordinate relationship within an organisational setting) as it is about content.  This point of view is central to the interactional view of communication that originated in the work of Gregory Bateson and Paul Watzlawick.  According to the interactional view, communication operates at two levels: the spoken or written meaning (content) and the situation/relationship (context). Among other things, this view focuses on the ways in which the content of a message – such as “speak freely” – may be rendered ambiguous by signals that appear to contradict it.  In the remainder of this post we’ll look at a few ways in which managers do this via verbal communication. We’ll also take a brief look at the different ways in which employees respond to such behaviour.

Patterns of miscommunication

The best way to describe these patterns is through an example. Consider the following situation:

An employee presents a business case for a new CRM system to his manager. In the presentation, the employee describes the rationale for implementing a new system and then evaluates a few products based on agreed financial, technical and other criteria. Finally, he recommends a particular product, System X, based on the evaluation and then seeks feedback from his manager.

The manager, who does not want to commit to a course of action may choose one of the following strategies to devalue the employee’s work:


In this case the manager makes a statement that acknowledges the employee’s message but ignores its  content and intent by saying something like:

So how long have you been working on this?”

By going off on a tangent, the manager  avoids giving a relevant response.


There are four types of disqualification


This occurs when a manager avoids giving a response by changing the topic.  For example, the manager might glance at his watch and saying:

“Oh is that the time?  I have to go, I’m late for a meeting with my boss.”

The difference between tangentialisation and evasion is that in the latter, the manager does not even acknowledge the message.

Sleight of hand

Here the manager appears to acknowledge the message,  but then switches the topic. An example of this would be a response along the lines of:

“Yes, you enough data for a Phd thesis here [laughs]. I think we’re drowning in data.“

The point here is that the manager initiates a discussion about a side issue – the volume of  information presented in the business case rather  than its relevance or veracity. Moreover this is done in an apparently light-hearted, yet somewhat demeaning way. Thus although the manager avoids giving direct feedback, he still makes it clear  he does not think that the employee’s work is up to scratch.

Status disqualification

Here the manager switches the focus from the message to the messenger. Usually status disqualification is accompanied by insinuations regarding the messenger’s competence. A typical example of this would be a comment like:

“It’s clear you have not done these kinds of presentations before!”

Without saying it explicitly, the manager is implying that the employee has not done a good job and therefore no further discussion is necessary.

Redundant question

This is where the manager lobs the ball back in the employee’s court by asking a question that implicitly challenges the employee’s conclusions. An example would be:

“[smiles knowingly] I see, but does your data justify your choice of System X?”

Such a question signals the manager is not convinced, but without explicit disagreement. The onus is now on the employee to justify his conclusions.


Here the manager changes the context of the discussion altogether by saying something like:

“Let me tell you something about CRM systems.”

Here the manager changes the frame of the discussion – it is now about educating the employee rather than evaluating the product. Of course, in doing so he also insinuates that the employee’s analysis is not worthy of a response.

Employee responses to managerial miscommunication

When faced with any of the above tactics, the employee can respond in one of the following ways:

  1. Meta-communication: Here the employee understands the manager’s tactics and attempts to point out the inconsistency and double speak in the manager’s response.  This is a risky course of action because the manager may view it as a direct challenge to his or her authority. However, if done right, the manager may actually become aware of the incongruence of his/her response and change behaviour accordingly.
  2. Evasion: Here the employee withdraws from the conversation by ignoring the manager’s message altogether.  One way to do this is to offer no response at all, but this might not be possible as the manager may well insist on a response.
  3. Acceptance: In this case the employee accepts the content of the manager’s response, but ignores the non-verbal signals (derogatory tone, looking at watch etc.).  In doing so, the employee effectively accepts the manager’s criticisms.
  4. Countering: Here the employee counters the manager’s message by  using one of the tactics of the previous section. This generally leads to a verbal escalation as the manager will view such a response as a direct challenge to his authority and thus respond in kind.

Because of the nature of the manager-employee relationship and the fear of challenging authority, I would hazard a guess that majority of employees would respond by acceptance or (more infrequently) by evasion. In an ideal organisation, of course, they would respond by meta-communicating.


In this post I have described some common patterns of miscommunication between managers and the managed in organisation-land.  The common element in all the patterns is that the manager acknowledges the message at one level but responds in such a way as to leave the employee confused about how the response should be interpreted. In effect, the miscommunicating manager avoids giving a response.

The interactional view of communication tells us that context and relationship are more important than the content of a message because what is not said is often more significant than what is. The patterns listed above make this amply clear:  managers who miscommunicate are asserting their positional authority rather than saying anything of substance or value.

Written by K

November 1, 2013 at 5:37 am

An ABSERD incident – a service desk satire

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The expenses application crashed just as Tina had finished entering the last line. She wasn’t duly alarmed; this had happened to her a couple of times before, but Nathan in IT was able to sort it out without her having to reenter her expenses.

She dialled his number, he answered in a couple of rings. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, she described the problem.

To her surprise, he replied, “I’m sorry Tina, I can’t help you. You will have to call the service desk.”

“The service desk?”  She asked, “What’s that?”

“We have streamlined our IT service procedures to comply with the ABSERD standard –  which stands for  Absolutely Brilliant SERvice Desks. It is an ABSERD requirement that all service calls must be routed through a centralised service desk.”  explained Nate. “The procedures and the numbers you need to call were in the email that was sent out to everyone last week.”

“Yes, I read it, but I didn’t think the ABSERD procedures applied to something like the expenses app.,” said Tina, somewhat bemused.

“I’m afraid it applies to all services that IT offers,” said Nate.

“But isn’t the service desk located elsewhere? Will they even know what the expenses app is let alone how to fix it?”

“Ummm…they’ll fix it if they can and escalate it to the next level if they can’t,” replied Nate. “The ABSERD processes are detailed in the email,” he explained again helpfully.

“You know what the problem is.  Tell me honestly: do you think they’ll be able to fix it?”

“Probably not,” admitted Nate.

“So they’ll escalate it. How long will that take?”

“The ABSERD service level agreement specifies that all non-critical issues will be responded to within   48 hours. I’m afraid the expenses app is classified as non-critical.”

“So that’s 48 hours to fix an issue that you could sort out in minutes,” stated Tina in a matter of fact tone.

“Ummm…no, it’s 48 hours to respond.  That’s the time frame in which they will fix the issue if they can or escalate it if they can’t fix it. As I mentioned, in this case they’ll probably have to escalate” clarified Nate.

“You mean they’ll take 48 hours to figure out they can’t do it. Now, that is truly absurd!”   Tina was seriously annoyed now.

“Well, the service desk deals with calls from the entire organisation. They have to prioritise them somehow and this is the fairest way to do it,” said Nate defensively. “Moreover, the service level agreement specifies 48 hours, but there’s a good chance you’ll get a response within a day,” he added in an attempt to placate her.

“And who will they escalate the call to after 48 (or 24) hours if they can’t fix it?” asked Tina exasperatedly.

“Ummm….that would be me,” said Nate sheepishly.

“I’m sorry, but I’m totally lost now. By your own admission, you’ll probably be the one to fix this problem. So why can’t you just do it for me?”

“I’d love to, Tina” said Nate, “but I can’t.  Jim will have my hide if he knows that I have bypassed the ABSERD process. I’m sorry, you’re just going to have to call or email the service desk. I can’t do anything about it”

“Why are we suddenly following this ABSERD process anyway? What’s the aim of it all?” asked Tina.

“Well, our aim is to improve the quality of our service. The ABSERD standard is a best practice for IT service providers…,” he trailed off, realising that he sounded like a commercial for ABSERDity.

“You do agree that it actually increases the service time for me. You could have fixed the issue for me in the time we’ve had this conversation but I’m going to have to wait at least 24 hours. I fail to see what has “improved” here.”

“Look, this is the new process. I’m sorry can’t do anything about it,” said Nate lamely.

“OK, I’ll log the call.” she said resignedly.

“I’m sorry, Tina. I really am.”

“It’s not your fault,” she said in a gentler tone, “but I’m probably going to miss the deadline for getting my expenses in this month.”

“Tell you what,” said Nate, as the obvious solution dawned on him, “I’ll fix the problem now… but please log the call just in case someone checks.”

“Are you sure you can do that?” asked Tina. “It would be nice to get reimbursed this month, but I do not want you to get into trouble.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem as long as you don’t tell anyone about it…I wouldn’t want to make it known that I bypass the ABSERD procedures as a matter of course.”

“My lips are sealed,” said Tina. “Thanks Nate, I really appreciate your help with this.”

“No worries Tina. I’ll call you when it’s done,” he said as he ended the call.

Written by K

October 17, 2013 at 8:06 pm

The paradox of the learning organisation

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The term learning organisation  refers to an organisation that continually modifies itself in response to changes in its environment.   Ever since Peter Senge coined the term in his book, The Fifth Discipline, assorted consultants and academics have been telling us that a learning organisation is an ideal worth striving for.  The reality, however,  is that most organisations that undertake the journey actually end up in a place far removed  from this ideal. Among other things, the journey may expose managerial hypocrisies that contradict the very notion of a learning organisation.  In this post, I elaborate on the paradoxes of learning organisations, drawing on an excellent and very readable paper by Paul Tosey entitled, The Hunting of the Learning Organisation: A Paradoxical Journey.

(Note:  I should point out that the term learning organisation should be distinguished from organisational learning: the latter refers to processes of learning whereas the former is about an ideal type of organisation. See this paper for more on the distinction.)

The journey metaphor

Consultants and other experts are quick to point out that the path to a learning organisation is a journey towards an ideal that can never be reached.  Quoting from this paper, Tosey writes, “we would talk about the fact that, in some ways, the learning organization represented all of our collective best wishes for Utopia in the workplace.” As another example, Peter Senge writes of it being, “a journey in search of the experience of being a member of `a great team.”  Elsewhere, Senge  suggests that the learning organisation is a vision that is essentially unattainable.

The metaphor of a journey seems an apt one at first, but there are a couple of problems with it. Firstly, the causal connection between initiatives that purport to get one to the goal and actual improvements in an organisation’s capacity to learn  is tenuous and impossible to establish.  This suggests the journey is one without a map. Secondly, the process of learning about learning within the organisation – how it occurs, and how it is perceived by different stakeholders – can expose organisational hypocrisies and double-speak that may otherwise have remained hidden.  Thus instead of progressing towards the the ideal one may end up moving away from it.  Tosey explores these  paradoxes by comparing the journey of a learning organisation to  the one described in Lewis Carroll’s  poem, The Hunting of The Snark.

Hunting the Snark (and the learning organisation)

Carroll’s poem tells the story of ten characters who set of in search of a fabulous creature called a  Snark.  After many trials and tribulations, they end up finding out that the Snark is something else:  a not-so-pleasant creature called a Boojum. Tosey comments that the quest described in the poem is a superb metaphor for the journey towards a learning organisation. As he states:

Initially, when reflecting on personal experience of organizational events… I was struck by the potential of the dream-like voyage of fancy on which Carroll’s characters embarked as an allegory of the quest for the learning organization. Pure allegory has limitations. Through writing and developing the article I came to view the poem more as a paradigm of the consequences of human desire for, and efforts at, progress through the striving for ideals. In other words the poem expresses something about our `hunting’. In this respect it may represent a mythological theme,a profound metaphor more than a mere cautionary moral tale.

There are many interesting parallels between the hunt for the Snark and the journey towards a learning organisation. Here are a few:

The expedition to find the Snark is led by a character called the Bellman who asserts: “What I tell you three times is true.” This is akin to the assurances (pleas?) from experts who tell us (several times over) that it is possible to transform our organisations into ones that continually learn.

The journey itself is directionless because the Bellman’s map is useless. In Carroll’s words:

Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we’ve got our brave Captain to thank:
(So the crew would protest) “that he’s bought us the best—
A perfect and absolute blank!

Finally, the Snark is never found. In its stead, the crew find a scary creature called  a Boojum that has the power to make one disappear. Quoting from the poem:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say,
In the midst of his laughter and glee,
He had softly and suddenly vanished away—
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

The journey towards a learning organisation often reveals the Boojum-like dark side of organisations.  One common example of this is when the process of learning surfaces questions that are uncomfortable for those in power. Tosey relates the  following tale  which may be familiar to some readers,

…a multinational company intending to develop itself as a learning organization ran programmes to encourage managers to challenge received wisdom and to take an inquiring approach. Later, one participant attended an awayday, where the managing director of his division circulated among staff over dinner. The participant raised a question about the approach the MD had taken on a particular project; with hindsight, had that been the best strategy? `That was the way I did it’, said the MD. `But do you think there was a better way?’, asked the participant. `I don’t think you heard me’, replied the MD. `That was the way I did it’. `That I heard’, continued the participant, `but might there have been a better way?’. The MD fixed his gaze on the participants’ lapel badge, then looked him in the eye, saying coldly, `I will remember your name’, before walking away.

One could argue that a certain kind of learning – that of how the organisation learns – occurred here:  the employee learnt that certain questions were out of bounds. I think it is safe to say, though, that this was not the kind of learning that was intended by those who initiated the program.

In the preface to the poem, Carroll notes that the Bellman there is a rule  –  Rule 42 – which states, “No one shall speak to the Man at the Helm,” to which the Bellman (the leader) added, “and the Man at the Helm shall speak to no one.” This rendered communication between the helmsman and the crew impossible. In such periods the ship was not steered. The parallels between this and organisational life are clear: there is rarely open communication between the those steering the organisational ship and rank and file employees. Indeed, Tosey reformulates Rule 42 in organisational terms as, “the organization shall not speak to the supervision, and the  supervision shall not speak to the organization.” This, he tells us, interrupts the feedback loop between individual experience and the organisations which renders learning impossible.

(Note:  I can’t help but wonder if Douglas Adams’ famous  answer to the life universe and everything was inspired by Carroll’s rule 42…)

In the poem,  the ship sometimes sailed backwards when Rule 42 was in operation. Tosey draws a parallel between “sailing backwards” and unexpected or unintended consequence of organisational rules.  He argues that organisational actions can result in learning even if those actions were originally intended to achieve something else. The employee in the story above learnt something about the organisational hierarchy and how it worked.

Finally, it is a feature of Rule-42-like rules that they cannot be named. The employee in the story above could not  have pointed out that the manager was acting in a manner that was inconsistent with the intent of the programme – at least not without putting his own position at risk. Perhaps that in itself is a kind of learning, though of a rather sad kind.


Experts and consultants have told us many times over that the journey towards a learning organisation is one worth making….and as the as the Bellman in Carroll’s poem says: “What I tell you three times is true.” Nevertheless, the reality is that instances in which learning actually occurs tend to be more a consequence of accident than plan, and tend to be transient than lasting. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Snark may turn out to Boojum:  people may end up learning truths that the organisation would rather remained hidden.   And therein lies the paradox of the  learning organisation.

Written by K

June 4, 2013 at 9:23 pm

A stupidity-based theory of organisations – a paper review

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The platitude “our people are  our most important asset”  reflects a belief that the survival and evolution of organisations depends  on the intellectual and cognitive capacities of the individuals who comprise them.   However,  in view of the many well documented examples of actions that demonstrate a lack of  foresight and/or general callousness about the fate of organisations or those who work in them,  one has to wonder if such a belief is justified, or even if it is really  believed by those who spout such platitudes.

Indeed,  cases such as Enron or Worldcom  (to mention just two) seem to suggest that stupidity may be fairly prevalent in present day organisations. This point is the subject of a brilliant paper by Andre Spicer and Mats Alvesson entitled, A stupidity based theory of organisations.  This post is an extensive summary and review of the paper.


The notion that the success of an organization depends on the intellectual and rational capabilities of its people seems almost obvious. Moreover, there is a good deal of empirical research that seems to support this. In the opening section of their paper, Alvesson and Spicer cite many studies which appear to establish that developing the knowledge (of employees) or hiring smart people  is the key to success in an ever-changing, competitive environment.

These claims are mirrored in theoretical work on organizations. For example Nonaka and Takeuchi’s model of knowledge conversion acknowledges the importance of tacit knowledge held by employees. Although there is still much debate about tacit/explicit knowledge divide, models such as these serve to perpetuate the belief that knowledge (in one form or another) is central to organisational success.

There is also a broad consensus that decision making in organizations, though subject to bounded rationality and related cognitive biases,  is by and large a rational process. Even if a decision is not wholly rational, there is usually an attempt to depict it as being so. Such behaviour attests to the importance attached to rational thinking in organization-land.

At the other end of the spectrum there are decisions that can only be described as being, well… stupid. As Rick Chapman discusses in his entertaining book, In Search of Stupidity, organizations occasionally make decisions that are  plain dumb However, such behaviour seldom remains hidden because of its rather obvious negative consequences for the organisation.  Such stories thus end up being  immortalized in business school curricula as canonical examples of what not to do.

Functional stupidity

Notwithstanding the above remarks on  obvious stupidity, there is another category of foolishness that is perhaps more pervasive but remains unnoticed and unremarked. Alvesson and Spicer use the term functional stupidity to refer to such  “organizationally supported lack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning, and justitication.”

In their words, functional stupidity amounts to the “…refusal to use intellectual resources outside a narrow and ‘safe’ terrain.”   It is reflected in a blinkered approach to organisational problems, wherein people display  an unwillingness  to consider or think about solutions that lie outside an arbitrary boundary.  A common example of this is when certain topics are explicitly or tacitly deemed as being “out of bounds” for discussion. Many “business as usual” scenarios are riddled with functional stupidity, which is precisely why it’s often so hard to detect.

As per the definition offered above, there are three cognitive elements to functional stupidity:

  1. Lack of reflexivity: this refers to the inability or unwillingness to question claims and commonly accepted wisdom.
  2. Lack of substantive reasoning: This refers to  reasoning that is based on a small set of concerns that do not span the whole issue. A common example of this sort of myopia is when organisations focus their efforts on achieving certain objectives with little or no questioning of the objectives themselves.
  3. Lack of justification: This happens when  employees do not question managers or, on the other hand, do not provide explanations regarding their  own actions. Often this is a consequence of power relationships in organisations. This may, for example, dissuade employees from “sticking their necks out” by asking questions that managers might deem out of bounds.

It should be noted that functional stupidity has little to do with limitations of human cognitive capacities. Nor does it have anything to do with ignorance, carelessness or lack of thought. The former can be  rectified through education and/or the hiring of consultants with the requisite knowledge,  and the latter via the use of standardised procedures and checklists.

It is also important to  note that  functional stupidity is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, by placing certain topics out of bounds, organisations can avoid discussions about potentially controversial topics and can thus keep conflict and uncertainty at bay.  This maintains  harmony, no doubt, but it also strengthens the existing organisational order which  in turn serves to reinforce functional stupidity.

Of course, functional stupidity also has negative consequences, the chief one being that it prevents organisations from finding solutions to issues that involve topics that have been arbitrarily deemed as being out of bounds.

Examples of functional stupidity

There are many examples of functional stupidity in recent history, a couple being the irrational exuberance in the wake of the internet boom of the 1990s, and the lack of  critical examination of the complex mathematical models that lead to the financial crisis of last decade.

However, one does not have to look much beyond one’s own work environment to find examples of functional stupidity.  Many of these come under the category of  “business as usual”  or “that’s just the way things are done around here” – phrases that are used to label practices that are ritually applied without much thought or reflection.  Such practices often remain unremarked because it is not so easy to link them to negative outcomes.  Indeed, the authors point out that “most managerial practices are adopted on the basis of faulty reasoning, accepted wisdom and complete lack of evidence.”

The authors cite the example of companies adopting HR practices that are actually detrimental to employee and organisational wellbeing.  Another common example  is when organisations place a high value on gathering information which is then not used in a meaningful way.    I have discussed this “information perversity” at length in my post on entitled, The unspoken life of information in organisations, so I won’t  rehash it here.  Alvesson and Spicer point out that information perversity is a consequence of the high cultural value placed on information: it is seen as a prerequisite to “proper” decision making. However,  in reality it is often used to justify questionable decisions or simply “hide behind the facts.”

These examples suggest that functional stupidity may be the norm rather than the exception. This is a scary thought…but I suspect it may not be surprising to many readers.

The dynamics of stupidity

Alvesson and Spicer claim that functional stupidity is a common feature in organisations. To understand why it is so pervasive, one has to look into the dynamics of stupidity – how it is established and the factors that influence it.  They suggest that the root cause lies in the fact that organisations attempt to short-circuit critical thinking through what they call economies of persuasion, which are activities such as corporate culture initiatives, leadership training or team / identity building, relabelling positions with pretentious titles – and many other such activities that are aimed at influencing employees  through the use of symbols and images rather than substance. Such symbolic manipulation, as the authors calls it, is aimed at increasing employees’ sense of commitment to the organisation.

As they put it:

Organizational contexts dominated by widespread attempts at symbolic manipulation typically involve managers seeking to shape and mould the ‘mind-sets’ of employees . A core aspect of this involves seeking to create some degree of good faith and conformity and to limit critical thinking

Although such efforts are not always successful, many employees do buy in to them and thereby identify with the organisation. This makes employees uncritical of the organisation’s  goals and the means by which these will be achieved. In other words, it sets the scene for functional stupidity to take root and flourish.

Stupidity management and stupidity self-management

The authors use the term stupidity management to describe managerial actions that prevent or discourage organisational actors (employees and other stakeholders) from thinking for themselves.   Some of the ways in which this is done include the reinforcement of positive images of the organisation, getting employees to identify with the organisation’s vision and myriad other organisational culture initiatives aimed at burnishing the image of the corporation. These initiatives are often backed by organisational structures (such as hierarchies and reward systems) that discourage employees from raising and exploring potentially disruptive issues.

The monitoring and sanctioning of activities that might disrupt the positive image of the organisation can be overt (in the form of warnings, say). More often, though, it is subtle. For example, in many meetings, participants participants know that certain issues cannot be raised. At other times, discussion and debate may be short circuited by exhortations to “stop thinking and start doing.”  Such occurrences serve to create an environment in which stupidity flourishes.

The net effect of  managerial actions that encourage stupidity is that employees start to cast aside their own doubts and questions and behave in corporately acceptable ways – in other words, they start to perform their jobs in an unreflective and unquestioning way. Some people may actually internalise the values espoused by management; others may psychologically  distance themselves from the values but still act in ways that they are required to. The net effect of such stupidity self-management (as the authors call it) is that employees stop questioning what they are asked to do and just do it. After a while, doubts fade and this becomes the accepted way of working. The end result is the familiar situation that many of us know as “business as usual” or  “that’s just the way things are done around here.”

The paradoxes and consequences of stupidity

Functional stupidity can cause both feelings of certainty and dissonance in members of an organisation. Suppressing  critical thinking  can result in an easy acceptance of  the way things are.  The feelings of certainty that come from suppressing difficult questions can be comforting. Moreover, those who toe the organisational line are more likely to be offered material rewards and promotions than those who don’t. This can act to reinforce functional stupidity because others who see stupidity rewarded may also be tempted to behave in a similar fashion.

That said,  certain functionally stupid actions, such as ignoring obvious ethical lapses, can result in serious negative outcomes for an organisation. This has been amply illustrated in the recent past. Such events can prompt formal inquiries  at the level of the organisation, no doubt accompanied by  informal soul-searching at the individual level. However, as has also been amply illustrated, there is no guarantee that inquiries or self-reflection lead to any major changes in behaviour. Once the crisis passes, people seem all too happy to revert to business as usual.

In the end , though, when stark differences between the rhetoric and reality of the organisation emerge  – as they eventually will– employees will  see the contradictions between the real organisation and the one they have been asked to believe in. This can result in alienation from and cynicism about the organisation and its objectives. So, although stupidity management may have beneficial outcomes in the short run, there is a price to be paid  in the longer term.

Nothing comes for free, not even stupidity…


The authors main message is that despite the general belief that organisations enlist the cognitive and intellectual capacities of their members in positive ways, the truth is that organisational behaviour often exhibits a wilful ignorance of facts and/or a lack of logic. The authors term this behaviour functional stupidity.

Functional stupidiy has the advantage of maintaining harmony at least in the short term, but its longer term consequences can be negative.   Members of an organisation “learn” such behaviour  by becoming aware that certain topics are out of bounds and that they broach these at their own risk. Conformance is rewarded by advancement or material gain whereas dissent is met with overt or less obvious disciplinary action. Functional stupidity thus acts as a barrier that can stop members of an organisation from developing potentially interesting perspectives on the problems the organisations face.

The paper makes an interesting and very valid point about the pervasiveness of wilfully irrational behaviour in organisations. That said, I  can’t help but think that the authors  have written it with tongue firmly planted in cheek.

A visit from the methodology police – a PMO satire

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They came for me at 11:00 am.

I  was just settling down to finishing that damned business case when I heard the rat-a-tat-tat on my office door. “Come in,” I said, with a touch of irritation in my voice.

The door opened and there they were. They looked at me as though I was something that had crawled out from under a rock. “Mr. Hersey, I presume,” said the taller, uglier one.

“Yes, that’s me.”

“Joe  Hersey?” He asked, wanting to make sure before unloading on me.

“Yes, the one and only,” I said, forcing a smile. I had a deep sense of foreboding now: they looked like trouble;  I knew they couldn’t be enquiring after my welfare.

“You need to come with us,” said the shorter one. I did imply he was handsomer of the two, but I should clarify that it was a rather close call.

“I have better things to do than follow impolite summons from people I don’t know. I think you should talk to my manager. In fact, I will take you to him,” I replied, rising from my chair. “He won’t be happy that you’ve interrupted my business case. He wants it done by lunchtime,” I added, a tad smugly.

“We’ve already seen him. He knows. I would advise you to come with us. It would make life easier for everyone concerned,”  I forget which one of the two said this.

“What is going on?” I asked, toning down my irritation. To be honest, I had no clue what they were on about.

“We’re the methodology police,” they said in unison. I guess they’d had a fair bit of practice scaring the crap out of hapless project managers. “We’re from the PMO,” they added unnecessarily – I mean, where else could they be from.

“Holy s**t,” I said to myself. I was in big trouble.

“Well, Hersey,” said the short one, “I think you owe the PMO an explanation.” Ah, I loved his use of the third person– not “us” but “the PMO.”

We were seated at a table in a meeting room deep in the bowels of the PMO: windowless, with low wattage lighting sponsored by one of those new-fangled, energy-saving, greenie bulbs . The three chairs were arranged in interrogation mode , with the two goons on one side and me – Joseph M. Hersey, Project Manager Extraordinaire – on the other.

I was in trouble alright, but I have this perverse streak in me, “I don’t know what you are talking about,” I said, feeling a bit like a hero from a Raymond Chandler novel. I knew what I had done, of course. But I also knew that I was one of the good guys. The clowns sitting opposite me were the forces of evil…such thoughts, though perverse, lifted my spirits.

I must have smiled because the tall one said, “You think this is funny, do you? We have a direct line to the board and we could make life really unpleasant for you if you continue this uncooperative attitude.”

That was bad. I did not want to be hauled up in front of the big cheese. If I was branded a troublemaker at that level, there would be no future for me in the company. And to be absolutely honest, I actually enjoyed working here – visits from the methodology police excepted, of course.

“OK, tell me what you want to know,” I said resignedly.

“No, you tell us, Hersey. We want to hear the whole story of your subversion of process in your own words. We’ll stop you if we need any clarification.” Again, I forget which one of the two said this. Understandable, I think – I was pretty stressed by then.

Anyway, there is no sense in boring you with all the PMO  and process stuff. Suffice to say, I told them how I partitioned my big project into five little ones, so that each mini project would fall below the threshold criteria for major projects and thus be exempt from following the excruciating methodology that our PMO had instituted.

Process thus subverted, I  ran each of the mini projects separately, with deliverables from one feeding into the next. I’d got away with it; with no onerous  procedures to follow I was free to devise my own methodology, involving nothing more complicated than a spreadsheet updated daily following informal conversations with team members and stakeholders. All this held together – and, sorry, this is going to sound corny – by trust.

The methodology cops’ ears perked up when they heard that word, “Trust!” they exclaimed, “What do you mean by trust?”

“That’s when you believe people will do as they say they will,” I said. Then added, “A concept that may be foreign to you.” I regretted that snide aside as soon as I said it.

“Look, “ said the uglier guy, “I suggest you save the wisecracks for an audience that may appreciate them. “You are beginning to annoy me and a report to the board is looking like a distinct possibility if you continue in this vein.”

I have to say, if this guy had a lot of patience if he was only just “beginning to get annoyed.” I was aware that I had been baiting him for a while. Yes, I do know when I do that. My wife keeps telling me it will get me into trouble one day. May be today’s the day.

“…I do know what trust is,” the man continued, “but I also know that you cannot run a project on warm and fuzzy notions such as trust, sincerity, commitment etc. The only thing I will trust are written signed off project documents.”

Ah, the folly, the folly. “Tell me this, what would you prefer – project documentation as per the requirements of your methodology or a successful project.”

“The two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, methodology improves the chance of success.”

“No it doesn’t,” I retorted.

“It does,” he lobbed back.

Jeez, this was beginning to sound like recess in the local kindergarten. “Prove it,” I said, staking my claim to the title of King of Kindergarten Debates.

“There are several studies that prove the methodologies efficacy,” said the short one, “but that is not the point.”

“All those studies are sponsored by the Institute,” I said, referring to the August Body that maintains the standard. “so there is a small matter of vested interest….anyway, you say that isn’t the point. So what is your point then?.”

“The methodology is an internal requirement, so you have to follow It regardless. We could have a lot of fun debating it, but that is neither here no there. Compliance is mandatory, you have no choice.”

“I did comply,” I said, “none of my projects were over the threshold, so I did not need to follow the methodology.”

“That was subterfuge – it was one project that you deliberately divided into five so that you could bypass our processes.”

I was getting tired and it was close to my lunchtime. “OK, fair point“ I said, “I should not have done that. I will not do it again. Can I go now?”

“Hmm,” they said in unison.  I don’t think either of them believed me. “That’s not good enough.”

I sighed. “What do you want  then?” I asked, weary of this pointless drama.

“You will read and sign this form,” said the short one, “declaring you have been trained in the PMO processes – which you were last year, as you well know – and that you will follow the processes henceforth. I particularly urge you to read and digest the bit about the consequences of non-compliance.” He flicked the form in my direction.

I was not surprised to see that the form  was a multi-page affair, written in 8pt bureaucratese, utterly incomprehensible to mere mortals such as I. I knew I would continue to bypass or subvert processes that made no sense to me, but I also knew that they needed me to sign that form – their boss would be very unhappy with them if I didn’t.  Besides, I didn’t want to stay in that room a second longer than necessary.

“OK, where do I sign,” I said, picking up a pen that lay on the table.

“Don’t you want to read it.”

“Nah,” I said, “I have a pretty fair idea of what it’s about.”

I signed.

“We’re done, Hersey. You can go back to your business case now. But you can be sure that you are on our radar now. We are watching you.”

“Well Gents, enjoy the show. I promise, to lead a faultless life henceforth. I will be a model project manager,” I said as I rose to leave.

“We’re counting on it Hersey.  One more violation and you are in deep trouble.”

I refrained from responding with a wisecrack as I exited, leaving them to the paperwork that is their raison d’etre.

A performance review tragedy in five limericks

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The yearly performance review
is something we all must go through.
So you may well know
the story below
…it may’ve  even happened to you.

The boss, a hawk not a dove,
dictated the goals from above.
He said, “You will do
as I tell you to,
and that should be more than enough.”

The year whizzed by like a race.
(Isn’t that always the case?)
Soon it was time
for that moment sublime,
when performance would be appraised.

And as the review progressed,
the minion suffered much stress,
because it was clear
he’d be marked a failure
even though he’d given his best.

In the end he said, “OK, that’s fine,
but we were never aligned.
I know you don’t care
but it just ain’t fair
that these were your goals, not mine.

Written by K

April 12, 2013 at 4:52 am

Sherlock Holmes and the case of the terminated PMO

with 12 comments

“Tch, tch,” clucked Holmes, shaking his head. “What a tragedy, Watson,” he continued, “yet another project management office cut down in its prime.”

Watson said nothing; he knew his friend did not like interruptions when he was surveying a crime scene.

Holmes walked around as he always did,  in apparently random fashion, his sharp eyes darting from here to there taking in the details –  the process flowcharts on a wall,  project schedules displayed over on the other side,  the printed portfolio reports  that lay on the table and the many other artefacts that are part and parcel of a PMO.

After watching  his friend  for what seemed like an eternity, Watson could hold his curiosity no longer: “What’s your guess, Holmes?” he asked.

“I never guess. It is a shocking habit—destructive to the logical faculty.” He looked up sharply, “You should know better than to ask Watson….”

“I know, Holmes, but my curiosity gets the better of me. What do you think happened?”

“Ah yes, what I think. What I think is not important, Watson,” he said, wagging his index finger in his friend’s direction. “We must focus on what we know – the facts.”

“So, what are the facts?” asked Watson wearily. His friend could be an insufferable pedant.

“You know my methods, Watson. Look around you. What do you see?”

Oh, they were going to play that game again. Shaking his head in exasperation, Watson said, “Why don’t you save time and tell me, Holmes. You are the genius, not I.”

“Ah Watson, sarcasm does not become you. Anyway, I take no offence and will offer you some hints so that you may begin to discern the real reason for the failure of this PMO.”

He walked over to the flowcharts on the wall and asked,” Tell me Watson, What are these and what do they  tell you?”

Watson  walked over to the charts, looked at  them intently and said, “I think we can safely say these describe project management processes.” Then, jabbing his finger at a chart, he continued, “This one  describes the process of authorisation. It seems sensible enough –  a need is identified, a business case drawn up and submitted to the project governance board, it is evaluated against certain criteria and then a decision is made on whether the project should be authorised or not. And look at this one, ‘tis a work of art….”

“Do you know, Watson,” interrupted Holmes, “that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these attractive flowcharts, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which they may be subverted.”

“Huh?” blurted Watson, not knowing quite what to make of this.

“I see you are perplexed, Watson. Let me put it another way,  a  PMO may require that project managers comply with certain process, but it cannot enforce compliance.”

“So you think the PMO failed because it could not get project managers to follow processes?”

“Yes, Watson. But experience tells me that although that may be a visible symptom, it is not the cause. You’re a doctor so  I don’t need to tell you that identifying symptoms is necessary but, to cure the disease, one must find the cause. It is all too easy to label the symptom as the cause – many  consultants have done so, and have thus made recommendations that are worse than useless.”

“Worse than useless? I don’t understand, Holmes.”

“Yes, worse than useless. If  organisations focus on curing symptoms rather than causes, they will end up exacerbating the underlying dysfunctions. For example, if a consultant mistakenly labels the fact that project managers did not follow processes as the cause, the organisation may put in place procedures that forces managers to comply with processes. That, as you will no doubt appreciate,  is doing exactly the wrong thing – it will only make things worse.”

“Why is it the wrong thing? Surely if they are forced to comply, they will and the processes will then be followed as they should be.”

“Ah, Watson,” said Holmes, shaking his head in exasperation, “that’s the army man in you talking.” He continuted sharply,  “This is not the military, Sir! This is the messy world of organisation-land where people are autonomous agents even though management orthodoxy would have us believe otherwise.”

“’Tis a matter of discipline, Holmes. Surely you do not advocate letting project managers behave as they would want – as, how do you say it…autonomous agents.”

“ You know Watson, may be you are right,”  said Holmes.  “Perhaps when a man has special knowledge and special powers like my own, it rather encourages him to seek a complex explanation when a simpler one is at hand.”

“Indeed, I think you are over-complicating matters my dear Holmes. This is an open and shut case – a failure of enforcement and compliance.” said Watson.

“Possibly, Watson. However, the truth is not to be found here in the PMO. It lies elsewhere, in the hallowed heights of the executive floor… Anyway there is a more immediate matter that needs our attention: it is late and the sun sinks rapidly. We must make our way to that fine establishment I noticed at the end of the street – I could do with a pint or three.”

“Well said, Holmes!”

The two made their way towards the exit.


“Come,  friend Watson, the curtain rings up for the last act,” murmured Holmes, as the two of them entered the elevator. They had come to the head office to meet the executive director.

The two found their way to the meeting room on the executive floor and entered.

“Hello Holmes, it is good to see you again,” boomed the executive director, “and I see you have brought Dr. Watson with you. Good to see you too, sir. Do come in and meet my management team.”.

After the mandatory round of introductions and business card exchanges, the director continued,”I take it you have something for us, Holmes.”

“Yes sir, I have a number of questions.“

“Questions? I don’t understand, Holmes. We hired you to find us some answers about the failure of our PMO, and you tell me have  a few questions. I take it you have some answers too. The CIO expects answers not questions,” he said with a nervous chuckle.

“No,I have no answers…but a hypothesis that I hope to validate soon.”

“I do not understand the need for this drama,” said the director.

“Watson here will tell you that I can never resist a touch of the dramatic.”

“OK, Holmes, you had better get to it then,” said the director shortly.

“I’ll get right to it sir,” he said, and turned to face the seated managers. “Ladies and gentlemen, pray what was the objective of your PMO?”

There was a stunned silence. Finally, one of the managers spoke up, “Surely that is obvious Mr, Holmes.”

“Thank you.  I do realise my question may seem a little simple minded to you, but I beg that you answer it in a way that you would to someone who knows nothing about PMOs.” He turned to the executive director for confirmation.

“Yes, yes, answer his question,” said the executive director impatiently.

“OK, if you insist. The basic objective  of the PMO can be summarised in a line. It was to ensure that all our strategic projects are delivered on time, within the agreed budget and to the required standards of quality.  Needless to say,  the PMO failed to deliver: as I recall, out of the 12 strategic projects we have, 8 or 9 are in serious trouble – over budget and/or time by more than 50%,”  said the manager. “That is all the relevant detail… I trust it is not too much  for you, Mr Holmes,” he added.

“”I am glad of all details, whether they seem to you to be relevant or not,”  retorted Holmes. Then,  in a gentler tone, he asked, “How exactly was the PMO expected to achieve these objectives?”

The managers looked at each other, nonplussed at the question.

Finally,  one of them asked, “Mr. Holmes, what do you mean by “how”? I do not understand your question…and I think I speak for my colleagues too. We followed the advice of Lord Gartner and Baron McKinsey in setting up our PMO. Among many other things, we are fully aware of the importance of giving a PMO complete authority to oversee and control IT projects across the organisation. I am sure  you are aware that our PMO had implemented a set of proven best practice project and portfolio management standards to ensure control and oversight.”

“Yes, we have seen the process charts…they are impressive indeed,” piped up Watson. Holmes gave him The Look.

“That is so, and the fact that some projects have succeeded shows that the processes do work,” said  another manager.

“My dear sir, results without causes are impressive but assuming a causal link between them, sans proof, is not,” said Holmes. “Let me ask you a simple question, sir. Would you say your organisation is unique – one of a kind?”

“Of course it is,” said the manager. “We have just been voted a ‘best employer’ and we won several industry awards in previous years. Indeed we are unique.”

“…and yet you implement standardised processes?”

“What is your point, Mr. Holmes?”

“Let me spell it out: your organisation is unique, as are your people. Right?”

“Yes,” said the manager. Others around the room were nodding their assent.

“In view of your uniqueness, don’t you think you ought to develop – rather evolve – your own unique  processes in collaboration with your project managers rather than impose one-size-fits-all “best practice” standards on them?”

“But…why should we do that…and how ?”  Asked the executive director.

“Sir, I’ve already answered the “why.” I will leave the “how” for you and your team to figure out. Whatever else you do,  I  cannot overemphasise the importance of including your frontline managers and employees in the discussions about how your PMO should function,  and also in selecting and designing appropriate processes.”

“I see…,” said the director thoughtfully.

“Sir, your PMO failed because it attempted to transplant practices that allegedly worked elsewhere into your unique –dare I say, special – organisation. As was inevitable, the transplant was roundly rejected: your people found the processes strange, even arbitrary, and resented them. Consequently, they found ways to work around them instead of with them. Failure of your PMO was preordained because of your focus on processes rather than intentions.

The executive director nodded thoughtfully, as the penny dropped. “Thank you Holmes,” he said, “I see your point….finally.”

“Thank you sir…and thank you all,” said Holmes nodding at each of the seated managers in turn. “There is much work for you all to do now, so Dr. Watson and I will show ourselves out.”

The two gathered their papers and left, shutting the door behind them gently.

“Never underestimate the power of a question to illuminate the truth,” said Holmes sententiously as he and Watson entered the elevator.

Watson rolled his eyes; his friend was brilliant, but he could also be a pompous ass.



Thanks to Arati Apte and Paul Culmsee for encouragement and feedback on earlier drafts of this story.


  1. Spot the quote (for Sherlock Holmes trainspotters):  there are eight quotes from various Sherlock Holmes adventures in this post; most are verbatim, but a couple of the longer ones have been adapted to fit the narrative.
  2. If you enjoyed this piece, you might want to have a look  at the other business fables on this blog.

Written by K

March 19, 2013 at 8:01 pm

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