Organisations Still Value Rigidity and Conformity Over All

I originally wrote this piece in March, 2010. Yet none of it seems to have changed in the nearly two years since. I’ve updated some data to bring it to 2012.

I was disappointed, but unsurprised, to hear news [again] that yet another of my friends is having trouble finding work, either in terms of a permanent position or in terms of clients to sustain him in self-employment. After a good natter bemoaning the state of the world today, the shape of the economy and so on, we zeroed in on the real underlying issue:

Everyone in authority is afraid.

Considering that this is the [seventeenth] conversation of this sort since New Year’s Day 2010, a pattern is forming. (I would — if I could [I, too, am making my way in the world sans organisation — hire any of the people I’ve talked to in a heartbeat: they would be competent, bring us strength, and happily share who they are and what they know in the course of it, making [me and those around me better].)

That the book on my desk [in 2010 was] The Hour of Decision exemplifies [how I still feel about this situation]: the author of that 1933 work, Oswald Spengler, was certain that his words would fall upon a people capable of judgement, decision and action. (Despite the description of this work on Amazon’s website, the book is not a call to Nazi racial theory: it is a call to all of Western Civilization to again become serious about their culture and disciplined in working toward the future, rather than simply voting themselves bread and circuses and good times, drifting into a future where others will ultimately topple us. The book was banned by the Nazis almost immediately as Spengler’s call for a return to Bismarckian values was as much an indictment of Hitler’s programme as of life in France, Britain and America.)

Today, decision and action are seldom found. Instead, organizations are rife with people who live in fear of suddenly being ejected from them. Such decisions as most of them take are negative in character: to “study this further”, or “to look at this again in the future”, and such action as is found is mostly in the form of sitting through (and calling) meetings to use up the hours, and spending inordinate amounts of time on email communiqués, being “seen” to “be busy”.

Lest you may, at this juncture, think me unduly harsh, I would refer you to David Bolchover’s The Living Dead: Switched Off, Zoned Out—The Shocking Truth about Office Life (2005), with its description of how organizations acquire lethargic staff, and how indecision increases with organizational size.

Abernäturlich, there are always exceptions. Organizations where individuals are primary contributors contra the management structure, as with partners in consulting and legal firms, university faculty, and the like (Charles Handy’s “Dionysian organizations”, from his Gods of Management), can be hellishly political places to be if you are in a supporting role (Managing Partner, the firm’s IT Head, or the Dean of a Faculty come to mind as exemplars), for each contributor has the power of “no”, and “yes” is negotiated. Those who are good at this process of winning support — I recall a retail situation where each outlet was individually owned and operated, the “brand” merely providing central buying, marketing and back-end services, where well over a thousand independent entrepreneurs had to be won over to a major technology investment and change — achieve great things. Few enough are: they are, however, decisive.

Handy’s “Zeusian” individuals — those who network heavily, constantly looking for deals to make — also are decisive and very much action oriented. Working the phones and the corridors, they ferret out information, take steps, initiate action. They are prepared for loss — and the inevitable apologies it entails! — and set this against a track record of wins. Found often driving their firm forward into new markets, working on innovations, or the like, these sort also can, and do, decide and act.

But neither Dionysians nor Zeusians rule in most organizations. Instead, much of the work is organized around the other two types: the “Apollonian”, or process-oriented order, and the “Athenian”, or project-oriented order.

We can see why this is so by looking at the Cynefin Framework brought forth and developed by Dave Snowden and carried into the market via the Cognitive Edge network. Apollonian and Athenian [workers (regardless of job level)] generally [fall into thinking about work] on the right hand side, both well-ordered realms (the simple and complicated domains). In both of these types of work hierarchy is in place, practices are well-codified, there is structure well-established. Compare this to the Zeusian and Dionysian, who tend to [think about the world and] cope well with the left-hand side which is relatively unordered (the domains of the chaotic, and the complex). While innovations moving from the Chaotic through the Complex to become ordered often use Athenians to experiment alongside their Dionysian counterparts, and while the act of providing order often leans on the experience of Apollonians being led by a Zeus figure, the Athenians and Apollonians on their own tend to fall back on their expectations about order early in their thinking, whereas a Zeus or Dionysian is often comfortable with their expectation that order may be weak, creating a field of opportunity [and comfortable with keeping it open long enough to do safe-to-fail experiments, exploring and seeking].

The great resistance being seen in practice to adopting a more ad hoc, bottom-up or middle-out leadership style — endemic to the realm of the complex and essential to closure in the realm of the complicated — is a result of an existential fear of a lack of order on the part of Athenian or Apollonian managers. The kind of future Jon Husband describes on his Wirearchy blog is stalled, certainly, because of excesses of simple order (financial delegations of authority that allow no action within one’s budget, human resources systems that insist on clear lines of command, and Sarbanes-Oxley- or Freedom of Information- or “Question in the House”-scarred senior executives demanding that all decisions be taken “at the top” are examples). But it is also stalled because Athenian and Apollonian individuals generally fear the release of order required for change and therefore (at best) resist taking action, or (at worst) deny that any change is needful (as Virginia Satir described in her change process model now transferred from family therapy to organizational change management).

Fifteen years ago, I could regularly and daily talk intelligibly with managers and executives about where and how all four of Handy’s types “fit into” their organizations — and relate it to the regional cultures found in their domains of operation (to answer the question “where best to put a function”). Many of those I spoke to were Zeusian-biased, leading Athenians and Apollonians with a deliberate placement of Dionysian contributors within the firm: in other words, they could take people, the bulk of whose work was ordered, and consciously develop change by shifting bits through the less ordered realms in a deliberate effort to deal with new circumstances.

Fewer of these are found now! In a 2006 research study [for Don Tapscott’s then company, New Paradigm, on IT leadership team longevity as a group, for which I was one of the three researchers], I discovered that the world Bolchover described now ruled: in almost all mid-sized (750+ employees) and large-scale organizations, the management cadre was now Apollonian or Athenian, reporting to similar styles as executives. Almost all their in-house Dionysians had been replaced by consultants or contractors whose work — and presence — could be quickly disowned.

The Zeusians, Dionysians and some portion of the Athenians (with a few temperamentally open Apollonians) now work for themselves, or in entrepreneurial organizations. As always, the failure rate is high: primarily, this is due to the fact that even the smallest organization — an employee base of one — still requires its fair share of all four work styles (there is no escaping the Apollonian nature of accountancy; even if the actual work is outsourced, the responsibility cannot be, and thus must be dealt with on its own terms) and few amongst us are so nimble as to be able to pay full engaged attention to all that needs doing, yet remain decisive and action-oriented in realms we have to consciously engage with. (Most start up organizations fail from a lack of order when it’s needed, although the results of that self-inflicted wound may take several years to become visible.)

Athenians live to a plan: it is the essence of project cultures. When slack existed, projects could be completed in the face of new events by utilizing the slack resources (which were more often cash than people). But the 2000s have not been a period of slack: the core Athenian tool to take a decision and act on it has generally been wrenched away, converting the Athenian manager into a pseudo-Apollonian managing a process (in this case, budgets and schedules without leeway or negotiating room). Desperate to retain any freedom of action, they give up resources to new hires or outsiders infrequently — and generally (especially when working for Apollonians at the top, as many with a Finance, Retailing or Manufacturing background now are) will not proceed without concurrence from above.

[Indeed, now that we are facing an extended period of constraint, slack cash and people will be very hard to come by. We will need to learn to improvise, to work “off plan”, to experiment far more, and to gain leverage through social action which, by definition, cannot be planned (it is always a safe-to-fail experiment in the complex domain, and unrepeatable). For those for whom “planning the work, then working the plan” is their core approach, such conditions are – literally – inconceivable.]

Meanwhile, the Apollonian managers tend to simply deny the need for change [in the way things are done], since they are at the cutting edge of increasing order temperamentally and in their work. Without a decision that change is required, however, the consultant’s engagement or new hire’s employment simply doesn’t happen. (This is different from “replacing open positions”, where juniors can be engaged.)

The outcome of this is that the typical manager today reinforces their fears by worrying incessantly about their own perch on the greasy pole of management, since they are expected to anticipate every occurrence, achieve results regardless, and be an active participant in the undercutting of their own authority. [They are held accountable to plans they have created or endorsed, plans that required extremely high predictability in order to be achieved, and which therefore are flawed from the beginning. Worse, these managers know it. In their fear they do the very human thing of wanting to be reassured, and find those who are comfortable with ambiguity to be threatening (when, in fact, these are precisely whom they should surround themselves with to ensure they meet their objectives!).]

Meanwhile, the sad history of many former comrades who, resisting this long-term change, ultimately left to go elsewhere is something all of them know, if only from the occasional contact they have with them, and in a world where pensions evaporate and existing guarantees and benefits from seniority are not able to be easily (if at all) replicated, “protecting myself to retirement” nails the final board into place on being decisive.

This is how so many brilliant people around the world do so poorly in an economy where almost all change is sourced rather than done in house, where outside circumstances are forcing change into organizations whether they like it or not, and where technology appears to create ever-more opportunities. Meanwhile, this is why so many obviously inept roadblocks within organizations manage to hold — even expand — their positions, while the ones who actually accomplish something risk everything anytime they act.

As long as organizations value adherence above all, we shall continue to leave so much talent “on the shelf” and so many ideas latent. Too many will avoid notice and management precisely because they do not want to risk the greasy pole position. This deliberate undercutting of individual, group and organizational performance means that our society will continue to slip, regardless of the latest technology and its latent promises.

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