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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Working with stupid

@jasoncrawford makes some excellent points in his post How to work with “stupid” people.

  • Calling someone stupid is often based on the fact that the person has made (what seems to be) a bad decision.
  • Just because you disagree with a decision doesn't make it bad. Just because a decision doesn't produce the desired outcome doesn't make it bad. And apparently bad decisions may not be so bad when you frame them differently, appreciating the context and constraints.
  • Bad decisions may be caused by bad information or bad technique. Just because a person is intelligent doesn't prevent them making bad decisions when misinformed, or when skipping some of the validation and consultation steps.
  • And bad decisions may also be caused by timidity or emotional pressure. Just because a person is intelligent doesn't stop them being intimidated by other people.
  • Regarding someone as stupid (even if they are) is not a helpful starting point for understanding the causes of a difference of opinion, let alone resolving it.

Just as it is risky to draw conclusions about a person's stupidity from a single decision, so it is also risky to draw conclusions about a person's intelligence from a decision that had a lucky outcome. Labelling people as intelligent can be almost as damaging as labelling them as stupid - it distorts future decision-making and in some circumstances has been shown to discourage hard work. (See my post Explaining Enron.)

Of course we do often come to conclusions about the intelligence and character of our colleagues and partners, and this may be based not on a single lucky or unlucky decision but on a repeated pattern of decision and action. But what that really tells us is how intelligently that person is able to operate within a particular organizational context. Does the person have the information and tools and appropriate management support, and the right kind of motivation and pressure, to think about the right issues in a sufficiently rigorous manner? One of the symptoms of a stupid organization is that nobody appears able to make intelligent decisions. And one of the strongest arguments for improving the intelligence of an organization is to release the latent intelligence of its people, which must surely be of benefit to them as individuals as well as to the organization as a whole.

So what about working with stupid organizations? People inside organizations may perceive many of the symptoms of organizational stupidity, may despair of a culture that inhibits open discussion and learning, and may seek to remedy this in various ways. But what about relationships between organizations with different styles of decision-making? The goal is surely to build collaborations where the intelligence of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Which entails a clear understanding of the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of each organization, and the kinds of collaboration that may be effective.

The challenge for consultants, of course, is that it is the stupid organizations that may need our help most.

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