Sunday, May 16, 2010

Symptoms of organizational stupidity

Here's a few to start with.

Choke Inability to access capability when it is needed.
Denial Defensive denial often follows what Freud called "kettle logic". "The problem doesn't exist, and anyway it isn't a problem for us, and anyway we're already dealing with it."
Guesswork Acting in the dark.
Meddle Tinkering and management interference without real understanding.
Muddle Confused and bewildered by many overlapping and conflicting narratives.
Panic Taken by surprise, responding in haste.
Policy-based evidence Finding data to support or justify an existing decision or state, while ignoring any data that might contradict. (Contrasted with evidence-based policy.)
Repetition / Oscillation Repeating the same mistakes without learning. Oscillation means going backwards and forwards between two problems without permanently solving either of them.
Short-Sighted / Tunnel Vision Narrow focus on a single short-term goal, inability to consider broader or longer-term vision.

Any more? Please add comments.

Does your organization suffer from any of these symptoms? I'm looking for opportunities to test a new diagnostic tool. Please contact me.


For the distinction between choking and panicking, see Malcolm Gladwell, The Art of Failure (New Yorker, August 2000).

For an example of oscillation, think of an organization that keeps madly switching between extreme centralization and extreme decentralization.

Eliot Jaques produced a theory of management hierarchy based on the idea that higher levels of management should be capable of longer-term thinking; longer-term thinking (often misleadingly called "strategic") is clearly one aspect of organizational intelligence that is valued in the management literature.

Following Morgan's comment, I'm explicitly separating out feelings and motivators (such as ambition, fear, greed, mistrust) - these may drive or inhibit action, but they can be handled in either intelligent or unintelligent ways.

See also

Scott Berkun, Why do big companies suck?


  1. Nice post. I'd like to add "fear of change", very often related to (or a cause for) repetition.
    Fear of change - Rather stay in a dysfunctional status quo than moving on to something less known that actually might work.


  2. Thanks Morgan.

    Fear is obviously an interesting feature of some situations, along with a range of other subjective feelings. But in terms of intelligence/stupidity, what I'd be looking at is not the presence of this or that feeling, but the way the organization responded to a given feeling.

    After all, intelligent and even courageous people may experience fear, but the important question is how they act in the face of fear.

    As you say, fear may cause repetition. It may also cause denial, which I am now going to add, and possibly some other symptoms.

    When I'm looking for symptoms, I prefer to start with observable behaviours, before I proceed to exploring possible explanations for these behaviours in terms of root causes. Fear may trigger panic (too much activity) or petrification (not enough).

  3. I kind of agree with you, especially that fear is a very valid feeling and not a sign of stupidity in itself. I do consider it stupidity when organizations rather do more of the same that didn't work in the first place than try something new though.

    I've seen people and organizations bang their heads against the same wall repeatedly knowing that they'll fail but afraid to work outside the already known.

    The difference as I see it between your "repetition" and what I was considering is that when repetition is caused by fear of change, the learning might still be there it's acting on the knowledge that's missing.

    I also agree that in order to dissolve a problem observable behaviours are the best starting point and then contiuing with possible explanations (I'm really fond of the Rule of Six as Paula Underwood describes it). But a behaviour without the underlying reason is hard to mark as stupid, eg jumping from the fourth floor is generally considered stupid but if there's a blazing fire inside it might be the only option.


  4. There is obviously an ambiguity here - does it count as real learning if there is no behavioural change?

    For example, if we ask "has Tiger Woods learned his lesson?", what this really means is not whether he can look sincere and recite the right words when he's interviewed, but whether he really manages to stop getting caught shagging cocktail waitresses.

    Intelligence is not just about the possession of knowledge, and just having theoretical knowledge is pretty useless if you don't put it into practice when it really matters. In fact, knowingly repeating the wrong thing is a lot more stupid than unknowingly repeating it.

  5. "... does it count as real learning if there is no behavioural change?"
    Spontaneously, I'd say there is. As a parent I break the principle of acting according to what I teach on a daily basis. Not because I don't understand what's right, but because I don't always manage/can/bother to live up to the standards that I want to instill in my kids. I cut corners that I don't want my children to cut (at least not yet). I think most of us try to teach our kids not to use bad language, not to jaywalk and not to lie. Yet, when they don't look most of us break these rules ourselves. What lesson should Tiger have learned? To not cheat or to not get caught?
    Of course, acting according to what we know is best/right is usually preferred.

    "In fact, knowingly repeating the wrong thing is a lot more stupid than unknowingly repeating it."


  6. I think some symtoms to add could be:

    A serial addiction to saviours/heros (OK its a particular repetition)

    Misattribution of measures (very common)

  7. Richard, very interesting topic!

    I was thinking about negligence - not sure I wrote this right (dutchman here).

    It's not so much a reaction to something, but rather the absence of sound thinking.

    An organisation asked me to advice them how to improve their knowledge sharing capacity. I observed they had information professionals (reasearchers, people who scanned the I-net for relevant info for the organisation), but they had 'stored' them in a room at the end of a dead end corridor. No traffic there. I suggested them to move these people opposite the pantry/copier, where there was a lot more traffic. Compare bees, who exchange info at the landing zone about good places to find nectar. Knowledge sharing improved quickly.


  8. This is interesting. Is there a corresponding "Symptoms of organizational intelligence"? I found the "Five disconnects" post. Just subscribed to Demanding Change to learn more.

  9. We generally associate symptoms with ill-health rather than good health. So I wouldn't want to define symptoms of organizational intelligence, but it might make sense to identify some positive indicators (apart from the absence of the symptoms, of course). Thanks for the suggestion.

  10. Per chanced on your blog...interesting overview.
    Provides good framework on things to be included in organizational analysis so that they can be "excluded" in aspired states through change management process