The Organisational Chastity Belt: Governance and Positive Deviance

According to popular history, when European knights left for the holy land during the crusades they fitted their wives with a chastity belt to ensure their fidelity. The belts were a crude device to enforce chaste behaviour as the Knights did not trust their wives while away for their holy tour of duty.

Organisational Chastity Belt

Is governance an organisational chastity belt?The chastity belt is making a comeback—and not only with contemporary connoisseurs of erotic bondage. The Global Financial Crisis has driven an increased focus on the governance of organisations. More risk management, more red tape, more creativity stifling procedures—more paper chastity belts.

In an earlier post, we provided seven reasons not to implement a process. Reason number eight is a lack of trust in the ability of people to make the right decisions on your behalf.

The key to unlocking the regulatory chastity belt is to look at your processes and start to unravel them. Processes and procedures should enable people to achieve objectives. Procedures should not be the final word on how work should be done—the people that write procedures are not all-knowing gods of management.

Lucid managers allow for positive deviance, and they allow for employees to make their own judgement on how to best achieve goals, instead of using the bondage of red-tape.

The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the Humanities

The Importance of Useless knowledge: Business and the HumanitiesBusiness problems are in most cases solved using specialised business knowledge. Practical managerial discussions are to the point, directed towards the problem and utilitarian—aimed at solving problems and improving the bottom line. But in that goal-directed behaviour, management often loses purpose.1

The Lucid Manager advises that to become the best possible manager, you should invest time in acquiring ‘useless knowledge’. The type of knowledge that does not directly enhance the bottom line, but enhances the individual.

British philosopher Bertrand Russell once beautifully expressed the importance of useless knowledge:2

I have enjoyed peaches and apricots more since I have known that they were first cultivated in China in the early days of Han Dynasty; that Chinese hostages held by the great King Kaniska introduced them to India, whence they spread to Persia, reaching the Roman Empire in the first century of our era … All this makes the fruit taste much sweeter.

To enlarge and sweeten the fruits of management, business people need to embrace so-called useless knowledge. This knowledge is not the type of useless knowledge that hits you in the face when reading the trivialities on Twitter feeds or Facebook updates. The canon of useless knowledge is deeper than that and includes philosophy and its continuous questioning of everything, the lessons of history and appreciation of the arts—the humanities.

There is no such thing as useless knowledge

The term useless knowledge is problematic. There is no such thing as useless knowledge, and a better term would be indirect knowledge, the type of knowledge that creates a holistic person and helps to solve problems through introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, excellent knowledge of the humanities will make you a better manager.

Knowing the basics of philosophy of science helps to understand ‘evidence-based management’. Understanding ethical dilemmas and the solutions proposed by philosophers might prevent managers from making morally wrong decisions. A well-grounded appreciation of the arts beyond economic value helps in making beautiful products.

The best example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is Apple computer. In the words of Steve Jobs:

It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing …

Useless knowledge makes you question the certainties of life; it creates a thoughtful and reflective mind, protected against impulsive decision making.

Lucid managers embrace useless knowledge and study the classics and the humanities. Read some of Plato’s dialogues and learn from Socrates how deviant behaviour leads to innovation.

  1. This post is based on an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw by Jonah Kahn. 

  2. Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays (1935). 

The Social Gadfly: Management Lessons from Socrates

The social gadflyWhen studying business, there is little time for critical reflection on what has been learnt. Newly minted MBAs are armed with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the BGC Matrix, Porter’s Generic Strategies and other tools to solve business problems. Their acceptance as valid tools is, however, often not based on critical reflection or solid empirical research but on mythical stories of how they were used successfully in the past.1 The study of business and most of writing about business is based on the case method. In this system, students are presented with a business problem and placed in the shoes of the decision maker charged with solving the problem.

In the Critical Perspectives on Management course, Rolf Strom-Olsen advocates an approach that deviates from the standard case methods and draws from the more critical humanities. He sees the life of ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as a signpost for a different way to think about business.

Socrates: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance”

We know about Socrates from the vivid writings of Plato who was one of his followers. His writings form the foundation of European philosophy and in fact profoundly influenced Western civilisation as we know it. Socrates spent his time meeting people in the market place in Athens and questioned their opinions and cherished beliefs. Socrates was like an annoying toddler that keeps asking “Why?” to find the foundations of what we hold to be true. The Athenians themselves compared him with a gadfly, a fly that annoys horses and other livestock. A lifetime annoying people by questioning everything they know is, in the words of Rolf, not a way to Win Friends and Influence People. Socrates thus paid the highest price for his life as a social gadfly—he was convicted of drinking a cup of poisonousness hemlock and died.

The Socratic path: philosophical deviance

From my experience, it is clear that being the social gadfly in business can be a dangerous activity which could lead to career suicide. For me, following the Socratic path has helped me to be very successful in solving business problems. Only by daring to ask the hard questions and draw from disciplines outside business we can see perspectives on issues that a case method cannot provide. The traditional case method of solving business problems looks backwards at past experiences. Using the analytical method from the humanities allows us to draw from entirely different perspectives and analyse problems in creative ways. Business is an applied social science, and it seems only reasonable that the methods of social science should be used to understand the problems of humans.

The Lucid Manager is courageous and not afraid to be a social gadfly. The Lucid Manager stops asking “Why?” (go beyond The Five Whys if needed) and try to view your problem from all angles—including disciplines that are not traditionally used in business. Reading about the life of Socrates teaches the way of philosophical deviance as a path to business success. Following the path of Socrates will help you to develop those cherished innovative solutions.

  1. See my earlier blog post on the classification of business theories

It is not rocket science! Managing people is more complex

Management: It is not Rocket Science. Or is it?Space exploration is the crowning glory of human achievement. Anyone working in this industry—astronauts flying the spaceships and rocket scientists building them are the heroes of contemporary society.

Ever since the start of the space race in the 1960s, rocket engineering has been perceived as the most complex human activity. Rocket scientists became the ultimate symbol of human intelligence and the phrase “It is not rocket science” has been heard in offices around the English-speaking world.1

Does this statement make sense? Is rocket science so much more complicated than management? I think that rocket science is grossly overrated and that the science of management is a lot more complex than the science of building rockets.

Management is not rocket science, its more complicated

The science of space exploration has been a lot more successful than the science of management. Robots explore Mars; one spaceship has left the solar system; people have walked on the moon, and much more exciting exploration is yet to come. Management as a science has not achieved much compared to rocket science. There is, for example, no accepted theory for motivation or effective decision making.

Rocket science is an extension of physics, and therefore all processes are fully predictable. The more research scientists do, the better they understand the physical processes, the more predictable technology becomes. Management is not a physical science but a social science. Human behaviour is not like a physical process that can be predicted with great accuracy. Individual behaviour is unpredictable and more controlled by emotion than by reason.2 There are no computer programs to help managers deal with people, there are no simple rules to make correct decisions—a lot of management is based on unsubstantiated rules of thumb and intuition.

That leaves me to conclude that management is not rocket science, it is a lot more complicated.

  1. Call, D. (2005). Knowledge management—not rocket science. Journal of Knowledge Management, 9(2), 19–30. doi:10.1108/13673270510590191; Dentzer, S. (2011). Innovation: Needed, but not rocket science. Health Affairs, 30(3), 378. Abbott, D. (2003). It’s not rocket science. The Safety & Health Practitioner, 21(8), 40–41. 

  2. Some might argue that human behaviour is, in essence, a physical process. It is, however, so complex that it becomes inherently unpredictable as we are unable to model human behaviour in physical terms. 

The Boardroom Jester

The Board Room JesterIn medieval times, the jester played a significant role in powerful circles. Jesters, a precursor to the modern-day clown, wore bright, motley-patterned costumes and entertained the rich and powerful with their antics. Their role was not only to amuse but also to challenge their master and guests in their thinking. Jesters used to be a mirror of society, using satire to provoke the current status.

The jester played an important role in society because he was able to provide a unique perspective on current affairs. They were able to be critical without being concerned about internal politics and personal sensitivities. In doing so, they walked a fine line, because being not serious enough or being too critical could land them in serious trouble.

The Boardroom Jester

Court jesters have disappeared from our cultural landscape, but it is time to bring this character back to the boardroom. I propose that major organisations hire a boardroom jester. The jester is allowed to attend all proceedings, say anything without punishment and use satire to hold a mirror to the people in power. The Boardroom Jester helps management to think “outside the box” by being an intellectual Jack-in-the-Box. An effective boardroom jester practices philosophical cynicism, rejecting social conventions and using humour to reveal the naked truth.

Unfortunately, most managers take themselves far too serious. People in senior management positions—these days referred to as leaders—are often disconnected from what happens in their organisations. Staff are reluctant to speak about the details because of the fear the repercussions. Officially sanctioned jesters can hide behind their silly costumes and foolishness to ask the questions that others are afraid to ask. The Boardroom Jester does not form part of the business hierarchy, so there is never any fear of damaging career prospects.

The idea of hiring people that can challenge current thinking is being frustrated by contemporary recruitment practices. Organisations seek people to fit into their carefully chose set of values, rather than people that deviate from normality.

Leadership is Evil: A management lesson from Spock

Leadership lesson from Mr SpockLeadership is the magic word spoken around board tables everywhere on the globe. No longer are we supposed to be good managers, we have to be good leaders. Nobody can definitively explain what leadership is and there are schools of thought and definitions abound. Leadership has become a value judgement. Nobody wants to be a good manager anymore; they want to be accepted as leaders. This change in focus is the biggest scam in management thinking of the past decades.

Most literature on leadership discusses the psychology of leadership. A large industry providing leadership training has developed in the wake of the movement away from management. They promise to transform average hard working managers into great leaders.

At Lucid Manager we don’t get inspiration from management books or leadership programs. We are inspired by the arts and nothing more inspiring than the epic television series Star Trek. The great Mr Spock summarised an important aspect of leadership in the mythic 1966 episode The Enemy Within (Stardate 1672.1):

What is it that makes one man an exceptional leader? We see indications that it’s his negative side which makes him strong, that his evil side, if you will, properly controlled and disciplined, is vital to his strength. Your negative side removed from you, the power of command begins to elude you.

In some management books, this evil side of management is innocently referred to as being Machiavellian. These are people who are willing to sacrifice ethics to achieve specific goals. Although some people believe that this is a necessary condition of being successful, there is no evidence the individuals with a high level of Machiavellianism perform better in their jobs.1

Evil leadership: Snakes in Suits

Paul Babiak, an industrial and organisational psychologist, and Robert Hare, the creator of the standard tool for diagnosing psychopathy, wrote a fascinating book about psychopaths in the workplace. They explored the prominence of people with destructive personality characteristics who could be classified as psychopaths. A psychopath does not have to be a knife-wielding mass murdering maniac. Most of them are charming and intelligent, but lack empathy and are willing to sacrifice ethics to achieve personal goals. They can impress in interviews, but their lack of understanding creates tension in organisations, which in the long run leads to reduced performance.2

So it seems that Spock was wrong. Being either good or evil bears no relationship to the level of performance. We should once again focus on good management instead of leadership. The leadership experiment has failed and has not created better organisations. Management is they key to good organisations. Management can be defined, and its outcomes can be measured, while leadership will forever be contested and its effects are unable to be measured.

Live long and prosper!

  1. Gable, M., & Topol, M. T. (1991). Machiavellian managers: Do they perform better? Journal of Business and Psychology, 5(3), 355–365. doi:10.1007/BF01017707

  2. Babiak, P. (2006). Snakes in suits: when psychopaths go to work. New York: Regan Books. 

Middle management stress: What can we learn from animals?

Middle management stressThe great Aristotle wrote more than two millennia ago that man and women are social animals. More recently, Charles Darwin made us realise that we have more in common with monkeys than we wish to admit.

Recent research has strengthened this idea by showing that middle management stress is a natural occurrence as it also occurs among Barbary macaques.1

Although there are many advantages to working in organisations, social conflict is often a source of stress. Subordinate members of the team receive more aggression from higher ranked individuals and experience higher stress levels as a consequence. Katie Edwards showed that monkeys at the Trentham Monkey Forest in the middle of the hierarchy were involved with conflict from both individuals below them as well as above them, whereas those in the bottom of the hierarchy distance themselves from conflict. The middle ranking macaques were more likely to challenge, and be challenged by, those higher on the social ladder, causing them stress in the process.

middle management stress can be avoided

Knowing that middle management stress is a natural phenomenon and observed in primate behaviour does not mean that we should only accept it as a fact of life. The paper also describes how different animal species developed coping mechanisms to deal with their stressful lives. In olive baboons, subordinate males that redirect aggression towards another baboon following a conflict had lower stress levels compared to those that did not do so. Another coping mechanism is social buffering; the social support from other members of the group, which has been demonstrated in greylag geese. Direct support reduces the impact of stress, including close grooming relationships during times of social instability, and post-conflict consolation. Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, you should ensure that you look after middle management in your organisation and avoid high levels of stress.

Although I don’t advocate physically grooming your colleges experiencing stress, a Lucid Manager looks after middle management and avoids unhealthy levels of stress.

  1. Edwards, K. L., Walker, S. L., Bodenham, R. F., Ritchie, H., & Shultz, S. (2013). Associations between social behaviour and adrenal activity in female Barbary macaques: Consequences of study design. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 186(1), 72–79. doi:10.1016/j.ygcen.2013.02.023

Organisational culture and the risks of normality

Organisational culture and the risks of normality“We need to change our organisational culture!” one of the board members said. Everybody around the table nodded. The secretary noted another action in the board minutes and instructed the CEO to change the culture of the organisation.

Nobody knew what they wanted, all they knew was that something had to change. Because nobody knew what had to change, blaming the culture of the organisation for whatever was going wrong seemed like the best way forward. Not that anyone had any idea what culture is, but judging by some of the inspiring articles in Harvard Business Review it seemed the best way to go.

Soon enough a consultant was hired and the work to transform the organisation began. The management team held meetings and defined a range of new values, based on a concise list of abstract nouns.

Following the famous words by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, you either are with us and subscribe to these values, or you are an enemy of the organisation. Employees that criticise the new approach become the axis of evil. The consultant even drew a Bell Curve on a whiteboard to visualise that deviance from normality was from now on scorned upon. Thus began the new world order.

forcing normality destroys excellence and innovation

What the consultant didn’t realise was that forcing people to normality within strict standard deviations is a repression of spontaneity and destroys sources of excellence and innovation. When organisations force their employees in the same value pattern and no longer accept any deviance, they kill an important source of improvement and innovation.

The link between organisational culture and business performance is strong, but both researchers and practitioners struggle to describe what a healthy culture is. A culture of obedience to a norm might be pleasant, but it will lead to organisational mediocrity.

Positive corporate deviance is a necessary condition for innovation and improvement to thrive. Only by nurturing those that think differently are organisations able to become remarkable.

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interview

Dance monkey, dance: On the limitations of the job interviewJob interviews are stressful and time-consuming for both the applicant and the recruiter. The most often used mechanism for selecting new staff is often a highly ritualised affair, with little room for meaningful human interaction. The job interview is an artificial environment that has no comparison in the social world, except maybe police cross-examination.

Formal job interviews are a limited tool to get to know the person seeking a new job. The main problem with this approach is that the balance of power is presumed to be on the recruiter’s side. This unbalanced relationship forces the applicant to be like a dancing monkey, performing the tricks that he or she believes will please the recruiters. The applicant is often left to second-guessing the ‘right’ answer to the questions. And although we are often told that there are no right or wrong answers, this is of course not correct. Some answers get you the job and the ones that don’t. The recruitment process is a case of double deception, both the recruiter and the applicant are not willing to have a genuine conversation because they are limited by the script of the traditional job interview.

Genuine Conversations as a job interview

Formal job interviews are popular because they provide an illusion of rationality as it is assumed that thorough questioning will lead to the truth.

The purpose of the recruitment process is to try to predict the future behaviour of the applicant. A formalised job interview is a counter-productive human interaction with limited predictive quality when it comes to getting to know a person. The artificial nature of the job interview does, however, prevent this process from being rational.

Effective job interviews should be based on the presumption of equality between the recruiter and the applicant to espouse genuine conversations between the parties. It is the task of the recruiter to make the candidate feel comfortable and treat them as an equal conversation partner. Only this way will you be able to get to know the person on the other side of the table.

Do water utilities need to have customer focus?

Customer focus is the prime purpose of all organisations, or so you would think. Many engineers in water companies believe that legislation and technical standards only govern the level of service quality experienced by customers. Engineers and scientists are the experts, and there is thus no need to ask the lay-customer what they want. One engineer expressed this view succinctly on LinkedIn:

You have to deliver good quality services, but I don’t get the concept that the customer is best placed to decide what those services are. They know they need pressure and they know if they don’t have water out of their tap, but beyond that, they have only a small understanding of the what is required to run a safe and efficient water supply system.

The many engineers and scientists in water utilities that hold this view are wrong. They make the assumption that if the technical quality of a service is sufficient, then customers will be happy. This assumption is not correct—the Grönroos model of service quality shows that technical quality is only one aspect of the total customer experience.1 To influence the total perceived quality, many non-technical parameters, such as public image and functional quality, need to be managed.

Customer focus: The Grönroos model of service quality

Grönroos (1990) model of service quality.

There is a significant paradigmatic difference between engineering and marketing. Engineering is based on predictable physical systems, while marketing builds on the inexact science of consumer behaviour and is predominately about managing perceptions. There are many examples where, even though technical quality is almost perfect, the understanding of consumers of the level of service is still small. This problem exists because the human dimension is not part of the equations that govern water systems.

water tasting

Tasting water.

One perfect example is the aesthetics of water. Although it makes no difference towards the actual safety of the water, consumer perception is that drinking water is colourless. Taste is another variable that is not easily controlled or measured through engineering. Research shows that the water itself does not only influence the taste of water but moderated by environmental variables, such as the material of the cup.2

Perception is everything in marketing. This is also important in monopolies because publicly owned business are controlled by politicians who want to keep the voters happy.3 It could also be argued that all customers in a publicly owned system are all shareholders, and their views should be taken into consideration—any other view could be considered arrogant.

water companies should be managed by marketers

In my recent interviews with customer stakeholders in reticulated water, the voice of the customer clearly indicates that they want to improve focus on their needs. A clear theme in the data is the occasional disconnect between engineering and service staff. One respondent told me (paraphrasing): “water companies used to be run by engineers, now they are managed by accountants. In the future, they should be controlled by marketers”. In other words, we should account for the non-rationality of consumer behaviour.

The concept of bringing engineers and marketers together was beautifully expressed by Philip Kotler and Sidney Levy who write that: “Marketing is customer satisfaction engineering”4.

  1. Grönroos, C. (1984). A service quality model and its marketing implications. European Journal of Marketing, 18(4), 36–44. doi:10.1108/EUM0000000004784 

  2. Krishna, A., & Morrin, M. (2008). Does touch affect the taste? The perceptual transfer of product container haptic cues. Journal of Consumer Research, 34(6), 807–818. 

  3. Having said this, a good friend of mine once stated that “voter satisfaction is not a good proxy for customer satisfaction”. 

  4. Kotler, P., & Levy, S. J. (1969). Broadening the concept of marketing. Journal of Marketing, 33, 10–15.