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 a behaviour that the knights did not trust their wives to display during their years long tour of duty.

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.

There is currently some interesting anecdotal evidence in the area of safety management. Increased emphasis on documenting every step of the production process is not necessarily eliminating accidents. The organisational chastity belts common in safety management are not eliminating naughty behaviour—they do not necessarily reduce the number of incidents.

The key to unlocking the organisational chastity belt is to look at your procedures and start to unravel them. Processes ad procedures should help people reach their goals. Procedures should not be the final word on how work should be done—procedure writers are not all-knowing gods of management. We need to allow for positive deviance, allow for employees making their own judgement on how to best achieve goals and not lock them up in iron clad 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. Effective 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 looses purpose.1.

The Lucid Manager advises that to become the best possible manager you can be, 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 make the fruits of being a manager not only bigger, but also taste sweeter, people in business need to embrace so called useless knowledge. This 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 eternal 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 solving problems through introducing new perspectives from outside the world of business. Wielded correctly, well rounded knowledge of the humanities will make you a better manager.

Knowing the basics of the philosophy of science helps understanding what ‘evidence based management’ is really about. 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.

Best example of an organisation that has integrated both business utilitarianism and the humanities is of course Apple computer. Steve Jobs once said:

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 contemplative and reflective mind, protected against impulsive decision making.

  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

Socrates was the social gadfly of ancient AthensWhen studying business there is very 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 deeply 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 a bit like an annoying toddler that keeps asking “Why?”, seeking 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 to drink a cup of poisonousness hemlock and died.

The Socratic path: philosophical deviance

From my own experience it is clear that being the social gadfly in business can be a dangerous activity which could lead to career-suicide. For me personally, 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 problems that a case method cannot provide. The traditional case method of solving business problems looks backwards at past experiences. Using the critical method from the humanities allows us to draw from totally different perspectives and analyse problems in creative ways. Business is an applied social sciences and it seems only reasonable that the methods of social science should be used to understand the problems of humans.

My advice to anyone who reads this post is to be courageous and become a social gadfly in your organisation. Never stop asking “Why?” and try to view your problem from all angles—including disciplines that are not traditionally used in business. Reading about the life of Socrates will teach you the way of philosophical deviance as a path to business success and develop the cherished innovative solutions to the problems you will be faced with.

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

Management: It is not Rocket Science. Or is it?

It is not rocket scienceSpace exploration is generally seen as the crowing glory of human achievement. Anyone working in this industry—astronauts flying the space ships and rocket scientists building them are the heroes of contemporary society. Ever since the start of the space race in the 1960s rocket science 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 actually make sense? Is rocket science really so much more complicated than management? I think that rocket science is grossly overrated and that the science of management is a lot more complicated than the science of building rockets.

Management is not rocket science, its more complicated

The science of space exploration has actually been a lot more successful than then science of management. Robots have explored Mars, one space ship 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 generally accepted theory for motivation or for 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, however, a social science. Human behaviour is not like a physical process that can be predicted at 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 good 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 days gone past the jester played an important 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 simply 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 critical enough or being too critical could lend 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 at senior management positions—these days referred to as leaders—are often disconnected from what really happens in their organisations. Staff are reluctant to speak about the details because 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.

Unfortunately 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.