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

The Social Gadfly: Management Lessons from SocratesWhen 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