American business: powered by Stupid®

Part one of a series.

Phil Rizzuto: “Hey Yogi I think we’re lost.”

Yogi Berra: “Yeah, but we’re making great time!”

BusinessYou know how certain segments of society think that governments and universities and public school systems ought to be “run like businesses”? And how those same people bitch at length about how messed up their companies are and by the way, their bosses are complete morons. Yeah. Me, too.

Truth is, hardly anything should be run more like a business. Including, you know, businesses. There can be appalling levels of stupidity at work in even the best of companies: counterproductive decision making, breathtaking short-sightedness, a robust commitment to keeping smart people as far away from meaningful authority as possible – these are all too often the hallmarks of real businesses.

But we have to be careful when talking about business and teh stupid, because one often finds oases of pure genius in the midst of the intellectual wasteland. In larger companies, for instance, it’s almost impossible to talk about how things run in the aggregate – you usually need to take the conversation business unit by business unit, work group by work group. I once worked in a Fortune 500 telecom that was, collectively speaking, steeped in every kind of 19th century legacy idiocy you could think of. But Corporate Communications was a model organization. Truly, to this day it’s the best PR group I have ever seen. And within it sat the Employee Communication group. When I arrived, it was (for a variety of reasons, many of them owing to the senior manager in charge), a complete joke, the target of barely concealed snickering on the part of the talented folks around the corner in Media Relations. By the time I left two years later, though, it had earned a great deal of respect from everyone it touched.

So within one narrow silo in the org chart as of the moment I arrived, you had a bad group that was part of a world-class department that was part of a company captive to old, dying ways of thinking. All of which means that yes, there’s lots of stupid, but it’s important to think in nuanced ways about it.

The problem is that I have been writing in such a way as to suggest that stupid is a bad thing. Not so, says a recent analysis.

A recent article in the Journal of Management Studies examines the value of stupidity in successful companies. Yes, I said “value.” For starters, says lead author Mats Alvesson, professor of organization studies at Lund University in Sweden, stupidity can increase efficiency.

In…”A Stupidity-Based Theory of Organisations” Alvesson and colleague André Spicer explain how what they call “functional stupidity” generally helped get things done. “Critical reflection and shrewdness” were net positives, but when too many clever individuals in an organization raised their hands to suggest alternative courses of action or to ask “disquieting questions about decisions and structures,” work slowed.

I think what we have here is a corporate application of the old adage that “ignorance is bliss.”

The study’s authors found that stupidity, on the other hand, seemed to have a unifying effect. It boosted productivity. People content in an atmosphere of functional stupidity came to consensus more easily, and with that consensus came greater roll-up-our-sleeves enthusiasm for concentrating on the job.

To sum up, stupid people reach consensus quickly and then set about enthusiastically acting on it. I can’t lie, that does have the ring of truth about it. The authors are describing what is known, in management-speak, as a “bias for action.” No word on how stupidity and consensus relate to doing the right things, but one presumes this goes back to the whole “too many clever individuals” problem from that first quote.

This all leads to some disoriented thinking, I fear. Many of us look at top businesses and fancy that their success is a function of intelligence. And we want government bureaucracies and schools, which are less “efficient” and hence less intelligent, to be more like businesses, which we now know owe their accomplishments in large part not to intelligence, but to stupidity.

Which may mean that those organizations we hate aren’t how they are because their people are idiots, but just the opposite. They’re too smart for their own good. They’re so worried about doing the right things the right way that they never get off their butts and do anything.

Now I’m thinking about the old management catchphrase from some years back – don’t work harder, work smarter. Which is precisely the wrong advice. By all means work harder, and if possible, work dumber.

My head hurts. I’m going to go have a couple of stiff drinks before I get back to work….

8 replies »

  1. I guess, given my undergrad GPA, I’d go far in a stupid-valuing organization.

    Nice post. Looking forward to the rest of the series.

  2. Nice piece.

    I honestly, genuinely believe that all the truly smart people I’ve worked with in business have been so smart that they figured out the right answer, knew how stupid people would view the problem and then worked backwards to build an argument to convince them. In other words, they thought smart but argued stupid.

    Those of us who were sorta smart only could get the right answer, but we could never sell it, in part because we couldn’t communicate at the level of the stupid. (Also, because we didn’t hide it very well, intimidated the dumb, and the stupid resented and distrusted us.)

  3. I once interviewed an executive from a branded, American food company who was trying to work with a Japanese food company. The American complained bitterly, BITTERLY, about the slow decision=making process in the Japanese company. “They never get off the dime,” he said. “They need to make a decision and @#%$ DO something!”

    That American food company is now a shadow of its former self — really, just a brand with very little backing it up. Kikkoman, on the other hand, is still a widely admired, successful, company that’s over 350 years old.

    Large companies can succeed simply because of the advantages of being large. It allows them to survive a stunning array of stupidity. But the vast majority of them eventually succumb, over time, to the ravages of mouth breathing “leaders.” Stupidity, undoubtedly, contributes to the ability to do things quickly in the same way it contributes to the ability to do exactly the wrong things quickly.

    And then you have those companies who take a long time to decide what the right thing might be before committing to a course of action. Some of them are 350 years old.

    • I love the phrase “bias for action.” It’s sort of the management version of “do something – ANYTHING!”

      My problem is that I’ve always had a bias for doing the intelligent thing, and sometimes you have to think a little to get there. This explains why I’m not a CXO somewhere, I’m sure.