Day 302: Functional Stupidity

(Editor’s note: we chased the author for months, and finally found her trapped under a blanket of news headlines).

Last year, I attended a HEC Montreal research talk (there are tons of them – a smorgasbord of research talks), hosted by my favourite HEC Montreal research team, The Strategy as Practice Study Group. Now, I’m biased, I’m part of the group, but it truly is my favourite, as I love strategy and especially how it plays out over time.

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The talk was given by Mats Alvesson, a business professor from the University of Lund (Sweden) and looked at a number of topics, one of them being about something he and his co-author, André Spicer, call Functional Stupidity. So what exactly is Functional Stupidity? The authors have a nifty explanation in their journal article abstract:

“Functional stupidity refers to an absence of reflexivity, a refusal to use intellectual capacities in other than myopic ways, and avoidance of justifications. We argue that functional stupidity is prevalent in contexts dominated by economy in persuasion which emphasizes image and symbolic manipulation. This gives rise to forms of stupidity management that repress or marginalize doubt and block communicative action. In turn, this structures individuals’ internal conversations in ways that emphasize positive and coherent narratives and marginalize more negative or ambiguous ones. This can have productive outcomes such as providing a degree of certainty for individuals and organizations. But it can have corrosive consequences such as creating a sense of dissonance among individuals and the organization as a whole. The positive consequences can give rise to self-reinforcing stupidity. The negative consequences can spark dialogue, which may undermine functional stupidity.”

Alvesson, M., & Spicer, A. 2012. A Stupidity‐Based theory of organizations. Journal of Management Studies, 49(7), 1194-1220

I have worked in many organizations to know that functional stupidity exists and, unfortunately, persists. I have found myself standing with others, at times, saying, “Where are we and how did we get here!?” And upon reflection, realize that somehow we had lost our way. And while some will say, “We cannot see the forest through the trees!” others will respond with, “WRONG FOREST!”

For the past few years, I have been involved in a grass-roots David & Golaith kind of project, where a bunch of individuals have attempted to make sense of an economic model that appeared to be both illegal and unethical. We found each other through the internet and began collaborating, virtually, through email, facebook, websites etc… It was tricky. We had never met, we came from different backgrounds, but with our varied skills and singular objective (to crack the code), we remained focused on the task at hand.  We argued (a lot) and were often frustrated with each other, but our debate and disagreement, along with our unique focus, fueled our progress. We built a coalition and learned a ton along the way.

After about a year and half, however, the coalition changed a bit. The objectives of the group were put into question. We debated which path to take and why. Rules were established on who was responsible for what; who could say what, to whom and when; how each communication medium would be used (or not). Some felt this was all required. And as a strategy person, well, I get that. Strategy and structure go hand and hand. To achieve a strategic objective, there must be mechanisms. But mechanisms for the sake of it, rules and regulations simply because we feel that something lacks formality, well… that sounded a bit like functional stupidity to me.

And that is exactly what transpired. The consequences so nicely articulated by Alvesson and Spicer (2012) blossomed. Strategic objectives were lost to the wind. Attention and resources were directed towards creating, implementing and monitoring the rules; and disciplining those who didn’t follow them. Learning and debate went out the window. And within about six months, the entire thing blew up.

Functional stupidity is alive and well in organizations. And for those in leadership positions, it’s so important to be cognizant of what you are doing and why. Debate and disagreement, when effectively managed, can propel organizations forward. Functional stupidity, well… it can destroy organizations and send people running to the hills.

No, this is not an advertisement for the authors or their publication. I just love the Functional Stupidity concept as I have seen it in action for years. The authors also have a nifty book. Just google “The Stupidity Paradox.”

Published by Gwyneth Edwards

Academic and practitioner in the field of strategic management.