Sometime in May 2018, a bunch of tenured professors will convene at my university to decide if I deserve tenure. This blog is about my reflections along the way.
(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.
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.”
Like many teenagers, my two work – in various jobs, at various times – as do their friends, and other teenagers with whom I have had the honour to meet. The relationship between the student and the business is a precarious one, which pushed me to write this op-ed for the Montreal Gazette.
Tragic deaths are just that. Tragic. When someone dies suddenly, tragically, it is incomprehensible; there is ache for meaning.
Yesterday, I watched Heather Heyer’s mother give her daughter’s eulogy. She spoke with conviction about her relationship with her daughter, what her daughter stood for, and how to make meaning from tragedy. It is worth watching, even for those too young to understand what is currently happening. — Speak up. Be heard.
I like movies, but not over and over again. Or old ones, for that matter. Watching a familiar actor at a much younger age simply reminds me that life is short. But sometimes I pick a movie without looking at the year: The Secret Life of Bees. The movie lingered with me for days, especially the images of the South in the early 1960s.
A few days later, as I was looking at my bookshelf, I spotted my very old copy of Black Like Me. I read the book in high school and it lingers like a few others (To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Beach, Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies). I read a few pages and put the book back on the shelf.
That same week, I flipped through the HBO documentaries, and landed upon 4 Little Girls. Another old movie (1997), also about the Civil Rights Movement.
In early August, I was in Atlanta for an academic conference. So I took a few hours to visit The Center for Civil and Human Rights (museum), which included an exhibit on the American Civil Rights Movement.
And yesterday, by chance, I turned on the TV to see Trump’s (historical) news conference in real time.
I now listen to Joan Baez’s “Birmingham Sunday” frequently. Listen.
Transcript from Trump’s press briefing today. Worth a peak. A day that will be remembered for a long time.
Early Saturday (late Friday) Josh Freed wrote about his Trump addiction in the Montreal Gazette. Saved at last; time to draw my eyes away from the headlines. And then Trump surprised all over again, with a Charlottesville narrative that was simply unbelievable. “… on many sides,” he said. Sides of what? Unknown.
A few years back, I took a course in qualitative methods with about 20 others. During one particular session, we all sat around a very large table and were asked to close our eyes. The professor then placed a dozen items on the table – statues, books, artwork, knickknacks, etc… We opened our eyes and were asked to record what we saw. Thinking the exercise was about observation techniques, we got busy quick, doodling, scribbling, creating systematic diagrams. When we were done, she had us change positions, eyes half-closed. We scrambled a bit, politely pushing our way to another seat far away from the first. And then we gasped.
It turned out that many of the objects looked different from the other side of the table. And in some cases, certain items previously invisible suddenly appeared. Truth.
When Comey recalled his nine meetings with Trump yesterday, whether you believed him or not, what likely mattered to Comey is that he was telling his truth. When he explained why he took notes after many of the meetings, he pointed to three factors: the context, the content and the nature of the person. And as a CNN commentator commented, life happens in context. It makes little sense to focus on one word, or one sentence, because stuff is said before and stuff is said after.
So Comey told his truth. Which some believe and others don’t. Because truth is so personal, created over a lifetime, but never really defined. We cannot hold it in our hands. It just hangs in the air, changing shape as things are said and done, ignoring contradictions, gobbling up new ideas, spitting out those that taste bad. And when one person’s truth challenges another, it’s messy, confusing, and sometimes painful. Because oftentimes we are sitting at opposite ends of the table, and it takes a lot of effort to stand up and change seats.