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Q&A on the Book "The Stupidity Paradox"

| Posted by Ben Linders Follow 7 Followers on Aug 20, 2017. Estimated reading time: 9 minutes |

Key Takeaways

  • Knowledge intensive organizations often employ smart people, but then encourage them to do stupid things
  • In the short term this can benefit individuals and the organization as a whole, but in the long term it can lead to problems
  • Organizations encourage stupidity through a misplaced faith in leadership, an addiction to branding, mindless imitation, thoughtless attachment to rules and regulations, and upbeat cultures
  • Organizations can protect themselves against collective stupidity by encouraging people to question assumptions, demand justifications and think about the longer term consequences of decisions
  • Some techniques to discourage collective stupidity include appointing devil’s advocates, holding pre-mortems and instituting bullshit bans

In The Studipity Paradox, Andre Spicer and Mats Alvesson explore how knowledge intensive organizations employ smart people and encourage them to do stupid things. Functional stupidity can be catastrophic, however a dose of stupidity can be useful. The book advises how to counter stupidity or reduce the consequences, how to exploit it, and how to benefit from it.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of The Stupidity Paradox

InfoQ interviewed Andre Spicer and Mats Alvesson about what "functional stupidity" is and what its main causes are, the possible negative and positive outcomes of functional stupidity, what they learned from investigating leadership, how culture induces stupidity and what can be done to limit the damage, and what can be done to counter stupidity management or dispel stupidity. 

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Andre Spicer: We had spent over a decade studying knowledge workers in knowledge intensive firms. But when you asked them what they seriously thought about their jobs, they would often admit “it's actually pretty stupid”. For a while we thought they were just trying to be humble. But eventually we started to take them seriously. So instead of going looking for knowledge and smartness in firms, we started looking for stupidity. This lead us to a goldmine.

Mats Alvesson: We have observed that it is common to emphasize knowledge, rationality, talent, and learning. But in reality many organizations cultivate compliance, obedience, naivety, conformism and positivity. Low levels of critical thinking and reflection seemed common in many workplaces. We realised this makes organizations functioning smoothly and people avoid anxieties associated with broader responsibility outside following the flow. Initially we published these observations in a scientific paper.

We thought it would only be read by other specialists. But the message seemed to have a much wider resonance. This lead us to publish a book which described what we had found to a wider audience.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Alvesson: Any person who is eager to be self-reflective about why stupid things happen in their workplace. We think the book is particular for people who want to have a framework for understanding some of the perversions of contemporary organizations and working life.

Spicer: We think jilted knowledge workers will find this book interesting. These are people who spent years studying then more decades honing their expertise only to find thinking and knowledge are disregarded in most big organisations. These smart people are then asked to do stupid things in these organisation. They are frustrated. Our message is that they are not alone. Their experience is widely shared, and there is something which you can do about it.

InfoQ: What do you mean by "functional stupidity"?

Spicer: Intelligent people with excellent qualification not thinking in a broader way. As a result, things go well in the short term - they often get promoted and the organisation as a whole functions well. But in the long term it creates disaster.

You know if you have functional stupidity on your hands when:

  1. People don't ask for or give justifications of a course of action. They say things like “screw it, let's do it”.
  2. People don't reflect on the assumptions they are making.
  3. People don't think about the long term implications of their actions.

Alvesson: Narrow, technical thinking within a given box or framework (vision, job description, success recipe) without broader reflection or questioning of purpose or context. You competently do what you are told (or how others do things) without thinking if this is meaningful or leads to good outcomes. For instance, in large banks employees often focus on ticking the regulatory boxes and do not think about the wider question of whether the financial products they are creating are any good.

InfoQ: What are the main causes that lead to functional stupidity?

Spicer: In the book we identify five common drivers of functional stupidity. The first is a misplaced obsession with leadership. Many organisations encourage people to think of themselves as inspirational leaders. But this often alienates their followers and means they ignore the nuts and bolts of getting a task done. The second is an attachment to branding. We witnessed military organisations which were more keen on running rebranding exercises than running military exercises. The third driver of functional stupidity is mindless imitation. Often large organisations copy others for no better reason than they want to up with the latest fashion. This leads firms to implement new initiatives which are inappropriate for them. The fourth is pointless policies and procedures which are thoughtlessly followed. Many professionals spend more time ticking off boxes than actually doing their job. Finally, some organisations encourage a culture of up-beat positive cultures which encourages employees only to look at the bright side and overlook any problems.

InfoQ: What are the possible negative outcomes from stupidity at work?

Alvesson: An enormous waste of time and energy in organizations spent on window-dressing activities and meaningless meeting rituals or tick-box activities. Many organizations make little or no contribution to society. As a result employees feeling cynical and disappointed.

For instance, teachers spend increasing proportions of their time complying with various auditing exercises. As a result, they spend more of their time doing administrative duties than actually teaching their pupils. This has a knock on effect of making teachers feel like they are not doing their job properly - they become alienated and many are now leaving the profession. This also has a wider social impact - leading to under educated kids.

Spicer: It is interesting to note that countries like Finland which tend to give their teachers lots of professional autonomy and don’t overburden them with administrative demands tend to have the best educational outcomes for kids. 

InfoQ: What positive outcomes can it bring?

Alvesson: People are focused, they feel comfortable, they are not overburdened with doubt and reflection. It can also create a positive work cultures without critique or difficult questions being asked. But it’s a double edged sword. Each of these short term benefits can become long term problems.

Spicer: For instance, in one consultancy firm we studied, we noticed that many of the young employees were unusually upbeat about everything. These were smart people who had spent years being trained how to think. But as soon as they entered the firm, many stopped using these thinking skills. As a result, they could get on with the task and do things which seemed irrational but made the client happy in the short term. As a result, these people were promoted and there was also less conflict in the organisation. But it often gave rise to longer term problems.

InfoQ: You investigated leadership in your book. What have you learned?

Alvesson: Much of the talk and many of the hopes we have about leadership is just fantasy. Often, in knowledge intensive firms, leaders just get in the way. If organisations actually wanted to be successful, what is needed is less leadership. After-all, few managers have much leadership. 95% of their time is spent doing boring administration. When they try to do leadership, they are often far from what management bestsellers preach and promise. For instance, in one tech firm we studied, we saw managers who were brought in to manage a group of engineers. The engineers were pretty self directed. The manager had no idea about what they were actually doing. So he had to resort to generic leadership tactics - trying to inspire people, holding meetings, organising away days. The engineers quickly got sick of all this because they saw it as getting in the way of their work.

InfoQ: Sometimes companies do things not because they produce the best results, but because everyone else is doing it. What's your suggestion to avoid this trap or get out?

Alvesson: Point this out. Ask for a good reason for a project, arrangement or structure. The fact that others are doing this is not a good reason for us doing it. One could put up signs saying ‘Beware of flock behaviour!’ or ‘Make sure there is a reason for doing something!’

Spicer: If you look at the best organisations, they often avoid copying what others in their industry are doing. Instead they slowly invent their own processes through a gradual process of learning. They borrow or take things off the shelf when it makes sense. Take the example of Handelsbanken in Sweden - this was one of the few european banks that continued to grow following the financial crisis. The reason for this was it had developed its own unique culture and model of localised banking which was quite counter intuitive to what the rest of the industry was doing. Another example is Spotify, which has developed its own model of software development through a slow process of iteration and learning. There is a big danger when companies just wholesale copy this model without considering what makes it effective. This often involved taking something out of context.

InfoQ: How does culture induce stupidity? What can be done to limit the damage?

Alvesson: Cultures are important to create shared meanings so that people understand each other and can cooperate. But often people take a lot for granted and just think, talk and act like everybody else, finding this self-evident and unproblematic. But “cultural scrutiny” or appointment of Devil’s advocates (with a job role to not agree, but argue from another stance than the conventional one) can offer some antidotes.

Spicer: A great example of what can go wrong with culture can be found in Nokia. When the IPhone launched in 2007, Nokia was the dominant mobile phone maker. It had already developed a smart phone, but they knew they faced a challenge. They were working on their own mobile phone platform - Symbian - but all the developers knew there were serious problems. But senior managers only wanted to hear good news. So as a result, middle managers only pushed positive news upwards. This meant Nokia kept developing Symbian even when it wasn’t working. Apple and Samsung overtook Nokia to claim the top spots in the industry. Nokia eventually sold off its mobile division to Microsoft. If they had been better at harnessing critique from lower down the organisation, they might have been able to cut their losses short and develop a identify a decent operating system which would have allowed them to maintain their place in the market.

InfoQ: What can be done to counter stupidity management or dispel stupidity?

Alvesson: Devil's advocates are helpful. You can create pre-mortems - which encourage people to imagine everything that could lead to a disaster in a project before you begin it. You can also play bullshit bingo or have sessions where people are encouraged to raise issues, possibly anonymously. One can also have people interview newcomers about their experiences of surprising/odd/problematic features. Or have task forces on anti-stupidity management. The idea would be to identify collective stupidities and root them out.

About the Book Authors

Mats Alvesson is a professor of Lund University, Sweden and also associated with University of Queensland and Cass Business School. He has a long-standing interest in uncovering the irrationalities of organizations and pointing out institutionalized stupidities in an age in love with images, brands and other things that are persuasive and seductive. He has published many books on leadership, organizational culture, change, knowledge in organizations, etc, including Reflexive Leadership (Sage) and The Triumph of Emptiness (Oxford University Press).

Andre Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at Cass business school, City University of London. He frequently writes for The Guardian. He has published six books, including The Wellness Syndrome, Business Bullshit and Desperately Seeking Self Improvement.

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"The whole is less than the sum of its parts" by Wen Hu

"The whole is less than the sum of its parts" is usually what I say to colleagues when discussing emergent stupidity in organisations. :-)

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