A Theater of Symbols

Tom Robertson: Posted on Tuesday, December 18, 2012 2:49 PM

In 1997 Scott Adams, creator of the cartoon Dilbert, put on a disguise and played management consultant at the real company, Logitech. With the cooperation of a company official who was in on the joke, Adams spent over an hour leading a group of senior managers to create a new mission statement, full of relatively content-free phrases such as “emerging, mission-inclusive markets”, “explore new paradigms”, and “filter and communicate and evangelize the findings”.  

Like most jokes, this one is funny because it is both absurd and true-to-life, just like the Dilbert comics. But why are organizations so prone to absurdity? …. Here’s another example – have you ever noticed how often really important things get done in an organization, not only outside the formal structure, but in spite of it? … Why do we waste time on things that only get in the way? 

We might shake our heads, blaming Peter-Principled incompetence. Or, maybe we cut leadership a little slack – the job’s tough and even competent managers may be off-track. Both can explain apparent organizational stupidity, but there may be something even more powerful at work. “Empty” mission statements and procedures can fill an important human need – the need for symbols that give meaning to what we do.  

The power of symbols is in their appearance, not their substance. People use symbols as lighthouses to navigate uncertainty and ambiguity. If creating an “empty” mission statement leads to solidarity and wholeheartedness, that’s more important than concise language. Organizations need solidarity and wholeheartedness, and symbols can get around the impracticality of getting everybody to see all the facts and possible outcomes the same way.  

Symbols show up everywhere in an organization. The U.S. Navy’s $5B Polaris missile program is a poster child for the effective use of analytical management techniques, having had the almost unheard-of distinction of being on-time and under-budget. However, a post-mortem study* of the program concluded that the fruits of analytical management – all those charts and plans – were only loosely linked to what was really going on.  Those careful creations of Program Management Specialists were mostly ignored by the people doing the work!   … Those charts and plans did serve a critical function, though. They symbolized a well-run program. They kept hordes of external stakeholders happy and critics at bay, giving the program team the running room needed to succeed.  

The next time you spot an organizational practice that looks particularly stupid, look for symbolic value. The practice might deserve death by the sword of common sense. Then again, maybe not.  

— Tom   

*Sapolsky, H. The Polaris System Development. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972.
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