When it comes to solving complex problems, we often perform elaborate rituals in the guise of best practices that promise a world of order, certainty, and control. But reality paints a far different picture, which practitioners are often reluctant to discuss.
A witty yet rigorous journey through the seedy underbelly of organisational problem solving, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices pinpoints the reasons why best practices don’t work as advertised and what can be done about it.
“Hugely enjoyable, deeply reflective, and intensely practical. This book is about weaving human artistry and improvisation, with appropriate methods and technologies, in order to pool collective intelligence and wisdom under pressure.”—Simon Buckingham Shum, Knowledge Media Institute, The Open University, UK
“This is a terrific piece of work: important, insightful, and very entertaining. Culmsee and Awati have produced a refreshing take on the problems that plague organisations... If you’re trying to deal with wicked problems in your organisation, then drop everything and read this book.”—Tim Van Gelder, Principal Consultant, Austhink Consulting
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.93(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices
The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations
By Paul Culmsee, Kailash Awati
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2013 Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati
All rights reserved.
Platitudes: Empty Words that Make the Most Noise
Market churn has set us adrift.
What we need is a paradigm shift.
Get our ducks in a row,
push the envelope,
to keep us from going o'er the cliff.
The boss says, "Let's touch base.
Make game-plans for the next phase.
We'll have meetings and talks.
Think outside the box,
to ensure we're still in the race."
But the elephant in the room
refuses to sing to our tune,
or dance to our beat,
sing from the same sheet
—even once in a blue moon.
From "A cliché-ridden corporate crisis in five limericks" (Kailash Awati)
We are an elite team ...
What better way to start a book that takes a critical look at all the messed up stuff going on in organisations than with the cult movie "Mystery Men," starring Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria and William H. Macey.
In this movie, the fate of Champion City rests in the hands of seven self-declared superheroes. The reality is that our intrepid "heroes" are fairly inept. Among them, we have the perpetually angry "Mr Furious," the fork flinging "Blue Raja," "The Shoveler" and the mysterious "Sphinx." Despite their individual failings, which they are oblivious to, they somehow band together to triumph against the evil "Casanova Frankenstein."
The Sphinx character is our favourite. He is a master of quasi-philosophical, Zen-like utterances that have no meaning whatsoever. Consider the following classic Sphinxisms:
"To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn."
"You must lash out with every limb, like the octopus who plays the drums."
"He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions."
At one point, Mr Furious grows tired of these teachings, and this following dialogue ensues:
MR FURIOUS: Okay, am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic? (Mimicking the sphinx) If you want to push something down, you have to pull it up. If you want to go left, you have to go right. It's ...
SPHINX: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage ...
MR FURIOUS: Your rage will become your master? That's what you were going to say. Right? Right?
SPHINX: ... Not necessarily
This exchange is a classic illustration of a platitude: a meaningless statement that is presented as if it were significant and original. The word is derived from plat, the French word for flat. Platitudes are exceedingly common in management and consulting circles. In a paper, Barabba, Pourdenhad and Ackoff (2002) stated that:
"... consultants are of two types: self-promoting gurus and educators. Gurus that pontificate and promote their proprietary problem solving techniques do not educate their clients. They promote maxims that define rules of behaviour but do not increase the competence of managers. They promote their proprietary solution as a fix for all problems instead of trying to increase managerial understanding of a particular corporate puzzle. They provide maxims that are really platitudes and panaceas without proof of effectiveness ..."
Of course, one person's profundity may be another's platitude; whether or not a particular statement is platitudinous is indeed subjective. Nevertheless, the term is often used in a pejorative sense to describe seemingly profound statements that a particular person views as unoriginal or shallow. In this chapter we'll examine platitudes, some blatant, others a little more subtle, to see just how insidious they are and what they can tell you about the culture and maturity of organisations.
Mission and vision statements—too easy
The first and most obvious fertile hunting ground for platitudes that our friend, the Sphinx, would be proud of would have to be organisational mission and vision statements.
"The mission and vision statement maketh the organisation," says the CEO. But does it really? Will those couple of sentences in large font, proudly hanging on the wall behind reception, serve as the rudder used by management to guide the organisation to greatness?
For many reasons we think not, but we are not the first to be cynical. This topic has been done to death elsewhere, so we will simply touch on it here before we get to our main point.
For a start, the phrase "mission statement" is not the latest, nor is it the first term to be used to describe organisational aims and objectives. Nowadays though, many organisations do not label their aims and objectives as a mission statement.
So, why does a term like "mission statement" go out of fashion? Typically, this happens when everyone starts using it at every opportunity.
Soon, the term loses its original intent, impact and import. The first people to notice this loss of meaning are those on the receiving end of the platitude; employees who have to translate the mission statement into reality. For these folks, Mission Impossible and Simpsonesque farce come to mind: "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make this organisation Number One in Excellence ..."
Nevertheless, executives are fascinated by platitudinous aphorisms. Legions of management consultants have figured this out. Moreover, getting in on the act is surprisingly simple. All you need to do is watch for incipient buzzwords and use them before your competitors do. For example, to be really cool and up to speed on the latest in high platitude fashion, you need only to appreciate that "mission statement" is like ... so 20th century. Now, if you want to be seen or heard, you need a "Noble purpose". No one takes mission statements seriously anymore, but a noble purpose will positively have employees jumping for joy. Remember where you heard it first people—right here in this book. No royalty necessary for use of this term, an acknowledgement will do.
The more popular things get, the more common place they become. Then, regardless of the original noble intentions behind them, they are overused and ultimately depleted. Like a stock market rally, by the time everyone has caught on, the smart money has moved on. Eventually, it becomes a ritual, something that has lost its original meaning rather than an action with a purpose. In short, the mission and vision statement is done because it is what you are supposed to do. After all, a document with a mission and a vision statement is so much more ... "professional," right? So, not only will we do it, but we'll hire $5000 a day consultants to help us create one. After all, who better than a rank outsider to tell us what we're supposed to be doing?
Yes, this perverse logic is all too common. We'll venture an explanation for this phenomenon in Chapter 3. For now, let's move on with our discussion of platitudes.
Over the years we have developed finely honed radars for platitudes. One particularly easy way to spot them is via the "excellence test." In the final episode of series three of The Simpsons, the TV show, Homer was rendered infertile due to years of radiation exposure. Fearing a lawsuit, the nuclear power plant created an award called the "Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence" and awarded it to Homer. As far as platitudes go, this award is sheer genius and is the yardstick that we will be using when rating organisational mission statements. Thus, from the very beginning, the example below was doomed to fail:
"Our mission is to conduct all of our businesses, both energy and financial related, with four key values in mind: respect, integrity, communication and excellence. All business dealings must be conducted in an environment that is open and fair."
You see? As soon as the word excellence is there, we know that there is trouble. This was allegedly the mission statement of a little company called Enron, (yeah ... that Enron!), whose scandalous downfall was the largest bankruptcy in American history at the time, taking out the accounting and audit firm Arthur Andersen with it and being part of the reason for the Sarbanes Oxley regime currently operating in the USA.
Of course, our "excellence" platitude detection test lacks rigour because it misses out on an infinite number of platitudes that do not contain the word excellence. A better option is to follow the philosophy of Russell Ackoff (1987). Ackoff believed that an organisation's or group's mission statement must not state the obvious. The reason is simple: A mission statement that merely restates the obvious does not say anything that is truly aspirational. To quote from Ackoff:
"They (groups and organisations) often formulate necessities as objectives: For example, 'to achieve sufficient profit.' This is like a person saying his mission is to breathe sufficiently."
One of Ackoff's criteria to judge the quality of a mission statement is to see if the inverse of the statement makes logical sense. If you cannot reasonably disagree with this negative, then the original statement is a platitude. Here are two examples:
"... our mission and values are to help people and businesses throughout the world realize their full potential." (Microsoft 2011)
So, our inverse here is working to hinder people and businesses to realise their full potential. Hmm, after the Windows Vista experience, some people would consider Microsoft's mission statement more of an oxymoron! The next statement is attributed to General Motors (King, Case and Premo 2010):
"... a multinational corporation engaged in socially responsible operations, worldwide. It is dedicated to provide products and services of such quality that our customers will receive superior value while our employees and business partners will share in our success and our stock-holders will receive a sustained superior return on their investment."
So, the inverse of this is a socially irresponsible company that produces overpriced goods of poor quality and treats employees, partners and shareholders like crap ... Speaking of the fast food industry, here is a mission statement attributed to more than one player in that space:
"We will prepare and sell quick service food to fulfil our guests' needs more accurately, quickly, courteously, and in a cleaner environment than our competitors. We will conduct all our business affairs ethically, and with the best employees in the mid-south. We will continue to grow profitably and responsibly, and provide career advancement opportunities for every willing member of our organisation."
This is actually the best mission statement so far. The aspirations are very clear and easily measurable. What about this?
"We are dedicated to ensuring a long-term commitment to stakeholder value from performance and improved returns at all levels."
That one was a trick assessment. We generated it from a website where you can generate your very own mission statement. It works like a poker machine. Just pull the lever and within a few seconds, a random assortment of small quotes are mashed together to create a mission statement. If you enter your company name into it, you can even print a certificate.
Finally for now, we wonder if you can guess whose organisational mission this is:
"To produce high-quality, low cost, easy to use products that incorporate high technology for the individual. We are proving that high technology does not have to be intimidating for non-computer experts."
The inverse implies that we produce low quality, high cost and hard to use products. But the second sentence redeems the statement because it is measurable. We like the notion of any mission statement starting with "we are proving" because for the next part of the sentence to make sense, it really has to be measurable. In case you didn't guess it, this is attributed to Apple in 1984. Given their market success with anything with the lowercase letter "i" in front of it, we have to concede that they really have achieved that particular mission.
Just because you say it, doesn't mean it's true
In a paper entitled "Silenced by a Mission Statement: An Organisation's Cloak of Ambiguity," Gina Rathbun (2007) described her experiences in a company which had a ritual of chanting the company mission statement from a laminated card at the start of every monthly staff meeting. As you read Rathbun's quote below, try and keep in mind the characters from the "Mystery Men," all dressed up in their costumes, starting their day of crime-fighting in a similar manner.
"Before the meeting commenced, we were instructed to "take out" our cards, which contained the vague metaphorical language ... The mission statement's chant began:
We are an elite team of inter-dependent professionals, who are experts at creating upscale living environments. We cultivate situational awareness and act with professionalism and integrity. We are proud. We are a team."
Rathbun noted that the mission statement recited during these meetings said nothing of where the organisation was going. A little later in the paper, she said:
"... Even the platitudes "elite" and "proud" ascribed a banality that didn't provide much direction toward describing any real behaviour. Isn't any company that takes the time to formulate its values collectively, proud? What values exactly was the President endorsing?"
The point about the mission statement saying nothing about where the organisation was headed actually points to the way to get past platitudes. It may come as a surprise to readers that trying to define them is not the way.
Definitions and bywords
One thing that we all tend to get suckered into doing at times is classifying and defining the objects and ideas we work with. Granted, this is often unavoidable, especially in the world of academia where definitions are needed in order to ensure that everyone understands what's being discussed. Once you read a few papers however, you begin to notice a pattern. Many papers, particularly in the social sciences, start out with a ten page examination of all the past definitions of things that are being examined in the paper. This is followed by an equally tedious discussion of why those definitions are inadequate or incomplete, thereby paving the way for a new set of definitions. The remainder of the paper will be a detailed justification as to why the new, improved definitions are better than their predecessors.
Defining stuff is a time consuming and tiring exercise. Since we live in a world of constant change there will always be new influences which shape and frame perceptions. Therefore, a definition that an author lovingly spends so much effort on coming up with is always subject to being redefined by the next academic, blogger or marketing person who follows a similar path. This cycle plays out in a few ways:
The new definition becomes more verbose. There are a couple of reasons for this:
* The definition is expanded to incorporate new aspects of the topic space. In an organisational setting, this creates confusion because the definitions of multiple disciplines can often seemingly contradict each other and thus, careful "wordsmithing" is required to navigate a path through it.
* New qualifications or exceptional situations have to be excluded. This leads to more new terms being used in the definition.
A broader, fundamental definition is developed. The broader definition encompasses more and so is prone to platitudinous leanings. Further, such definitions also run the risk of being interpreted in ways other than the one intended by the author.
A new word is used or an existing word is used in a new context to try and convey the new meanings or concepts proposed by the author. If the author gets lucky, it catches on. The metamorphosis from "mission statement" to "noble purpose" is an example of this point.
While it might seem that we are arguing against definitions, be assured we aren't. What we wish to point out is that the tendency to "definitionise" has crept into organisational settings where it is wholly inappropriate. Bywords (and their definitions) are fertile ground for a dangerous kind of platitude which can doom projects before they even begin.
"How do you measure quality, then?"
A common characteristic of a platitude is that it has no meaning until it is applied to a particular situation. Words in this category include quality, security, flexibility, innovation, effectiveness and Paul's personal favourite, governance. These words have plenty written about them and, accordingly, have many definitions. The mistake is to try and lock down a definition in an attempt to provide context to a situation or problem. This creates a very sneaky and dangerous platitude; one that deludes people into thinking that there is more shared understanding between people than there actually is.
Excerpted from The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices by Paul Culmsee, Kailash Awati. Copyright © 2013 Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Losing our Marbles.................... 3
1 Platitudes: Empty Words that Make the Most Noise.................... 13
2 A Mind Field of Errors.................... 37
3 Myths, Memes and Methodologies.................... 64
4 Managing Innovation: The Demise of Command and Control................... 84
5 There Are Problems and There Are "Problems".................... 106
6 In Praise of Dialogue: From Bounded to Communicative Rationality......... 123
Interlude: From problems to solutions.................... 146
7 Visualising Reasoning.................... 153
8 Argumentation-based Rationale.................... 182
9 Problem Structuring Methods.................... 212
10 Rationality and Relationships.................... 246
11 From theory to practice.................... 284
12 Planners and Precinct 5.................... 289
13 Taming Definitions, Bywords and Platitudes.................... 321
14 The Practice of Dialogue Mapping.................... 349
About the Authors.................... 393