It is very puzzling for us to see people doing something, but professing to be doing something else. It is even worse when what they profess is not what they actually believe, and what they believe itself is often an amalgam of what they have been told they are supposed to believe; often a situation where they do not know whether their beliefs are their own, or merely what they have been telling themselves they should believe.
Whenever there is a dichotomy between belief and thought, and thought and speech, and speech and action, there will be conflict. Whenever you set out to achieve a set of conflicting objectives, there will be dissonance.
Modern organizations are full of these contradictions. Management theory plods on in the mistaken belief that many of these problems can be solved, and constantly keeps churning out tools and techniques to solve these problems. My submission is that many of these problems cannot be solved, due to the inherent contradictions in the way modern organizations are structured. At the same time, we cannot admit that these problems are not solvable, for reasons we shall see later in these articles, thus complicating the situation further and creating the ground for a tragi-comic screenplay which keeps getting re-enacted across organizations.
So what are these inherent drivers of contradiction? This is just a free-flowing top of the mind list, based on my experience of working with large organizations:
1) As you go higher and higher in an organization, the degree of ambiguity increases.
But as you go higher and higher the need for managers to project that they are omniscient, all knowing, also increases.
2) In order to scale up, you need to cut all processes and everything that people do, into littler and littler pieces, thus destroying the very soul, destroying its wholeness.
But as you become more successful as an organization, you need to retain people by pretending and proclaiming that what they are doing is good for their soul and makes them evolve on the Maslow scale.
3) In order to do something well, you need to measure it. In order to measure it, you need to institute metrics and reward people based on those metrics. All organizations are big on metrics, since that is the only way to control the complex beast called an organization.
But the moment you measure something, it becomes useless as a measure of precisely that which you are trying to improve. This stems from Heisenberg's uncertainty principle which states that you can either fix a particle's position, or arrive at its momentum, but not both, never both. Also called the Observer's paradox, where the moment you observe something, it influences behavior and changes the outcome.
4) All organizations work for profit. ( I am only talking of commercial for-profit entities in this piece).
But they have to pretend that they work for all kinds of ennobling objectives, and appear as serious responsible corporate citizens.
5) All organizations want to become one efficient, functioning, integrated whole, something like the human body, where all our body parts work in concert to create something so wonderful.
But what they become is efficient, functioning, isolated islands, where each part works on, growing in isolation for its own survival disproportionate to the needs of the body as a whole. This results in completely disproportionate body parts.
6) All executives in an organization, being good corporate citizens, are supposed to work for the overall good of the organization. They are all supposed to be driven by one grand vision.
But what the executives are actually driven by, are in most cases, visions of their own grandeur. Each person's vision is his own, shaped by his limited context, and towards selfish advancement.
7) All organizations imagine themselves to be like a military operation under command of a great general, marching relentlessly towards a well defined target that will be conquered.
But in actuality they are a bunch of disparate people, pretending to march to similar goals, towards an ill defined objective, in most cases not knowing what it is they want to conquer.
8) In order to scale anything, you need to dumb it down. Organizations have realized this, and are dumbing down drastically, to grow.
But they cannot admit that they are dumbing down. In the modern age, everyone demands self actualization. So organizations go to great lengths to convince people that the dumb things they are doing, monotonously day in and day out, is actually good for their well being, and will lead to their nirvana.
9) it is more and more difficult to measure knowledge work. In the old industrial age, productivity was very easy to measure, like number of nuts fitted around a bolt. Modern work is much more amorphous, more mindwork, making it very difficult to measure.
But organizations like to pretend that they can measure everything. They continue to endeavor to measure everything, continuously mangling the soul of the work in the process.
10) All things when they grow, become big, ponderous, and inflexible. Organizations are the same.
But organizations have realized that in order to survive they need to stay flexible. They have constant nightmares of how the dinosaurs became extinct, and in their hearts, they know that they are dinosaurs. So they try to teach the dinosaur how to jump like a monkey and soar like a bird. This leads to many hilarious situations, as you can well imagine.
11) All organisms are born, grow, mature, and die. This is the law of life.
But organizations don't want to die. They want to live for ever. So they are constantly on the lookout for making an old body look youthful, and like the phoenix, want to keep rising young from the ashes of the old. This too leads to many hilarious contradictions and interesting situations.
12) All organizations need to compartmentalize in order to do things better. All work is compartmentalized repeatedly till it is possible to dumb it down to the lowest possible unit, and then scale it by mindless repetition by unthinking robots.
But at some level, they need to retain a soul, some soul, some impression of wholeness, some pretence that it is a thinking, feeling, entity. The romance of an artisan creating pieces of art can never be retained by a modern organization; the problem is that the organization wants to pretend that it is so.
13) All organizations need to kill diversity, in order to align and grow. Their people need to dress alike, think alike, behave alike. And that is what they strive for.
But all organizations, without exception, like to believe that they are encouraging diversity. A lot of this has to do with political imperatives and social considerations.
14) As organizations grow, innovation dies.
But all organizations realize that they need innovation to survive. There is an inherent contradiction here that they constantly juggle with. As with many other things in corporate life, the proposed solutions to increasing innovation, are in many cases mindless repetition of some activities with some innovative slogans. The irony is usually lost on everybody.
15) Due to the contradictions that are inherent in working for an organization, employees' health and well-being is a casualty.
But organizations like to believe that they promote their employees' health and well-being. They implement a lot of programs, which also suffer from many of the contradictions mentioned above, for the well being of their employees.
16) All organizations like to think that every 'stakeholder' is working towards a common goal, for common benefit, for the lofty ambition of making the said organization the best in the world.
There is nothing farther from the truth. The shareholders are bothered about profits, the Board about their position, the managers about their perks, the employees about their jobs; and all of them are remote from the customers who they don't really care about except as milch cows to give them their daily milk. This one factor in itself leads to many contradictions.
There are many more contradictions inherent in organizations, I am sure. As I think of more of them, I shall not forget to put them in. It will also be interesting to go into each of these contradictions, and see how organizations repeatedly get themselves tied into knots by these. The most ironical part about organizations is that the people working there cannot admit that these contradictions exist. They keep meeting each other and assuring each other that life is one fulfilled whole, where fulfillment is of course defined as meeting the organization's goals, and retiring happy every night.