Given my obsession with the effect of organisational change on staff while writing my dissertation (admittedly I was mainly obsessed with self-determination theory) I’m amazed I did not come across this paper, Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organisations Empowers and Alienates1 instead seeing it highlighted on Twitter (a platform I have largely been eschewing but am occasionally dipping into, and thanks to Ben Taylor for tweeting it) far too late to be useful.

The original poster highlighted the Lovecraftian nature of organisations being uncovered with one quote from a research participant:

The CEO, after being walked through the map, sat down, put his head on the table, and said, “This is even more f**cked up than I imagined.” The CEO revealed that not only was the operation of his organisation out of his control but that his grasp on it was imaginary.

What, however, I found perhaps more concerning from the paper were the references to the belief in the immutability of organisations. Rather than seeing an organisation as a human-man construct it was a permanent and necessary entity that existed of itself:

they had objectified the organisation, talking about and treating organisational divisions, senior management, functional boundaries, job roles, and rules as “things” having a reality and existence of their own … the organisation increasingly becomes discussed, imagined, and treated as a naturalised, necessary structure. The idea that organisations are an ongoing human product was a provocative insight for these employees.

While there might be few things more depressing than the sentiment “it’s always been that way, it will never change” once the staff involved gained the insight that they were working in a human-made organisation that humans could change the effect was transformative:

Observing the organisation as continuously in the making gave employees an overwhelming sense of possibility, sparking ambition.

It resonated with one of the key findings from research, that autonomy was key to ensuring that staff had intrinsic motivation. In short when they had some control they were happier and got better results. While my research was in education, there are plenty of other examples that illustrate similar results, like Buurtzorg in healthcare in the Netherlands, or the generally positive impact of autonomous (pre-Covid) homeworking on productivity.

It’s not hard to draw parallels with the current situation. Would the response be better if we weren’t trying to deliver centralised public health models in the UK? Could locally directed responses be more agile, and increase our knowledge of what works faster, than cumbersome nationally directed response? Would our response to a tiny virus be better with we didn’t let ‘the economy’ — an imaginary construct with no independent existence — determine so much of that response?

Like my failed attempt at cycling I can’t help thinking that there was so much evidence that things could be different and better before some got to directly experience that difference during the pandemic. But we are just ignoring it all in a rush to return to the old ways of doing things and To keep city centre Prets open. I am less of a fan of Friedrich Milton than I once was but do wish the government, presumably bigger fans, would pay heed to one of his more useful quotes: “Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.”

We are trapped by the fallacy that what we built before was perfect and permanent when we should be picking up the ideas that have been lying around for years.

  1. Huising, R. 2019, “Moving off the Map: How Knowledge of Organizational Operations Empowers and Alienates”, Organization science (Providence, R.I.), vol. 30, no. 5, pp. 1054-1075.

The Institute of Government blog has an interesting post on the value of insubordination.

The central thrust is that allowing a degree of dissent and challenge results in better policy making. The example cited, from Tim Harford’s book Adapt, was from the Iraq war:

US commanders on the ground … discarded their orders and tried something different based on local needs and circumstances. Their counter-insurgency strategies, at a time when the US Defense Secretary was refusing to admit there was an insurgency at all, formed the basis of the eventual moves toward restoring a degree of stability. The US Army never fully embraced the mavericks – but did eventually learn from them.

The lesson: the conventional attributes of the well-functioning big organisation – aligned team; clear big picture vision; organisation dedicated to following the leadership – can lead to some horrible mistakes.

It goes on to refer to some of the institutional examples in the UK where people are licensed to openly dissent from the government that employs them, like the Chief Medical Officer (although it also mentions those that shouldn’t, but sometimes do, dissent like military chiefs).

However, I couldn’t help thinking of the government’s recent ‘U-turns’. Thanks to Margaret Thatcher these have an incredibly bad reputation, but perhaps David Cameron sees them as a deliberate policy. He might not know where the next U-turn will be, but he has the self-confidence to accept he doesn’t know everything and when there’s an uproar he might need to re-think.

Part of the bad reputation U-turns have come from a strange perception that admitting you were wrong is a bad thing; a perception I’ve don’t share (it’s nearly a year since I admitted to being a fan of – controlled – failure). The logical conclusion of a government that never changes its mind is a government that comes to office with an immutable set of beliefs and policies that will never change regardless of circumstances, a patent and dangerous nonsense.

Judging by opinion polls I can’t help wondering if Cameron has slayed the U-turn monster. Shouldn’t the Conservatives be in the polling doldrums, with Ed Miliband seen as the next Prime Minister? The fact that the Labour lead is nothing like what it should be and Ed Miliband is suffering the same sort of chatter that cursed William Hague from the start of his leadership suggests Cameron might have successfully sold the truth that it is possible to admit you’ve re-thought without a massive political penalty.

The risk is that the perception that U-turn equals weakness returns and if the story continues to be repeated U-turns in the face of opposition then return it will. But the easy antidote are a few strong stances: the hard policies that are so important to the government and won’t change. The problem starts when people remember all those malleable policies and none of the hard ones, a position I fear we are drifting towards. The Prime Minister’s saviour may well be coming on Thursday when the Unions give Cameron a high profile battle from which he won’t back down.