Monday, August 18, 2003

The Splendid Splinter's Frozen Head:
A Fable of Organizational Dysfunction  

As you may know if you read The Halifax Herald or other, less important, news sources, Ted Williams' frozen head has been severed from the rest of his corpse. Ugly on a stick, as Joe Bob Briggs would say.

This high-camp turn of events originated when the player's son decided to freeze the superstar's post-mortem body (if a foetus is an "unborn baby", aren't we all just "undead corpses"?). The son, a failure in business, allegedly has been living off his dad's name and wealth and reputation (sounds like someone else we know and love), getting his pre-mortem dad to sign bushels of items the son could peddle as collectibles. So the suspicion is unavoidable that sonny's storage côup is part of a Splendid Splinter DNA heist that will result in people being able to buy Williams' DNA for cloning or cherry-picking. For a fee. Payable to sonny.

¿So what's that got to do with Organizational Dysfunction?

Five percent of organizations have what anthropologists call a "culture". Another 15% have something I call a "personality". And the remaining 80% of all organizations have neither. I know Corporate Culture is bandied about, but it's rarer than Steve Balboni stolen base. Culture is a template of shared behavior ranges with fuzzy borders: shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors and artifacts that each generation transmits to the next through unintentional (mostly) teaching. It's also organic in the sense that it's ever-evolving, with good days and bad days. It's also a survival machine -- it "knows" how to evolve in the direction of survival behavior, and tends to do so.

Most organizations don't have ranges of acceptable behaviors with fuzzy borders. Big ones tend to have codes of conduct, made explicit through manuals. If it's not in the manual, then either people don't know what the code is, or there's a manager trying to impose a local code, like an early 20th century Chinese warlord, based on his own individual standards. Little organizations, if they've been around long enough, can achieve a culture, if the owner/boss is emotionally healthy. But that vast majority of organzations without cultures just drift about lurching suddenly, or amoebically oozing in the direction of whatever behavior fulfills apparent needs at this instant, or alternatively, trying to cope with a changing environment by trying not to change at all. Both are pretty dysfunctional.

In organizations with "personalities", everyone uses a cult hero or founder or current CEO as a set of DNA to clone. At Microsoft Corp., a place I worked for a couple of years, people try to channel co-founder Bill Gates III. Mid-level managers generally make decisions by asking themselves, "What Would Bill Do?". A personality has more centripetal force than nothing at all, but it's intrinsically brittle, monocultural, unable to incorporate a range of behaviors. When Gates III retires, there'll be a war between employees who want to freeze his (executive virtual) head so they can keep going back to the Oracle of his wisdom, and the new executive structure that will want to fix what they know is limited in the "What Would Bill Do?" response.

In baseball, it's really unlikely that anyone could use Ted Williams' DNA to clone organisms w/any greater chance of success than any random child born in a first world country from a couple of average parents. Too much of what made Williams' skill so extreme arose from his life experience and an intuitive-thinking personality that drove him to observe and build models of how to hit a baseball. Crikey, Williams couldn't even teach his major-league teammates how to hit with his style.

In business, you can try to extract DNA from the head man (pun intended) to clone. It's good for your immediate job security, but it'll guarantee the organization will have that much more ineffectiveness in evolving in response to new situations. Effective organizations have ranges of behavior and plan for the future; no frozen head can do that.

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