On “flim-flam and flubbery” in the American workplace

My colleague Huggy Rao and I are focused on The Friction Project these days: We are studying the causes and cures for organizational designs and leadership actions that make life unnecessarily difficult and frustrating for employees, customers, and leaders themselves. And we are identifying the virtues of organizational friction — when and why some things ought to be difficult or impossible to do.

The Friction Project weaves together lessons from diverse methods. These include case studies, traditional academic research, the Friction podcast, teaching classes about friction, and reading everything we can find that is pertinent to the topic. Toward that end, I’ve been reading books and articles on the dysfunctions of bureaucracy, ranging from serious works such as Herbert Kaufman’s classic Red Tape: Its Origins, Uses and Abuses and Barry Bozeman’s and Mary Feeny’s Rules and Red Tape, to less serious (but still informative) works such as Laurence Peter’s and Raymond Hull’s The Peter Principle and C. Northcote Parkinson’s remarkable Parkinson’s Law (which is on my list of 12 books that every leader should read).

As I was searching for similar books, I stumbled on Thomas L. Martin Jr.’s Malice in Blunderland. It is an obscure, cynical, and somewhat disorganized book, and yet it is charming and thoughtful. Thomas Martin was a serious scholar and leader; he wrote books with titles like Ultrahigh Frequency Engineering and Electronic Circuits and was president of Illinois Institute of Technology between 1974 and 1987. In 1973, he showed his less serious side by publishing this collection of loosely linked quotes, laws, brief essays, and speculations. He grouped them into five chapters with pseudo-jargon titles such as “Hierarchiology” and “Academocracy.” Martin drew on related books and articles, sayings he had heard and read during his long career, and his own experience as a leader — and victim — of many bureaucracies. Malice in Blunderland is more like reading a set of loosely-linked collection of blog posts than a coherent book. And it is quite dated in places. In particular, there are flashes of sexism (although by 1973 standards, he was reasonably enlightened). And the experts that he quotes and draws upon all seem to be white males.

As the jacket flap says, this book is “on the flim-flam and flubbery in American bureaucratic life.” I would describe it as a collection of silly and serious thoughts about why people in big organizations do so many absurd and seemingly irrational things.

To give you a taste for Professor Martin’s style and sensibilities, consider five quotes that he offered and discussed in Malice in Blunderland.

Sevareid’s Law: “The chief cause of problems is solutions”

In Martin’s view, “Indeed, if we take a really detached view of view of modern life, or any small facet of it, it appears to be populated by large numbers of people scurrying about with prefabricated solutions in hand, madly searching for problems to which they can be applied. In fact, in more and more instances, problems are defined in terms of available solutions rather than in terms of the parameters of the problems themselves.”

I think that Martin’s observation is, if anything, more true today than in 1973. Right now, for example, think of the hype about blockchain, holacracy, agile, lean startup, and design thinking. They are often sold as solutions that can help any organization, team, or person regardless of their actual problems. Alas, I plead guilty to doing so with design thinking at times.

Hacker’s Law of Personnel: “It is never clear just how many hands — or minds — are needed to carry out a particular process. Nevertheless, anyone having supervisory responsibilities for completion of the task will invariably protest that his staff is too small for the assignment.”

Martin suggests that such protests by leaders put on positive spin on the outcome, be it a failure or success. If the project fails, the leader can claim it was because he or she didn’t have enough resources; and if the project succeeds, it is due to superior leadership despite an “undersized and overworked staff.” Another reason that managers argue they need more subordinates than necessary is, in most organizations, the more people who report to you, the greater your prestige and pay. This is one of the causes of administrative bloat in higher education — the number of administrators in many universities and colleagues has grown much faster in recent decades than the number of faculty or students.

So there are perverse incentives to add more and more people, despite evidence that — much of the time — many hands DO NOT make light work. Adding more people creates more handoffs and other coordination problems, which add friction and reduce individual productivity.

Hendrickson’s Law: “If you have enough meetings over a long enough period of time, the meetings become more important than the problem the meetings were intended to solve.”

As Martin suggests, too many administrators form committees to study a problem as a ploy to delay, stall, or entirely avoid making a tough decision or implementing a new policy. Beyond that, sometimes regular meetings become ingrained habits and rituals that people attend long after anyone can remember why they were convened in the first place or serve any useful purpose. Lou Gerstner, the former CEO of IBM, made this point when I interviewed him at a Stanford event a few years ago. Gerstner said that, as part of his famous turnaround of IBM in the 1990s, he abolished many standing meetings because they had evolved into hollow rituals that slowed or stopped progress and wasted massive amounts of time — to the horror of many IBM veterans. (Also, see this story about how Dropbox fought the problem of too many meetings).

Stedman’s Killer Phrases: We tried something like that years ago. That’s ridiculous. That’s too radical. Let’s form a committee to consider it, That is contrary to policy. Has anyone ever tried it? It won’t work. That’s too obvious to be considered. That’s too superficial. That’s interesting, but we don’t have the time or manpower. Tell me right now — what’s the potential profit in it? That’s not the kind of idea we expect from you.

Sound familiar? I confess to having used a few myself. We academics are, alas, often adept at developing arguments for inaction. I bet it happens where you work too. I would add such arguments are sometimes a rational responses to changes that would add unnecessary friction or replace something that works with something that doesn’t. Not all new ideas are good ones, and trying to implement too many ideas at once (even if most of them are good) is a recipe for not doing anything well. As Stanford’s James March has argued, there are times when leaders who lament that underlings are bad-mouthing and refusing to implement their new ideas ought to, instead, be thankful– because they are protecting the organization “from folly.” Resistance to change is sometimes a rational response!

Weiler’s Law; Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.

Of course, this law applies to women too. Martin suggests — based on his years as an academic leader–that high ranking professors and administrators often speak at great length about the need and prospects for educational innovations that others, not them, are expected to implement. This is a variation of what Jeff Pfeffer and I call “the smart talk trap.” It is a lot easier to talk about doing most new and good organizational changes than to actually do them. And, too often, the most powerful people in organizations are rewarded for saying smart things rather than doing them or setting the stage for others to implement them successfully.

I had a lot of fun with Malice in Blunderland. It isn’t a masterpiece or a classic, but it helped me think about friction in some new ways, especially in big bureaucracies. Martin’s book does a great job of identifying symptoms, problems, and silliness; but it doesn’t offer many antidotes. Yet it got me thinking about solutions that could work (rather than solutions that just create more problems). For example, how might big organizations change incentives–not just money but prestige and recognition too–so that people feel compelled to remove rather than add friction? Huggy Rao and I consider financial and social incentives in Scaling Up Excellence and in our work on The Friction Project (e.g., see this case study on “Scaling Simplicity” at AstraZeneca). But this old and odd book convinced me that we aren’t doing enough. We need to focus our teaching, work with organizations, research, and reading on how to inject rewards for people who reduce rather than create unnecessary friction, frustration, and fatigue.

Stay tuned. We will let you know what we are learning.

Bob Sutton is a Stanford Professor who studies and writes about leadership, organizational change, and navigating organizational life. Follow me on Twitter @work_matters, and visit my website and posts on LinkedIn. My latest book is The A–hole Survival Guide: How To Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt. Before that, I published Scaling Up Excellence with Huggy Rao. My main focus these days is on working with Huggy Rao to develop strategies and tools that help leaders and teams change their organizations for the better — with a particular focus on organizational friction. Check out my Stanford “FRICTION Podcast” at iTunes or Sticher.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.