Managing the Unmanageable and Explaining the Unexplainable

Every group inevitably faces some issues not under its control, events that are intrinsically mysterious and unpredictable and hence frightening. At the physical level, events such as natural disasters and the weather require explanation. At the biological and social level, events such as birth, growth, puberty, illness, and death require a theory of what is happening and why in order to avoid anxiety and a sense of meaninglessness.

In a macroculture heavily committed to reason and science, there is a tendency to treat everything as explainable; the mysterious is only as yet unexplained. But until science has demystified an event that we cannot control or understand, we need an alternative basis for putting what has happened into a meaningful context. Religious beliefs can provide such a context and can also offer justification for events that might otherwise seem unfair and meaningless. Superstitions explain the unexplainable and provide guidelines for what to do in ambiguous, uncertain, and threatening situations.

Superstitions and myths tend to form around critical events in the organization ’s history, especially ones that are difficult to explain or jus­tify because they were not under organizational control. Organizations are capable of developing the equivalent of religion and/or ideology on the basis of the manner in which past critical events were managed. Myths and stories develop around the founding of the company, times when the com­pany had particular difficulty surviving or an unusual growth spurt, times when a challenge to core assumptions brought about a fresh articulation of those assumptions, and times of transformation and change.

For example, certain individual contributors and managers at DEC were associated with getting the company out of trouble whenever a severe crisis occurred. Certain processes were viewed almost superstitiously as “the way” to get out of trouble. One such process was to bring together a task force under the leadership of one of these heroic managers and give that task force complete freedom for a period of time to work on the prob­lem. The ideology of “growth” became an automatic solution to various here-and-now problems and the positive feedback from a small number of special customers overrode other kinds of market information. Sometimes consultants are brought into organizations with the same kind of faith that something constructive will happen as a result of the mere presence of the outsider.

In a study of the introduction of computerized tomography into hos­pital radiology departments, Barley (1984a, 1984b) observed that if the computer went down at an awkward time, such as when a patient was in the middle of a scan, the technicians tried all kinds of remedial measures, including the proverbial kicking of the machine. If the computer resumed operating, as it did occasionally, the technician carefully documented what he or she had just done. When engineering arrived on the scene, it was made very clear to the technicians that what they had done had “no conceivable connection” to the computer’s coming back up, yet this “knowledge” was carefully written down in a little notebook and passed on to new colleagues as part of their training. In a real sense, this was superstitious behavior, even in a realm in which logical explanation was possible.

Stories and myths not only explain the unexplainable but also affirm the organization’s picture of itself, its own theory of how to get things done, and how to handle internal relationships (Hatch and Schultz, 2004; Pettigrew, 1979; Wilkins, 1983). For example, a story widely circulated about Hewlett-Packard is that during a severe recession no one was laid off because management and hourly people alike were willing to work shorter hours for less pay, thus enabling the company to cut its costs without cutting people. The lesson to be derived is the affirmation of strong values around people (Ouchi, 1981). A similar story is told at DEC about the “rehabilita­tion” of a key engineer who was associated with several important projects, all of which failed. Instead of firing him, the company—reaffirming its core assumption that if someone fails, it is because he or she is mismatched with the job—found an assignment for him in which he could succeed and once again become a hero. Buried in this story is also the assumption that indi­viduals count and any person whom the company has hired is by definition competent.

A story from DEC’s early history concerns an engineer who was sent to the West Coast to repair some equipment. He caught the midnight plane but did not have time to pack any clothing. The work took a week, requir­ing him to buy clothing, which he duly charged to the company. When the accounting department refused to approve the charge, the engineer threatened to quit. Ken Olsen heard about this and severely punished the accounting department, thereby reaffirming the company’ s dedication to technical values and to its highly motivated technical employees.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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