Saturday, May 18, 2013

Functional stupidity and the corporate rebel

The prestigious Journal of Management published an article in November 2012 called “A stupidity-based theory of organizations” which defined a new interesting term: functional stupidity. Functional stupidity can be defined as follows:

Functional stupidity is organizationally-supported lack of reflexivity, substantive reasoning and justification by hierarchically structured organizations to avoid disintegration (or at least avoid internal friction) and it refers to an absence of reflection and refusal to justify certain decisions, forms of stupidity management repress or marginalize doubt and block communicative action. Members of these organizations are only allowed to work within well defined boundaries and are encouraged only to focus on specific tasks without questioning why.

This seems to be quite contradictory with the contemporary view upon organizations which claims that modern organizations are knowledge intensive and that organizations can only survive when they get the best out of their key asset, their employees.

Short-term use of intellectual resources, consensus and an absence of disquieting questions about decisions and structures may oil the organizational machinery and contribute to harmony and increased productivity in a company,” Mats Alvesson, professor of organization studies, and one of the co-authors, writes. “However, it may also be its downfall.” One of the consequences of functional stupidity is killing innovation and evolution through learning.

The articles also outlines a number of behaviors which are typical of functional stupidity. It also seems that larger organizations are more prone to it. I think this has to do with the fact that they typically boil down their objectives into specific targets which should be attained without question. These objectives and they way of working is often backed by hierarchies, bureaucratic rules and a extremely well documented processes.

I think that at times it is a good thing to question the obvious, be a corporate rebel (Check out for some interesting insights and thoughts or read the Rebels at work: motivated to make a difference e-book) and stir up new ideas that often are uncomfortable for the powers that be. Rebel for the ideas that you believe will make a difference because it is all to easy to find a reason not to change.

To finish of, a quote from Marc Buelens, professor at Vlerick Business School, which he added to his article in Trends magazine (Functioneel onwetend, de aantrekkingskracht van veilige paden, 21 maart 2013):

Functional stupidity provides a lot of comfort to management, but together these useful idiots can do quite a lot of stupid things.

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