“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
We're immersed in a culture of more where the loudest conversation on growth is to acquire, accumulate, buy, consume in larger quantities, and get bigger rather than get better — we seem to think there's an infinite number of choices. But more choices don't translate into better outcomes. In fact, the opposite is the case. Greater choice paralyzes us and makes us poor strategists.
When we're called to make decisions of consequence, more creates confusion, it buries signal under a mountain of noise, where options become a distraction and a delaying tactic that prevents us from making clarity around why and what should be our course of action.
Focus is better, but focus is hard. Focus is an art we need to cultivate. In The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, psychologist Barry Schwartz says the central tenet of western societies — freedom of choice — has not made us freer and happier but rather more stuck and dissatisfied. Knowing which one is a product of figuring out what is suitable for our path.
More for the sake of more also means we've lost the ability to say when enough is enough. The idea that we can rely on more resources, more people, and more customers lulls us into complacency in using the resources we already have judiciously and not taking people for granted — both employees and customers. There isn't an infinite supply of either.
Henry Mitzberg says# that in our quest for grabbing more to please the stock market, we end up getting used to not having an ounce of concern about the consequences of seeing people as means to an end. More has made us less human:
In March of 2015, a deranged pilot flew a Germanwings airplane into the face of a mountain, murdering 150 people. Just over a month later, a New York Times article reported from a shareholders’ meeting that “at a time when Lufthansa faces urgent commercial challenges…many shareholders expressed concern...that the Germanwings tragedy risks detracting management from its turnaround efforts.”
One portfolio manager claimed that Lufthansa management “will have to come back to reality.” The murder of 150 people was apparently a distraction; reality is getting back to managing Value for the shareholders.
Growth for the sake of growth doesn't care for the shortcuts organizations might need to take to get there, as long as we “keep feeding the beast.” A road traveled accumulating, mining, exploiting, and using up leads to having less of the things deep down we say we value — time, patience, integrity, respect.
Often instead of solving problems, a culture that drives for more at all costs creates new problems — at a faster rate than it solves them. “Problems are concepts,” says# Dr. Russell Ackoff. “They are to reality as an atom to the table.”
We experience the whole of reality, not just isolated pieces. Reality is a system of problems. Analysis is the process of isolating the problem from reality, and by virtue of us doing that, the problem loses essential properties of reality, like its context.
Ackoff says we have four ways of solving problems:
- absolution — hope it will solve itself
- resolution — satisfice, go for good enough
- problem solving — take a research-based, qualitative, and experiential course of action. With this approach, every solution creates new problems, harder than the old ones.
- problem dissolution — redesign the system that has the problem so it no longer has reason to exist
When we talk about design, we talk about thinking through the whole system of how things need to go together for it to work. In a system, we never modify a part unless it makes the whole better. Hence when we try to optimize we should pay attention to what we're measuring. Measure for performance and we miss contribution to the whole.
Only through design we can deal with the whole system. Culture is a system, and in organizations we design it based on positive and negative reinforcement along two axes — solidarity and sociability. What holds the modern company together:
is an outcome of how people relate to one another. Businesses rest on patterns of social interaction that sustain them over time or are their undoing. They are built on shared interests and mutual obligations and thrive on cooperation and friendships.
In Why Should Anyone be Lead by You? BBC director of HR and internal communications Gareth Jones and Rob Goffee, London Business School organizational behavior professor examine culture using the lens of sociology. There are generally two types of human relationships: 1./ those governed by sociability, which is led by the heart; 2./ and those bound by solidarity, which is led by the mind.
Based on the degree of each we have four different organizational cultures — networked, mercenary, fragmented, and communal. The authors don't ascribe judgement to each type, they only note consequences of encouraging one aspect over the other based on circumstances.
More sociability can develop into cliques and informal, behind-the-scenes networks that may circumvent or, even undermine process. Solidarity also has its costs as companies may ride on a bad strategy with great efficiency right onto a cliff.
More for the sake of more is thus a slippery slope, even as it is the road more traveled. The riskiest moves of all, say Jones and Goffee, are those that attempt to become a better fit for their environment:
Our research suggests that over the last decade, a number of large, well-established companies with strong traditions of loyalty and collegiality have been forced, mostly through competitive threat, to move from the networked to the mercenary form.
To describe the process as tricky does not do it justice. It is perhaps one of the most complex and risk-laden changes a manager can face.
A symptom of measuring for performance rather than contribution to the whole is that everything becomes a mandate for growth for the sake of growth. Beliefs and not empirical evidence take center stage, especially when the data tells us something we don't want to hear. In this scenario, every solution creates new problems, harder than the old ones.
Culture is not a homogeneous system. There may be significant differences between groups and departments as well as management levels. Which presents an additional challenge when the context changes. In the current market construct, more comes with pressure to keep escalating.
When valuation becomes the only form of value, values take a hit. “The answers are all too easy,” says Mintzberg — exploit, trash, cut, squeeze, diversify. All things that make people less — less valuable, valued, and value-driven:
(1) Exploit the existing customers. Bamboozle pricing is a good idea—customers can’t figure it out. Or how about reducing quality, to get MORE by giving less? You can also charge excessively for servicing the products that your customers are stuck with.
(2) There is one old idea you can use to bring in new customers: Trash the brand. Sell to those who were not willing to pay for the high-end products of which you used to be so proud. In other words, cash in your legacy, quick!
(3) If you can’t increase the revenues, then you can certainly cut the costs: cut maintenance, cut research, cut everything out of sight, except the executive perks.
(4) And don’t forget to squeeze the workers, by putting them on short-term contracts at lower pay, without benefits. Better still, fire the whole lot of them and produce off-shore.
(5) And when all else fails: Diversify. Get into all kinds of new businesses you don’t understand. So what: you’re big now, with lots of money to throw at them.
This is how dysfunctional cultures are born. Culture impacts the decisions we make and it becomes visible in the experience we provide. Organizations where parts are modified without a thought as to the whole forget who the real customers are. And spare parts hardly make a whole.
Designing a culture that dissolves problems rather than creating new ones starts with quality above quantity, whole before parts, and evidence. Organizations that respond well to change let the reality speak its own truth by being curious about the context of how situations arise.
These kind of organizations use findings to reshape expectation rather than being slaves to them. They're the companies that:
- get back on their feet after a setback
- rise above obstacles that might have stymied success
- stand up for their values or beliefs in spite of the effect this might have on the bottom line
- choose to put the needs of humanity before their needs for revenue
What holds companies together is the whole. When problems arise, rather than looking just at building solutions, which may be temporary in lieu of addressing the relationships within the system, we should look at the system that generated the problem.
There isn't one discipline that owns the problem, says Ackoff. Disciplines are labels we use, a filing system for knowledge. They describe the point of view of the person looking at the problem, but not how the problem came about. To dissolve the problem, we want to explore different points of view to find the right combination.
People are not the disciplines whose POV they represent, they're whole human beings with more experience and competence in a field and interests and knowledge in others. The modern insistence on “fit” on existing culture based on specialization, sometimes extreme, overlooks how vital it's become to dissolve problems as a way of solving them.
We keep solving more problems, trying to do it faster before the next harder problem comes about. Without bringing our whole selves to work, we can hardly engage in the act of design inside the organization. Fragmentation is why our capacity to do important work today pales in comparison with those who came before us. The role of culture may be the reason why polymaths are rare today.