Observation on management (2)

When problems arise in companies there are roughly two paradigms that are used to explain what went wrong: you could call them the structuralist and the individualist one.

Structuralists consider the company structure as the main cause of anything that may go wrong, regardless of the personal abilities and capabilities of those who inhabit the structure. If too many problems arise, it’s time to adjust the company structure.

Individualists see personal actions as the main cause: if something has gone wrong, someone took the wrong decision. That implies the right decision was a possibility.

Naturally, individualists assign greater weight to personal responsibility, whereas structuralists tend to view employees -at least partly- as the ‘victims’ of company structure.

The individualist stance seems to attract more supporters than the structuralist one. This has two obvious reasons. Personal abilities and capabilities do have an effect on company performance, regardless of structure. The structuralist viewpoint only starts to be really ‘true’ at extremes like: ‘a single boss cannot possibly handle two hundred employees on his own’. In any less extreme case it is a very useful fallacy at best, but that nuance escapes most people.

Secondly, after the deplorable fact it is always possible to find some action that could have prevented things going wrong or that would not have caused the mishap that did occur (lets leave those that could have aside). This is a simple artifact of two things: hindsight and keep thinking until you’re there, i.e. until you’ve found the action that should have been… In companies, this usually means: communication. ‘If I had been told’, ‘If you had informed’, ‘If they had clarified’ are the phrases most often heard during an evaluation.

But the fact that something could have prevented the problem doesn’t mean that its lack is the cause. Headaches aren’t caused by an aspirin-deficiency. The individualist viewpoint has a fundamental flaw: it can only be true when looking backward and given sufficient amounts of rationalisation. Having said that, aspirin could of course have prevented the headache, so here’s my very own Management Law Number 3:

Better communication could always have prevented the problem.

And its corollary:

‘We should have communicated better’ says nothing about the causes, nor about the solutions of the problem.

I said this earlier in other words.


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