Dust to dust.

The people consulting me on writing my book "Mittelmaß und Wahnsinn" (Mediocrity and Madness) tended to urge me towards providing THE ANSWER. "It's easy to see what's going wrong but that's of no avail. We have to look forward, not back!" is a very common notion in today's corporate meeting rooms. The immediate question that arises from that notion is: if it is so easy to see what is wrong, why do we not change our behaviours? -- If for example, we are so annoyed with our back-to-back meeting culture and the inefficiency of these meetings, why do we not meet less, shorter and more efficient?

Look forward, stupid

The second and more general response to that notion is: you don't look forward if you don't understand the past. Well, that's what historians and teachers tell us once and again; -- without much success, admittedly. Striving to gain a thorough understanding of what does not work is somewhat under-appreciated today but it actually is key to discovering what might work. A physicist's example: only the thorough falsification of the (somewhat etherial) ether-theory paved the way for Einstein's theory of relativity.

The third and also general response is that quite possibly THE (simple) ANSWER does not exist, that the desperate desire for simple answers just falls short of reality (this is not to say that there would not be enough answers that are unnecessarily overcomplicated). Some problems do not have unique answers. Some problems do not have simple answers. Building walls for instance might fall short of solving the problems of 21st century migration. And as much as I would like to write a book with the title "AI for Dummies", it might not meet the expectations.

Thus, the book tries to not neglect the questions about what is going wrong in our big organisations. Well, there are plenty of ideas for -- significant -- change in there, too. And we'll discuss some later in this series of essays. For today, though, let's wallow in a another example of dysfunctions. The chapter "Clone wars" deals with the rituals we have built around a specific type of resource: the human one.


"A special chapter is the annual employee survey. In -- depending on your company -- 50 to 150 questions, the current sentiment amongst employees is supposed to being fathomed. From very general questions ("How's your satisfaction as employee as such?") the survey drills deeper. The enquiry goes into your satisfaction with your salary, the efficiency of collaboration with colleagues and managers, how processes work in your department ... . In recent years, questions have been added about values, diversity, work-life balance etc. .

If anything deserves to be called a ritual in our companies, it is this exercise. After activation of the survey on the company's intranet, the race about participation rates begins. Scoreboards are being kept and published, roll calls from different levels of management are flooding the mailboxes, collective and supervised sessions to fill the forms aren't completely unheard of. Everything, to allegedly get feedback as broad based and objective as possible.

What follows is a brief period of evaluation and the attempt as desperate as vain to find a consistent interpretation of the results. To that end, answers from different categories are condensed into indices with funny names like "engagement value", "collaboration coefficient", "leadership quality level" or "work-life balance index". Changes over previous year's results or deviations from the global average are highlighted in red or green. In the management meetings dealing with the topic, those managers who appear too often on the red side of the list, are called to see to improvements.

Spin doctoring

Collectively, they try to spin the message in a way that doesn't shed a negative light on the department. Reasons why the results aren't fully meaningful are plenty: restructuring, personnel changes, changes in strategy ... . How exactly every of these reasons works into the results is unclear (which is actually part of the fundamental problem). The fact that it has an influence can hardly be disputed. Thus the interpretation is purely in the eye of the beholder. Of course, there is also some serious effort to understand the results but that is -- again -- more often than not rather complex and has nothing to do with funny indices and traffic lights.

Finally, the most dreadful phase: largely regardless of statistical significance and substantial relevance, action plans for the (red) categories have to be devised. These are being tracked centrally. Progress is continually monitored and reported to the top management. An ordeal for employees and managers alike. I stopped believing in the procedure for good when we had exceptional results on following up the previous years' results but a significant change for the worse in the very categories we had followed up. In the same survey!

Always and everywhere

The results are always the same anywhere and anyhow:

  • Communication needs to be improved
  • Performance evaluation and salary are not very satisfactory
  • Collaboration, processes and tools call for improvement, especially beyond the own area
  • A desire for more innovation (that presumably does not mean innovation as such but a desire for more support to bring individual ideas into action)

Ah, yes, and: 'We do not properly celebrate success!' "

Actually, there is more to that topic in the book but you get the gist. Which brings us back to the call for answers from the beginning of this post. Sometimes the answer might be just stopping doing something ... but that is a tough one if it comes to rituals.

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