Most of my career has been in corporate staff positions. Right out of college, I was a newspaper copy editor for nine months. From 2000 to 2003 I was a freelance consultant. And from 2003 to 2004 I worked as the communications director for an urban school district. The rest of my career – a total approaching 35 years – has been in corporate environments.
Corporate staff jobs have been essentially control positions, expressions by an organization to control its environment. (This goes back to the mass production model of business mostly associated with Henry Ford and the automobile, but that’s another story). Corporate lawyers, IT staffs, HR people, PR people and similar functions have been about control – controlling or mitigating external events and regulating and standardizing internal processes. The idea is an organization does all these activities to help its businesses be efficient as successful.
Whether any organization could ever control its environment is open to debate. Even if it’s possible, control is usually of short duration. No organization can control its environment permanently – but it can act and function like it has the ability to do that. And that leads to what Ellen Langer in Mindfulness would call mindlessness on the job.
Organizational mindsets are, collectively, the organization’s culture. They are often self-sustaining as behaviors are rewarded or penalized and as people of like minds are identified and prepared for leadership.
When it works, such a culture can be rewarding for all concerned – executives, employees, customers, investors, vendors and all the other various constituencies. When it doesn’t work, a culture of control can still function like it does work, but requiring changes in how different social, economic and political realities are understood and acted upon.
I’ve told a version of this story before, but aspects of it apply to the discussion here. In the mid-1990s, I asked the IT department for help in creating the company’s first web site. I didn’t get laughed at, but I was politely refused. “The web is a flash in the pan,” I was told. “It’s like 8-track tapes. You’ll be wasting your money.” This was the clincher: “The future is not the web; the future is Lotus Notes.”
The person who told me that sincerely believed what he was saying. Behind the statement were very large investments the IT organization had made in Lotus Notes, including a lot of money and a lot of people (mostly programmers). It was, in other words, a “vested interest.” Because of the resources committed, no alternative would be, or could be, considered.
Within months, the folly of that commitment had become clear. The web turned out not to be a flash in the pan; in fact, Lotus Notes was beginning to look a lot like 8-track tapes. A new CIO arrived from outside the company, asked who was in charge of web development, and was told “well, there is this guy in PR.”
Yet the commitment to Lotus Notes remained stubbornly in place. After a few years of growing dissatisfaction, a “web front-end” was added to make the system work more like the web. It didn’t work very well. In the meantime, ignoring the web as a corporate activity allowed people all over the company to pursue whatever they wanted to pursue with web sites – and eventually more than 500 were created.
It took more than a decade (and a lot of money), but eventually the company abandoned Lotus Notes. There was a brief revival when it was renamed Domino, but the only result was a new name.
Mindlessness can exist in all kinds of ways and in all kinds of work. Langer describes quite a few examples, although she misses the “vested interest” cause of mindlessness.
My own area of focus – corporate communications – is not immune. When change comes to any control function, it can be resisted, and often bitterly resisted. When the change prevails, it invariably comes from outside the function.
And that leads to another potentially destructive mindset – that good ideas only come from the outside. A lot of bad ideas can come from the outside, too.
We need a better way to do these things.