Fourteen ways to get things wrong...


  • Social brain

So, back to cultural theory. Each of CT’s paradigms (hierarchy, egalitarianism, individualism and fatalism) derives its dynamism primarily from its contest with the others. This is crucial. It explains why people often find it easier to explain their approach by contrasting it with the others rather than in terms of its own virtues.

For example, neo-liberals make their political case less through advocacy of individualism and more through a sophisticated critique of hierarchy (producer capture theory of the state) and egalitarianism (public choice theory as a critique of collectivism). More importantly still, the inherent conflict between the paradigms means it is impossible to create an enduring synthesis; they are always in tension, like repelling magnets.

Yet, the best context for the emergence of sustainable solutions to organisational and policy challenges is to allow all three active paradigms to be in play, tapping into the energy that each has to offer and managing the capacity of each to disrupt the solutions of the others. While the fatalist perspective may not be active in the search for solutions, it is important to factor in its inevitable existence.

If clumsy solutions require all four paradigms to be at play (or, in the case of fatalism, recognised) there are logically fourteen ways in which the organisational culture can be sub optimal.

Four monocultures – in which a single mode is dominant. This situation is likely to be characterised by intensity, volatility and spectacular collapse. An example might be the recent hegemony of unbridled individualism in the City.

Six limited cultures – in which two modes are present but two absent. These cultures are at best ineffective and at worst deluded. An example might be the combination of hierarchy and egalitarianism mobilised behind the Kyoto Accord. The failure in this case to engage with individualism or fatalism meant the ideals of the Accord’s architects and champions were unlikely to be translated into action.

Four exclusive cultures - in which one mode is absent. This mode can be reasonably stable whilst also being sub-optimal. One example is bureaucratic public services which rest on hierarchy, seek to exploit egalitarianism (the public service ethos) and rely - as do all organisations - on endemic fatalism, but which fail to mobilise individualism (not merely in the form of self interest but also initiative, risk taking and creativity).     

We’ve been having a lively and thoughtful conversation about CT on the comment pages of the site. In response to today’s blog, I would love to hear some other examples from you of these sub-optimal solutions.

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