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My last couple of blogs have been rather impassioned calls for greater experimentation, freedom and heterogeneity in the way we organise our working lives. Through a nice bit of serendipity, this week sees the release of our new RSA Animate, which echoes this message.

So far the response to my call, and accompanying film has been erm, muted. So as I worried whether I was on a fool's errand I was relieved and intrigued to see an example of what I’m talking about featured on the BBC news website this week.

The article profiles Valve, a leading software development company that prides itself on its maverick organising principles, including: the (apparent) lack of any management hierarchy; freedom for workers to spend their time on whichever projects excite them most; and the combination of loose structures and an entirely flexible workspace to encourage high levels of mobility and fluidity between work teams.

There are no formal HR or management policies, corporate mission statements or guidelines. Just a set of light-hearted rules of thumb, in cartoon form to help employees get the most out of the place.

The flipside of all this internal freedom and devolved responsibility, is Valve’s painstaking and carefully controlled approach to recruiting the ‘right’ sort of people for the Valve culture.

Such intensive recruitment and selection is often a feature of idiosyncratic and highly culture-driven organisations. And here lies the rub. What if instead of a genuinely ‘free’ and ad hoc work organisation, political and cultural control has merely shifted from set of management practices to another?

Work psychologists have long drawn on the theory of person-environment fit to help understand the ways in which organisations come to accept or reject certain sorts of people, as they seek “congruence” between the work environment and the people who inhabit it.

The theory distinguishes between supplementary and complementary fit. Supplementary fit is where new employees and the organisation are well matched because they share similar attributes. Complementary fit, on the other hand, is where newcomers achieve a fit by bringing something extra, new or different that the organisation currently lacks.

The problem is that once organisations evolve dominant working norms people are strongly socialised into these norms and recruitment and selection processes become heavily skewed towards recruiting for sameness rather than difference.

Unless countermeasures are employed the result is an organisation that is unhealthily homogeneous, and therefore prone to groupthink, conservatism and lack of innovation.

The irony is that even maverick organisations like Valve seem to succumb to this congruence trap.  Rebellion and diversity ends up begetting conformity.

The result may be that people with different but complementary styles and attributes get frozen or squeezed out, as one account from a disappointed and disillusioned former Valve employee suggests.

In her account, this ex-employee highlights the hidden sources of power, prestige, hierarchy and control that existed beneath the egalitarian surface rhetoric at organisations like Valve, and the difficulty in trying to exert leverage and influence in an environment that pretended such things had been transcended.

Lots of rationalisations are used in such circumstances to justify tacit forms of exclusion, such as the argument that only certain sorts will do well in particular professions, jobs or organisations. Is that truly because of the nature of the work or because there are subtle and underlying forms of control and dominance hiding beneath the surface? How many people does the search for a ‘good fit’ needlessly exclude, and what long-term consequences does it have for the performance and health of the organisation?

There is a wider issue here. In order to be able to ask such important questions we need to get beneath the rhetoric of organisational life, and see the lived reality, if such a thing is even possible. As I mentioned in my previous blog, anthropological approaches are arguably among those best equipped to do so. But proper organisational ethnography is a time-intensive, costly, uncertain and hence very rare thing.

Why, apart from the inconvenience, is it hard to get beneath the surface, so that we can debate organisational claims openly and critically?

There are many possible reasons, but two become apparent to me as a result of a fascinating conversation I had last week with an organisational consultant called John Oliver, from Human Equity Consulting.

An RSA colleague introduced me to John in the RSA lobby (one of the things I like about this place!) and we got talking. Afterwards he sent me a paper he’d written as a result of extensive research he’d undertaken some years ago into the trajectories of some of the most legendary ‘radical’ organisations (e.g. Semco, St. Luke’s, Oticon). Intrigued by the case studies in his MBA course, he wanted (like me) to find out what made them tick, and how they survived in a world of conventional organisations.

Two points from his interesting findings really stood out:

Firstly, there is a good deal of contemporaneous and retrospective ‘mythologising’ that goes on with respect to these radical organisations. The charismatic founder, CEO or disrupter who forges the distinctive culture becomes iconic, as does the organisation itself. It gets further idealised in the management literature and business school case studies culture, hungry for outliers and hero stories. Such myths create a fog of rhetoric which makes it hard to see the (no less fascinating) lived reality, and contested accounts of lived reality from employees, clients, customers and others.

Secondly, what surprised John when he undertook his original research was the impermanence of these maverick organisations.  In all cases, the ethos and practices of conventional organisations ultimately reasserted themselves, and diluted or rejected the radical model. In the case of St. Luke’s, it was ironically the very success of the radical model which enriched the employees and owners, and which then prompted them to become risk averse, conservative and conventional.

Usually this collapse or suppression of the radical model coincides with, or immediately follows the departure or exclusion of the charismatic inspiration/architect/founder. A period of historical sense-making and revisionism then seems to kick in, when the period of radical upheaval is rationalised as a necessary but no longer relevant part of the natural evolution of the organisation.

So it seems that ‘working wonders’ may be hard to investigate because a) they end up creating exactly the kind of conformist organisations they claim to reject b) they mask their true workings under fashionable discourses, myth, rhetoric and post-rationalisation c) they don’t last long enough to find and study them in depth and d) nobody’s willing to undertake proper, longitudinal, organisational ethnographies to get a rich picture of the reality.

How can we make this easier? We need organisations to be more transparent and reflexive, and that starts with individuals finding ways to question what seems natural, and tell their own stories of organisational life. It's too important to be left to the myth-makers.


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