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Nov 30, 2018

The unrealistic expectations of perfection

If you want to be constantly disappointed, expect perfection from people, or from yourself. Human beings, on average are messy, slow, prone to forgetting, misunderstanding each other, not nearly smart enough for the projects they undertake, and in general woefully ineffective. Human beings make mistakes all the time. Everyone know that, of course. Now, when humans get together in complex organizations, how do you think they do: better than individuals, worse, or about the same?

It is actually an interesting question. Any organization devotes much of its resources to compensating for weaknesses of its prime element, us. Organizations put in place procedures where people and machines check and recheck what people do, guide their work with policies and procedures, analyze the workflows, and ensure compliance with various rules. Every time I sign a paper in my office – it is to have one more pair of eyes to check if half dozen people before me did not miss something. That is what bureaucracies are: they are tools to prevent and correct human imperfections. So you would expect organizations do fewer errors than an average human being would.

Actually, no, because all this machinery to prevent human errors creates a new layer of opportunities for errors. For example, quality control procedures can slow down processes, and lend to failure through slowness. A rule that is meant to correct human error encounters a case that does not fit it, and makes a mistake by trying to do the right thing. Organizations are not perfect either. If you start digging, you will find evidence of some mess everywhere. Policies and procedures routinely contradict each other; some are routinely ignored or misunderstood. Some organizational aspects are over-regulated while others under-regulated. No one can keep track of all that is going on; the division of labor creates certain blind spots to larger systemic problems. And remember, the basic elements of the organization are still the same species of intelligent apes, who continue to err, sometimes multiplying several small errors into one giant screw-up. In my estimation, a large-size organization does a little worse than its typical member in terms of errors. Of course, good ones can be a bit better, and bad ones, accordingly, a little worse.

Funny, people who work in different industries tend to ascribe the institutional messiness to their own segment or even to their individual institutions (especially if they work there all their lives and have little opportunities to compare). A friend told me about the absurd world of a large (and actually very successful) corporation marveling at how this bag of screw-ups can actually function. Another friend is convinced that only universities can be that bad. People from different levels of government will blame the government on organizational discord. The military has its own brand of self-deprecating jokes about the stupidity of military organizations. The “well-oiled machine” is a fantasy; it does not exist anywhere where an organization is large enough.

This does not mean we have to take all imperfections as fait accompli. There are always ways to improve, to streamline, and to simplify. Just don’t get mad. You should not get mad at a dog for its inability to talk, should you? In the same logic, do not get mad at an organization that is confusing, messy, and imperfect. That is the nature of the beast, not just its flaw. A good strategy is to be patient and persistent, fix what you can, and not lose sight of the mission.

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