In praise of the ‘fat’ organization

John Higgins and Mark Cole

We don’t intend here to go down the road of body shaming, but we do think most organizations are just a bit…thin.

They’ve been ‘leaned’, got ‘beach body ready’ by a managerial discourse that sees ‘fat’ purely through a negative lens – ignoring its biological and metaphorical role as a source and store of energy, an often tasty larder to be drawn on as and when needed.

This idealised and emaciated organizational form is hard at it on the treadmill, 24/7, always being sweated – with no time to kick-back, talk, think or have a genial meal. In tandem with this, both causally and consequently, contracts have replaced messy, time-consuming relationships. In the shady world of contracted outsourcing, we are reminded of De Morgan’s 19th Century rhyme, which declares,

‘Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum.
And the great fleas themselves, in turn, have greater fleas to go on;
While these again have greater still, and greater still, and so on.’

This graphic poetic vision speaks volumes about modern organisational life beyond the fuzzy layering of compulsory competitive tendering. It resonates with how we see hierarchy playing out in corporate contexts: everyone – regardless of their seniority – experiences being in their own “torn middle”, to borrow Barry Oshry’s superb insight.

The question of control

Even in contexts where there is a heavy emphasis on the relative autonomy of the workforce, it remains the case that everyone in the stack has someone or some contract breathing down their respective necks – and the tendency is merely to channel that hot breath down to those below. Unlike storms in nature, which run their course and blow themselves out, the gusts move up the Beaufort Scale as they drop from layer to layer.

To return to the great fleas and little fleas of outsourcing, each contract being subcontracted serves to render any question of influencing the agents in these meshes of commercial connection largely impossible; there is no line of sight for someone seeking to manage these arrangements, as it zig-zags through myriad formal arrangements. The outsourcing fetish extends beyond the delivery of practical services that have to be market tested; senior leaders can be seen to be outsourcing their thinking to a range of professional services companies and so-called “thought leaders”.

All of this leads us to suggest that ‘Command and Control’ has been replaced with ‘Contract and Control’, but with little evidence of control, where the distraction of myriad fragmented contractual arrangements prevent managers being able to influence what they can see going on in front of their eyes.

With everyone trapped in their own little rock and hard place niche in the corporate structure, regardless of how rarefied their position might be in that groaning hierarchy, the up-and-down of managerial oversight and instruction can also be argued to have morphed from “command and control” to the more insidious practice of “demand and control”. This reflects the fact that modern leadership discourse promotes the idea that we need to be weaned off the traditional notion of command, where someone “upstairs” has a responsibility to tell people what to do.

Doing business in a liberal democracy means that it is frowned upon to merely stand red-faced, bellowing your orders at the workforce – although it is noteworthy that this grotesque sort of behaviour does still exist, as a colleague of Mark’s so pointedly described in terms of a recent job they managed to just about endure before being unceremoniously and unfairly shown the door. The fiction of each of us in society being sovereign individuals, entitled to speak freely and endowed with free will, withers under scrutiny in our corporate settings.

Hence, it is vital that the workplace bolsters that illusion and denies us the space and time to explore the tension between our actual day to day experience of the persistence of something vaguely feudal in the context of contemporary work and the ideology that endlessly susurrates in our organisations about involvement, engagement, and empowerment.

A new modality

The “Death of the Directive” simply means that some other mechanism of control must be brought forward. If the leaders in our organisations are now denied the opportunity to shout down the line to make things happen – for the sake of ideological disguise of the brute relations that underpin corporate life, in terms of the power that courses through these structures – there is a need for the modality of that power to adjust.

Bill Lumbergh, the master of “demand-and-control” (Office Space, 1999). You can find a selection of painful clips from the film HERE.

Hence, from the torn middle, sitting within an environment of contracts within contracts within contracts, leaders cannot command things to happen in the world, if this picture was anything other than a convenient and plausible fiction. Instead, they assert themselves by making demands in respect to updates, reports and data. This material, after all, is the currency of modern management – even though it has no substantive exchange value in the real world. It is pulled up from the frontline of the business and is used to buy off those sitting above you, with their fiery breath, their own scorched necks, and their basic human need to be perceived to be adding value.

Whenever the two of us advocate a way out of this, which usually involves some form of collective dialogue and inquiry, the people who have brought us in suck their teeth and point out that people are too busy already (compiling reports, collecting data, doing the job that used to be done by two or more), and won’t have the time to come together and ‘shoot the breeze.’ Instead, the people who put the organization onto this starvation diet and contractual excess are brought in again, to do the thinking on behalf of the organization – maybe implant a gastric band, and contracted diet plan, to overcome the hunger pangs.

And their thinking is stuck in a fantasy of pure reason, where all organization life can be perfectly known, measured and planned for. Everything can be run as if by clockwork, or by an invisible hand – the result being the horror of the scripted call-centre where both parties, caller and callee, find themselves in a danse macabre of anti-service. This reality is now being even more grimly realised through on-line auto-bots, even less in-tune with the actuality of what is really going on for people.

Beheading the monster

The pursuit of pure efficiency and agility has created a monster that is modern organizational life. This monster has impotency in its DNA. There is the impotent executive suite, hamstrung by the complexities of contractual and regulatory fragmentation – where responsibility and accountability slide away, falling into the gap that used to be filled by goodwill and functioning chains of command. At the most senior and junior levels all are caught in an impossibly fragmented web, which cannot operate as a systemic whole because of the mass of legally enforceable contractual circuit-breakers that have been put in place.

No one meant this to happen, but it has – and to do something about it means letting go of habits of mind that have created blind faith in an excess of conceptual intelligence and contractual rationalism.

Time, then, for workplaces to put on a bit of weight, take on a bit of sustenance and explore the tension around command, demand and the need for control!

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