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Managing the Unmanageable

and Explaining the Unexplainable


Every group inevitably faces some issues not under its control, events
that are intrinsically mysterious and unpredictable and hence frightening. At the physical level, such events as natural disasters and the
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weather require explanation. At the biological level, such events as


birth, growth, puberty, illness, and death require one to have a theory of what is happening and why.
In a culture heavily committed to reason and science, there is a
tendency to treat everything as explainable; the mysterious is only
as yet unexplained. But until science has demystified an event that
we cannot control or understand, we need an alternative basis for
putting what has happened into a meaningful context. Religious
beliefs can provide such a context and can also offer justification for
events that might otherwise seem unfair and meaningless. Superstitions explain the unexplainable and provide guidelines for what
to do in ambiguous, uncertain, and threatening situations. Those
guidelines usually specify and reinforce what is considered heroic
and what is considered sinful, thus creating an ideology that ties
together into a coherent whole the various deeper assumptions of
the culture (see Chapter Seven).
Ideology often contains various myths of origin and stories of
heroic behavior, thus articulating and illustrating some of the overarching values that can serve as a prescription for action in ambiguous situations. In a society that is dominated by religion, ideology
merges with religion. The more the society is based on reason, logic,
and science, the more ideology has a secular base and comes to be
clearly distinguishable from religion.
The organizational equivalent of this general cultural process
tends to occur around critical events in the organizations history,
especially ones that are difficult to explain or justify because they
were not under organizational control. Organizations are capable of
developing the equivalent of religion and/or ideology on the basis
of the manner in which such critical events were managed. Myths
and stories develop around the founding of the company, times
when the company had particular difficulty surviving or an unusual
growth spurt, times when a challenge to core assumptions brought
about a fresh articulation of those assumptions, and times of trans-

formation and change.


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For example, certain individual contributors and managers at


DEC were associated with getting the company out of trouble whenever a severe crisis occurred. Certain processes were viewed almost
superstitiously as the way to get out of trouble. One such process
was to bring together a task force under the leadership of one of these
heroic managers and give that task force complete freedom for a
period of time to work on the problem. Sometimes consultants are
brought into organizations with the same kind of faith that something
constructive will happen as a result of the presence of the outsider.
In a study of the introduction of computerized tomography into
hospital radiology departments, Barley (1984a, 1984b) observed that
if the computer went down at an awkward time, such as when a
patient was in the middle of a scan, the technicians tried all kinds of
remedial measures, including the proverbial kicking of the machine.
If the computer resumed operating, as it did occasionally, the technician carefully documented what he or she had just done and
passed on this knowledge to colleagues, even though there was no
technical or logical basis for it. In a real sense, this was superstitious
behavior, even in a realm in which logical explanation was possible.
Stories and myths about how the organization dealt with key
competitors in the past, how it survived a downturn in the economy,
how it developed a new and exciting product, how it dealt with a
valued employee, and so on not only spell out the basic mission and
specific goals (and thereby reaffirm them) but also reaffirm the organizations picture of itself, its own theory of how to get things done
and how to handle internal relationships (Dandridge, Mitroff, and
Joyce, 1980; Koprowski, 1983; Martin, 1982; Mitroff and Kilmann,
1975, 1976; Ouchi, 1981; Pettigrew, 1979; Wilkins, 1983).
For example, a story widely circulated about Hewlett-Packard
is that during a severe recession no one was laid off because management and hourly people alike were willing to work shorter hours
for less pay, thus enabling the company to cut its costs without cutting people. The lesson to be derived is the affirmation of strong
values around people (Ouchi, 1981). A similar story is told at DEC
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about the rehabilitation of a key engineer who was associated


with several important projects, all of which failed. Instead of firing
him, the companyreaffirming its core assumption that if someone
fails, it is because he or she is mismatched with the jobfound an
assignment for him in which he could succeed and once again
become a hero. Buried in this story is also the assumption that individuals count and any person whom the company has hired is by
definition competent.
A story from DECs early history concerns an engineer who was
sent to the West Coast to repair some equipment. He caught the
midnight plane but did not have time to pack any clothing. The
work took a week, requiring the engineer to buy clothing, which he
duly charged to the company. When the accounting department
refused to approve the charge, the engineer threatened to quit. Ken
Olsen heard about this and severely punished the accounting department, thereby reaffirming the companys dedication to technical values and to its highly motivated technical employees.
An organizations ideology in this context can be any of several
things. Sometimes it is the conscious component of the total set of
assumptions that make up the culture. Sometimes it is a set of rationalizations for essentially unexplained or superstitious behavior.
Sometimes ideology reflects ideals and future aspirations as well as
current realities and thereby functions as a guide and incentive system for members. Ideologies often involve statements about the core
mission, the goals, the preferred means for accomplishing them, and
the preferred set of relationships among organizational members.
Ideologies often are partially stated in formal company documents as the organizations key values. They are likely to be embodied in company charters, annual reports, and orientation and training
materials, but in this form they are often merely a list of espoused values and may not even make up a coherent ideology. Only when there
are stories supporting the values and when the underlying assumptions behind the values are articulated can one determine what the
substance of the ideology really is.
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Through stories, parables, and other forms of oral or written history, an organization can communicate its ideology and basic
assumptionsespecially to newcomers, who need to know what is
important not only in abstract terms but by means of concrete

examples that can be emulated. Even in this domain, however, the


point of a story or parable may not be clear until insiders in the culture explain the meaning to the newcomer. Published ideologies
and philosophies are, therefore, little more than cultural artifacts
that are easy to see but hard to decipher.

Summary and Conclusions


Every group must learn how to become a group. The process is not
automatic; in fact, it is complex and multifaceted. Humans, being
what they are, must deal with a finite and describable set of issues
in any new group situation. At the most basic level they must
develop a common language and category system that clearly define
what things mean. Formal languages do not specify with enough
precision what
work, teamwork, respect, quality,
and so on mean.
Groups must reach consensus on the boundaries of the group, who
is in and who is not in. They must develop consensus on how to distribute influence and power so that aggression can be constructively
channeled and formal status accurately determined. They must
develop rules that define peer relationships and intimacy so that
love and affection can be appropriately channeled.
Groups must develop clear assumptions about what is a reward
and what is a punishment so that group members can decipher how
they are doing. And finally, groups must develop explanations that
help members deal with unpredictable and unexplainable events
the functional equivalents of religion, mythology, and ideology.
The assumptions that develop around these issues constitute
along with the assumptions about mission, goals, means, results detection, and correction mechanismsa set of dimensions along which
one can study and describe a culture. These are not necessarily the
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only dimensions one could use, but they have the advantage of
being tied to a large body of research on groups and they permit one
to begin to get a sense of the dynamics of culturehow cultural
assumptions begin and evolve. They also represent a conceptual
grid into which one can sort the cultural data that one observes.
Ultimately, what makes it possible for people to function comfortably with each other and to concentrate on their primary task is
a high degree of consensus on the management of the issues dis-

cussed in this chapter. If internal issues are not settled, if people are
preoccupied with their position and identity, if they are insecure, if
they do not know the rules of the game and therefore cannot predict or understand what is going on, they cannot concentrate on
the important survival issues the group may face. On the other
hand, the confrontation of survival issues most often is the critical
stimulus that creates rapid consensus around the internal integration issues.
The internal integration and external adaptation issues are thus
interdependent. The environment sets limits on what the organization can do, but within those limits not all solutions will work
equally well. Feasible solutions are also limited by the characteristics
of the members of the group. The culture that eventually evolves in
a particular organization is thus a complex outcome of external pressures, internal potentials, responses to critical events, and, probably
to some unknown degree, chance factors that could not be predicted
from a knowledge of either the environment or the members. I have
tried to identify the common issues that every new group faces, recognizing that the manner in which those issues are dealt with will
result in a unique outcome.
Leadership comes into play once again as the original source of
ideas or the original behavioral models that are then tested against
the internal and external environments. Norms, rules, languages,
reward systems, and so on do not come out of thin air; nor is it sufficient to say, as some sociologists argue, that such things are enacted by and result from the interaction of members. This is true but
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insufficient by itself. In any group situation, some members will be


more active than others and will propose verbally or by example
how things should be. These acts of leadership can come from different members at different times, but they are always there in some
form. As we will see in later chapters, leader behavior by group
founders plays a major role in how the group evolves. In the meantime, the culture categories identified so far can again serve as a
kind of checklist to enable leaders to assess their own behavio