I’m with Stupid

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I used to manage a bookstore for a major chain. This was back in the dark ages before you could get any book in the world delivered to your door with the click of a mouse. In those days, if you wanted a book that wasn’t in stock, the bookstore would generally have to order it for you.

We were implementing a new book-ordering system, and a large group of district managers were discussing what we should tell customers when the asked about an order in transit. Should we give them an exact arrival date? Should we say the book is on order? Should we say the book will arrive shortly? The debate went on for more than an hour. Finally, the President stood up and said, “We will tell them ‘It’s on the way’.” Debate over. Meeting adjourned.

People who work in book retail are readers. They tend to be smart. Many have advanced degrees, and although these degrees are generally impractical (Medieval Literature, for example, has been of very little use in making a living, unless you are a tenured professor) obtaining them requires the ability to use analytical and critical thinking. So it’s no surprise that something as simple as what to say to a customer who is inquiring about a book order would turn into a discussion to rival the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Even though there were a number of “right” answers to this question, and any one of them would have been just fine.

Being smart has always been seen as an asset in the workplace. Employers want employees who are going to challenge conventional wisdom, question established practices, come up with new ideas. But as with the example above,  too much time spent debating and analyzing and questioning can lead to a loss in productivity. When people ask what their biggest time waster at work is, the consensus tends to be meetings in which discussions drag on and nothing is accomplished. Sometimes, it’s better to shut up, stop talking and get to work.

That’s the hypothesis presented by two professors of organizational studies at Sweden’s Lund University. Mats Alvesson and Andre Spicer propose that the attributes of smart people, such as analysis and curiosity, are a net gain, and too many smart people in an organization slow the work down.

In other words, what they call functional stupidity is an asset in the workplace. An unwillingness or inability question, to communicate your concerns, to see how the pieces fit into the big picture, can actually make you better at your job because you won’t be wasting all that time and energy thinking and discussing.

The problem with this thesis is that it assumes that productivity and efficiency are the overriding organizational goals. While they are certainly a key to success, they aren’t the end all and be all. For example, let’s look at a financial institution. It has large amounts of personal data on each of its customers. They have entrusted the financial institution with this data. It is constantly scrutinizing our systems and practices to ensure that this information is kept safe. If it followed the functionally stupid approach, people working in the financial institution would never ask the important questions necessary to respond to changing technology. It could mean disaster for its customers and the organization. In this case, it would be better to be more secure, even if it meant being less efficient.

Organizations don’t need employees that are functionally stupid. Instead, they need to promote a culture that encourages employee to be curious, but also trains them as to where, when and how to express that curiosity. Not everything should be open for discussion, and certainly not everything has to be discussed at that very moment, or discussed with every single coworker within earshot. It is up to the organization to set the ground rules, and not be left up to the employees to guess. In some cases, discussions should be limited, or not be had at all.

As for the bookstore chain president, he should have ended the “On the Way” discussion after the first few minutes. Or better yet, not brought the subject up at all.

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