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Enhancing Organizational Performance

Instrumental or Incidental?

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“We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” – Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

About 1200 years ago the Chinese general Tsii spoke of a fable to the emperor upon being ordered to attack a province within the empire that had angered the emperor. The fable has been told and retold in many forms but it essentially conveys the story of how the various parts of the body, the hands, eyes, brain, feet, etc. rebelled against the stomach, since the stomach was always demanding that they work to get the stomach filled with food. Upon the advice of the heart, the other parts of the body decided to no longer assist the stomach in getting filled with food and after a few days all the parts of the body died together. The general was trying to make the point that the body has to be extremely careful before attacking itself, lest the entire body suffer.

In more modern terms I have heard this fable morphed into a story about organizations, with the sales department telling the organization that they were the most important for without them there would be no sales and the company would go out of business, only to be told by manufacturing that they were the most important for without them they would not have product to fulfill the orders taken by the sales force. Both were told by research and engineering that without them there would be nothing to manufacture or sell. Distribution then chimed in explaining they were the most important and that without them the whole organization would grind to a halt. And all of the above were told by the finance department that they were the most important for without them sending out bills none of them would get paid and the organization could not function since there would be no cash flow. The argument of who is instrumental vs. incidental can go on endlessly and of course is a complete waste of time since they are all wrong and are all right. And yet I have heard this argument or similar ones (modified to sound more logical) used in many organizations today. 

Who or which function is most important in keeping an organization viable? While you can laugh about it when discussed in this fashion, it is an argument that is important in that it can have a direct effect on power structures and compensation in organizations.

There is an ongoing debate about how super-social insects such as ants and bees should be viewed.  One perspective, the more traditional approach, has us viewing each ant and bee as a separate organism, nothing more than the citizens of a collective entity, like a city where each citizen has a small but vital part to play. Another approach which was proposed a while back, fell out of favor, but is now coming back, is to view the colony or the hive in its entirety as the organism, a collective which is greater than any component. Each individual ant or bee would be something like a cell in our body. Any one cell could die and not adversely affect the entire entity but if you were to eliminate an entire class of cells the organism would not long survive. And if you were to take a worker bee or a warrior ant away from the colony they would not be able to survive on their own. They need the other components of the hive or nest in order for the individual to survive, much like an individual cell in our bodies, hence the concept of a collective organism.

Human organizations moved away from craftsmanship to a more efficient mass production strategy, where each worker has a unique and relatively narrow part to play as part of the industrial revolution, creating roles so narrow that each once by itself is considered somewhat incidental to overall organizational success. Some have compared that movement, to which Frederick Taylor gave great impetus, to the bee or ant collective. Comparisons of human organizations resembling the colonies or hives of super-social insects were made. But any human worker can leave the organization and survive, perhaps even thrive, for while phylogenically we are not highly specialized, we can more easily adapt to a changing environment which is something that ants and bees cannot as easily do. So it is erroneous to view organizations today and those workers that make them function as super-social collective organizations.

And yet organizations came into being in order to allow a group to accomplish what the individual cannot alone. There have been attempts to put the “humanness” back into the organization by making employees more instrumental to overall success. Over the years concepts like job enrichment have come and gone with little positive benefit. For instance, Volvo set up small teams, rather than an assembly line approach, for car manufacturing to mixed results. The Social Security Administration in the 1970’s had a large emphasis on job enrichment, in an attempt to improve quality by making work more interesting for their employees. The major outcome was not an improvement in quality but rather employees who began to demand more money, for their jobs were now larger, more complex and entailed more responsibility.

What one person may view as instrumental to the success of the organization another may view as incidental. If your work is viewed as instrumental and critical you are less likely to get laid off than if you are incidental, a not so small issue today. The reality is like many of these things that are thought of in a overly simplistic binary fashion, the truth lies in shades of gray. While you may not be as instrumental as you believe, you are likely not as incidental as others may feel. Maybe it is inevitable that the debate between who is instrumental and who is incidental will continue for aspects of it may be hard wired into our essence. There is a natural tendency for people to assume that the successes they experience are generated by innate ability, hence by them being instrumental. External factors are more generally used when describing causes for failures. When I succeed it is because of whom I am and when I fail it is because of the situation in which I found myself.

Time for dinner, after all it is instrumental not incidental that I keep the stomach happy.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 14, 2009 at 8:53 pm

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