Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Most Powerful Idea in the Universe (Part 1: The Imperative)

In the next three posts, I will be discussing an idea that, in its own quiet way, tends to overwhelm or absorb all competing ideas. First, a little personal context.

The Enemy
For many Mormons, the best two years of their life are spent on a mission. But let’s talk about the flip side of this cliché. Easily the two worst years of my life were spent in BYU’s MBA program. No other two years even come close. This experience was unpleasant for a couple of reasons. First, the work load. Nineteen and a half credit hours of heavy business classes in each of the first two semesters. Seventeen for the next two. Like pretty much everyone else, I didn’t have enough time to study well for each class, so I had to make a decision I found somewhat repulsive. I had to determine which classes I would prepare well for and which I would let slide. I had always been a good student, so this went against my better judgment, but I had no choice. Fortunately, I detested finance, so it got very little attention. There was probably a real-life lesson somewhere in this course overload designed to encourage mediocrity, but in thirty-five years I have failed to find it. At least my feelings for finance did not go unrequited. Finance as seemed to ignore me too. And a few years after I graduated, BYU eased up on the course load. Good for them.
The other reason MBA school was so unpleasant is that as I became immersed in the experience, something pernicious began happening to my soul. At the time I didn’t understand why, but the curriculum, the atmosphere, and the mentality of both my fellow students and the professors had a devastating effect on me. I felt that I was being turned into something I didn’t want to become and was being torn apart inside. I had no idea what was happening to me. I only knew that some deeply personal part of my sense of self was being attacked. I didn’t know how to counterattack; I didn’t even know how to defend myself. I had no idea who the enemy was. So I just tried to survive.
And that was about all I did. I crawled to the finish line, bruised and bleeding, accepted my diploma with numb relief as if it were some organizational red badge of courage, and only then began putting myself back together and searching for answers. I wanted to know what had happened to me—and why. For some reason this was critically important to me. And fortunately, I was blessed with an opportunity to seek those answers and to find them. That opportunity, ironically, was a full-time faculty appointment (which was quite a surprise, I assure you, for someone who had developed serious anticorporate feelings).
I suppose I concealed quite well from my fellow students and my professors the awful battle that had been waging inside me. My grades were not spectacular, but they were definitely above average. And I had done particularly well in operations management, the subject I ended up teaching. The math had been a place where I could take refuge, I suppose. At any rate, I accepted the faculty appointment—so I could earn some money and take a few classes before applying to PhD programs (which never happened)—but also for some other reasons. One was that I wanted to give students a very different experience from the one I had just completed. Another was that I needed time to heal and time to search for answers. As it turned out, I filled empty faculty slots at the Marriott School for nine years on a one-year contract, and during that time I figured out what the MBA program had done to me—and to many others—and why.
The single most illuminating piece of the puzzle fell into place when one of my colleagues suggested I read a book by William G. Scott and David K. “Kirk” Hart titled Organizational Values in America. Kirk was a professor of ethics in the school, but I hadn’t met him before. Nevertheless, I found a copy of the book and read it. And when I came to chapter 3, I suddenly had my answer. I could finally put a name to the enemy that had attacked me during the MBA program.

The Organizational Imperative
Scott and Hart identified a basic assumption or belief that is almost universally accepted in modern organizations. It is a direct corollary to the degeneration of the corporation from a public-service institution to a self-absorbed entity bent on maximizing profit. Scott and Hart called this assumption the “organizational imperative.”1 It is the notion that since all the good things in our modern lives come from large organizations, it is imperative that these organizations not only survive, but thrive. Thus, anything that promotes the health of a large organization is, by definition, good and desirable. This, of course, is simply a subtle way of saying the end justifies the means. And so we get the Enrons, Worldcoms, Arthur Andersons, Tycos, Haliburtons, AIGs, and Phillip-Morrises of the corporate world. We also get all kinds of other abuses in organizations large and small, because the organizational imperative is really just another way of saying that organizations are more important than individuals.
This may not sound like an earth-shattering revelation. In fact, many people in today’s world would hardly blink at such a notion: modern society is so thoroughly saturated with the propaganda and logic of megacorporations and their “needs” that we hardly question this logic anymore. But when organizations become more important than people, the whole world turns upside-down and suddenly people are at the mercy of things. They become, to use the awful modern metaphor, human resources. And what is a resource? Something that is used to produce something else. And when it is eventually used up, it gets thrown away.
The organizational imperative insists that people are merely means to an end, things to be used in any way that will ensure the success of the organization. Above all, they are a cost to be minimized.
Perhaps most troubling, the organizational imperative creates an organizational morality that is in many ways a repudiation of traditional American morality. A few years ago, I taught a BYU Education Week class on leadership principles. In one of the sessions, I introduced the concept of the organizational imperative. One man raised his hand and volunteered a personal example to support what I was teaching. He said he worked for a small company that had recently been acquired by a multinational corporation. The corporation required each employee to sign an ethics code. This was fine, the man said, but he was rather surprised at how this code defined the term “ethics.” Anything that promoted the success of the corporation was deemed to be ethical. Organizational imperative indeed.

Pirsig’s Giant
In Lila, Robert Pirsig’s sequel to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he relates the following story, which aptly illustrates how backward and passively dangerous our thinking has become in Organizational America. (In case you haven’t read either of Pirsig’s books, Phædrus is his alter ego.)
When he was young Phædrus used to think about cows and pigs and chickens and how they never knew that the nice farmer who provided food and shelter was doing so only so that he could sell them to be killed and eaten. They would “oink,” or “cluck,” and he would come with food, so they probably thought he was some sort of servant. He also used to wonder if there was a higher farmer that did the same things to people, a different kind of organism that they saw every day and thought of as beneficial, providing food and shelter and protection from enemies, but an organism that secretly was raising these people for its own sustenance, feeding upon them and using their accumulated energy for its own independent purposes. Later he saw there was: this Giant. . . .
The Giant began to materialize out of Phædrus’ Dynamic dreams when he was in college. A professor of chemistry had mentioned at his fraternity that a large chemical firm was offering excellent jobs for graduates of the school and almost every member of the fraternity thought it was wonderful news. . . .
So here was this Giant, this nameless, faceless system reaching for him, ready to devour him and digest him. It would use his energy to grow stronger and stronger throughout his life while he grew older and weaker until, when he was no longer of much use, it would excrete him and find another younger person full of energy to take his place and do the same thing all over again.
Now, this is a backwards way of looking at modern society, but Pirsig is a rare seer in many ways. He sees things others don’t. In America, we have encouraged and embraced a system called corporate capitalism. It is a system of organisms that use human beings for their own ends. And they are organisms, with needs and impulses and priorities. Their main priority is survival, and they will do anything they can get away with to achieve that priority. They maintain power through the subtle spreading of a value system that convinces people to become passive or even cooperative tools in the service of corporate goals.
Organizations reveal a great deal about themselves and their real values by the official terminology they employ. Many organizations, from retailers to churches, have a Human Resources department. This term comes straight and undiluted from the organizational imperative. By contrast, a good friend of mine who works for a large and somewhat enlightened corporation has the job title Senior Vice President of People Development Services. Although we might ask what purpose the people are being developed to serve, People Development Services does send a quite different message than does Human Resources. We need to be wary of other terms also—such as human capital, performance evaluation, work measurement, downsizing, rightsizing, empowerment, or motivation—terms that suggest people are things to be used, controlled, quantified, or manipulated in the production of goods or services. And the statement “Our people are our most valuable asset” is a backhanded compliment at best. People are not resources, capital, or assets. They are children of God, individuals with unalienable human rights. Organizations should exist to serve people, not the reverse. All organizations. Including the LDS Church. If the Church becomes more important in our eyes than the people in and around it, we have elevated it to the level of an idol.

Serving the Church
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints proclaims itself to be the re-establishment of the Lord’s true Church in these latter days. If true, it is indisputably the most important organization on earth. But is it more important than the people in it—or the people who aren’t members, for that matter? Of course not. God does not say, “This is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of the Church.” The organization is a vehicle, a tool, and a temporary one at that. Its purpose is to serve us, the individual children of our Heavenly Father, and to help us achieve our purpose, which is to become like him. It is also a gathering place—a receptacle, if you will—within which the Saints of God can experience community and prepare for the Second Coming of his Son.
Given this perspective, we need to consider an important question. Do we serve the Church? Should we? No. We serve in the Church. We serve each other. And we serve the Lord. But we do not serve the Church. At least we shouldn’t, because if we do, we are elevating a thing, a tool, above the people it should be serving. This is a subtle distinction, but it is vitally important. If a member with a little authority believes he is serving the Church, he will act in a way that will, first and foremost, preserve the organization or at least make it appear successful, even if this preservation or appearance of success comes at the expense of the people in the organization—because the organization, in his eyes, is more important than the people in or around it. Often the appearance of success also comes at the expense of the truth.
In a more general sense, any institution that rejects the organizational imperative will operate on the fundamental assumption that it exists to serve people, generally in two ways: to offer a valuable good or service to society and to provide opportunities for people to work, develop their talents, and earn a good living. Organizational survival or even success, often quantified as profit, is not unimportant, because organizations must survive in order to serve the people in and around them, but it is correctly viewed as a byproduct of these more important objectives.
So where did the organizational imperative come from? And what are the specific values it inflicts upon society? Stay tuned.
1. See William G. Scott and David K. Hart, Organizational Values in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1989), ch. 3.


  1. As an MBA recipient (not from BYU) who has spent the past 20 years working in corporations, I have a very different view than the author. The corporations I have worked for are organizations of people who, together, accomplish much greater tasks than could be accomplished with independent small groups. They are driven by their passion for doing great work for customers. While profit motive is part of the equation, it is only one dimension.

    I work in the information technology field so my experience is with companies that are wildly successful with a particular line of product for a period of time. Then they get busy managing that product, get surpassed by the next innovation, the best people leave to work for the company that surpassed them, and the company disappears, as it should. People in my industry understand the company was there to profitably deliver a particular product to a particular set of customers and that it won’t last forever.

    The "organizational imperative" enters when the builders (product developers) and sellers (sales, support, and marketing), who really care about getting a great product to customers, get eclipsed by Finance and Operations, professional “managers” who inevitably destroy the soul of the company – because they don’t understand or care about customers. They care about trying to perpetuate an enterprise that is not going to last forever and definitely won’t survive leadership that focuses on inwardly on company finances and operations vs. outwardly on customers.

    I don’t think The Church is like this at all and trying to compare it to a corporate enterprise really misses the mark. The church is not a commercial, profit-making enterprise and does not operate like one. It does not create a product for a particular time and place and the go away.

    If there is anything out there similar to the church, it is the University, where there is not a profit motive but there is competition for ideas, work to attract the best converts, and the intent to serve the public good. Universities are also places where there are frequently toxic, tradition-based beliefs and politics, and entitlements (i.e. tenure) that guarantees influential leadership roles for those that may otherwise be past their ability contribute at a level that is commensurate to their role.

    Let’s trade “corporatism” for “university-ism” and have a much more relevant discussion about the good and bad parallels between like organizations.

  2. Excellent post.