In Franz Kafka’s novel, The Trial, a man, K, wakes up in his apartment bedroom to find two prosecutors informing him that he has been accused of something and that he has a court case pending. He is under arrest.
They dismiss his protestations of his innocence and his demands to know what he is being accused of, advising him that he better get legal advice and defence. Getting legal advice and defence becomes the core of the rest of the novel without any of us ever finding out what K was accused of. The legal process becomes what it’s all about.
The Game of Problem Solving
I come across a similar dynamic in companies where the various meetings and systems set up to deal with and resolve problems also become core and become what work is all about. While the original goal in setting up the meeting, such as resolving some problem, may have been well intended, in time, this slips into the background and becomes secondary. The process, the meeting – or meetings…innumerable ones – become central.
The meeting, whatever it’s called, justifies people’s roles, fills their days and becomes an end in itself. Were this pattern only a waste of time, it would be bad enough but not too bad. Unfortunately, the consequences and implications are far more serious. What happens is that the problems, with time – lots of it – become acceptable and accepted as normal. On-going operational failures, Quality problems, slippages on delivery dates slowly but surely become accepted as the way things are, get tolerated and, eventually, institutionalised through the setting up of special meetings to deal with them. This indeed does become Kafkesque and everybody plays along affirming each other on their busyness and of the very important work they are doing. No one dares say the king has no clothes and no one even notices it.
A Problem Shared…Oh No!
What is invisibly happening throughout all of this is what happened to K, the hero or victim in Kafka’s story. “A problem shared is a problem halved.” Yes, but unfortunately, while the problem may be shared, ownership and responsibility for resolving it is quartered – at best! Once Kakfa’s hero bought into the accusation, he became part of the problem and weak.
His proper response would have been to throw the two prosecutors out of his room until they made some sense to him of what they were saying. The same goes for a manager who listens to and takes on board some problem that is being shared with him/her. Once the manager has done this, they too have slipped into a different game, a process game, in which the problem or issue become simply the football, part of the game but not its main purpose.
Making the Absurd Normal
A Company I worked with some years ago in Ireland came across a quality problem with a batch they had produced. It got rejected by Quality Inspection. Then all batches after that got rejected. Meetings were called. A whole section in the warehouse was cordoned off for rejected product.
Overtime working was introduced to counter the loss of rejected product. A special committee was established to manage the situation and to get to the bottom of it. The Quality problem featured on the agenda of weekly meetings. It became part of the normal week and way of working. The absurd, the crazy, the unacceptable became accepted and normal. Like K, everyone went along with it. Like K, the problem as with the prosecutors should have been confronted, dealt with and nipped in the bud on day one, not tolerated and certainly not let become part of normal business.
Of course Kafka wasn’t limiting his point to organisations and of course this dynamic is not confined to companies. But it is a large part of them where resources are available, or are found, to institutionalise madness through the introduction of some management system. In normal society this takes the form of police forces, law courts, mental institutions and psychiatrists, oh and Government enquiries. ‘Intolerance’ is not a nice word but, at times, it is very important to be intolerant with what makes no sense at all, like K needed to be. The most attentive and caring manager can be absolutely intolerant of behaviours and practices that damage the end cause and the welfare of everybody in the organisation.
People not only understand this ‘intolerance’ but expect and welcome it. The good manager or leader makes it clear from the beginning with her or his people that the goal that they all aspire to is not up for grabs and that they, as leaders, owe it to their people and to the organisation to be intolerant of behaviour or performance that hinders or damages the achievement of the overall good. We need to learn to do this – what K should have done – refused to play the game with the prosecutors. Had he done so, they would have gone away. When we do that, problems go away. People won’t and don’t