The private sector has its own problems. Manufacturers recall faulty cars or in”ammable cellphones. Producers of food and pharmaceuticals make people sick with tainted products. Software companies deliver bugs and “vaporware.” Industrial accidents dump chemicals, oil, toxic gas, and radioactive materials into the air and water. Too often, corporate greed, incompetence, and insensitivity create havoc for communities and individuals. The bottom line: We seem hard-pressed to manage organizations so that their virtues exceed their vices. The big question: Why?
Management’s Track Record Year after year, the best and brightest managers maneuver or meander their way to the apex of enterprises great and small. Then they do really dumb things. How do bright people turn out so dim? One theory is that they’re too smart for their own good. Feinberg and Tarrant (1995) label it the “self-destructive intelligence syndrome.” They argue that smart people act stupid because of personality “aws—things like pride, arrogance, and an unconscious desire to fail. It’s true that psychological “aws have been apparent in brilliant, self-destructive individuals such as Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton. But on the whole, the best and brightest have no more psychological problems than everyone else. The primary source of cluelessness is not personality or IQ but a failure to make sense of complex situations. If we misread a situation, we’ll do the wrong thing. But if we don’t know we’re seeing things inaccurately, we won’t understand why we’re not getting the results we want. So we insist we’re right even when we’re off track.
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Vaughan (1995), in trying to unravel the causes of the 1986 disaster that destroyed the Challenger space shuttle and its crew, underscored how hard it is for people to surrender their entrenched conceptions of reality:
They puzzle over contradictory evidence, but usually succeed in pushing it aside—until they come across a piece of evidence too fascinating to ignore, too clear to misperceive, too painful to deny, which makes vivid still other signals they do not want to see, forcing them to alter and surrender the world-view they have so meticulously constructed (p. 235).
So when we don’t know what to do, we domore of what we know.We construct our own psychic prisons and then lock ourselves in and throw away the key. This helps explain a number of unsettling reports from the managerial front lines:
• Hogan, Curphy, and Hogan (1994) estimate that the skills of one half to three quarters of American managers are inadequate for the demands of their jobs. Gallup (2015) puts the number even higher, estimating that more than 80 percent of American managers lack the talent they need. But most probably don’t realize it: Kruger and Dunning (1999) found that the less competent people are, the more they overestimate their performance, partly because they don’t know good performance when they see it.
• About half of the high-pro!le senior executives that companies hire fail within two years, according to a 2006 study (Burns and Kiley, 2007).
• The annual value of corporate mergers has grown more than a hundredfold since 1980, yet evidence suggests that 70 to 90 percent “are unsuccessful in producing any business bene!t as regards shareholder value” (KPMG, 2000; Christensen, Alton, Rising, and Waldeck, 2011). Mergers typically bene!t shareholders of the acquired !rm but hurt almost everyone else—customers, employees, and, ironically, the buyers who initiated the deal (King et al., 2004). Stockholders in the acquiring !rm typically suffer a 10 percent loss on their investment (Agrawal, Jaffe, andMandelker, 1992), while consumers feel that they’re paying more and getting less. Despite this dismal record, the vast majority of the managers who engineered mergers insisted they were successful (KPMG, 2000; Graf!n, Haleblian, and Kiley, 2016).
• Year after year, management miscues cause once highly successful companies to skid into bankruptcy. In just the !rst quarter of 2015, for example, 26 companies went under, including six with claimed assets of more than $1 billion. (Among the biggest were the casino giant, Caesars Entertainment, and the venerable electronics retailer, RadioShack.)
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Small wonder that so many organizational veterans nod in assent to Scott Adams’s admittedly unscienti!c “Dilbert principle”: “the most ineffective workers are systematically moved to the place where they can do the least damage—management” (1996, p. 14).
Strategies for Improving Organizations We have certainly made a noble effort to improve organizations despite our limited ability to understand them. Legions of managers report to work each day with hope for a better future in mind. Authors and consultants spin out a torrent of new answers and promising solutions. Policymakers develop laws and regulations to guide or shove organizations on the right path.
The most universal improvement strategy is upgrading management talent. Modern mythology promises that organizations will work splendidly if well managed. Managers are supposed to see the big picture and look out for their organization’s overall well-being. They have not always been equal to the task, even when armed with the full array of modern tools and techniques. They go forth with this rational arsenal to try to tame our wild and primitive workplaces. Yet in the end, irrational forces too often prevail.
When managers !nd problems too hard to solve, they hire consultants. The number and variety of advice givers keeps growing. Most have a specialty: strategy, technology, quality, !nance, marketing, mergers, human resource management, executive search, outplacement, coaching, organization development, andmanymore. For every managerial challenge, there is a consultant willing to offer assistance—at a price.
For all their sage advice and remarkable fees, consultants often make little dent in persistent problems plaguing organizations, though they may blame the clients for failing to implement their profound insights. McKinsey & Co., “the high priest of high-level consulting” (Byrne, 2002a, p. 66), worked so closely with Enron that its managing partner (Rajat Gupta, who eventually went to jail for insider trading) sent his chief lawyer to Houston after Enron’s collapse to see if his !rm might be in legal trouble.2 The lawyer reported that McKinsey was safe, and a relieved Gupta insisted bravely, “We stand by all the work we did. Beyond that, we can only empathize with the trouble they are going through. It’s a sad thing to see” (p. 68).
When managers and consultants fail, government recurrently responds with legislation, policies, and regulations. Constituents badger elected of!cials to “do something” about a variety of ills: pollution, dangerous products, hazardous working conditions, discrimina- tion, and low performing schools, to name a few. Governing bodies respond by making “policy.” But policymakers don’t always understand the problem well enough to get the solution right, and a sizable body of research records a continuing saga of perverse ways in
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legislation s law
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which the implementation process undermines even good solutions (Bardach, 1977; Elmore, 1978; Freudenberg and Gramling, 1994; Gottfried and Conchas, 2016; Peters, 1999; Pressman and Wildavsky, 1973). Policymakers, for example, have been trying for decades to reform U.S. public schools. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent. The result? About as successful as America’s switch to the metric system. In the 1950s Congress passed legislation mandating adoption of metric standards and measures. More than six decades later, if you knowwhat a hectare is or can visualize the size of a 300-gram package of crackers, you’re ahead of most Americans. Legislators did not factor into their solution what it would take to get their decision implemented against longstanding custom and tradition.
In short, the dif!culties surrounding improvement strategies are well documented. Exemplary intentions produce more costs than bene!ts. Problems outlast solutions. Still, there are reasons for optimism. Organizations have changed about as much in recent decades as in the preceding century. To survive, they had to. Revolutionary changes in technology, the rise of the global economy, and shortened product life cycles have spawned a “urry of efforts to design faster, more “exible organizational forms. New organizational models “ourish in companies such as Pret à Manger (the socially conscious U.K. sandwich shops), Google (the global search giant), Airbnb (a new concept of lodging) and Novo- Nordisk (a Danish pharmaceutical company that includes environmental and social metrics in its bottom line). The dispersed collection of enthusiasts and volunteers who provide content for Wikipedia and the far-“ung network of software engineers who have developed the Linux operating system provide dramatic examples of possibilities in the digital world. But despite such successes, failures are still too common. The nagging question: How can leaders and managers improve the odds for themselves as well for their organizations?
FRAMING Goran Carstedt, the talented executive who led the turnaround of Volvo’s French division in the 1980s, got to the heart of a challenge managers face every day: “The world simply can’t be made sense of, facts can’t be organized, unless you have a mental model to begin with. That theory does not have to be the right one, because you can alter it along the way as information comes in. But you can’t begin to learn without some concept that gives you expectations or hypotheses” (Hampden-Turner, 1992, p. 167). Such mental models have many labels—maps, mind-sets, schema, paradigms, heuristics, and cognitive lenses, to name a few.3 Following the work of Goffman, Dewey, and others, we have chosen the label frames, a term that has received increasing attention in organizational research as scholars give greater attention to how managers make sense of a complicated and turbulent world
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(see, e.g., Foss and Webber, 2016; Gray, Purdy, and Ansari, 2015; Cornelissen and Werner, 2014; Hahn et al., 2014; Maitlis and Christianson, 2014). In describing frames, we deliberately mix metaphors, referring to them as windows, maps, tools, lenses, orientations, prisms, and perspectives, because all these images capture part of the idea we want to convey.
A frame is a mental model—a set of ideas and assumptions—that you carry in your head to help you understand and negotiate a particular “territory.” A good frame makes it easier to know what you are up against and, ultimately, what you can do about it. Frames are vital because organizations don’t come with computerized navigation systems to guide you turn- by-turn to your destination. Instead, managers need to develop and carry accurate maps in their heads.
Such maps make it possible to register and assemble key bits of perceptual data into a coherent pattern—an image of what’s happening. When it works “uidly, the process takes the form of “rapid cognition,” the process that Gladwell (2005) examines in his best seller Blink.He describes it as a gift that makes it possible to read “deeply into the narrowest slivers of experience. In basketball, the player who can take in and comprehend all that is happening in the moment is said to have ‘court sense’” (p. 44). The military stresses situational awareness to describe the same capacity.
Dane and Pratt (2007) describe four key characteristics of this intuitive “blink” process:
• It is nonconscious—you can do it without thinking about it and without knowing how you did it.
• It is very fast—the process often occurs almost instantly.
• It is holistic—you see a coherent, meaningful pattern.
• It results in “affective judgments”—thought and feeling work together so you feel con!dent that you know what is going on and what needs to be done.
The essence of this process is matching situational cues with a well-learned mental framework—a “deeply held, nonconscious category or pattern” (Dane and Pratt, 2007, p. 37). This is the key skill that Simon and Chase (1973) found in chess masters—they could instantly recognize more than 50,000 con!gurations of a chessboard. This ability enables grand masters to play 25 lesser opponents simultaneously, beating all of them while spending only seconds on each move.
The same process of rapid cognition is at work in the diagnostic categories physicians rely on to evaluate patients’ symptoms. The Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm” requires
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