Corporations & Whack-A-Mole
Joseph Heller wrote in his novel, Good as Gold, “The most advanced and penultimate stage of civilization is attained when chaos masquerades as order.”
I’m pretty sure we’ve already arrived.
I recently worked inside a major corporation for the ten thousandth time as visitor, consultant, friend, confidant and teacher. This always starts well and I usually get more coaching requests because people sincerely want more of the initial experience of creativity, freedom and possibility. I was physically inside the system more than usual and had a blinding insight. Every day, I noticed that regardless of what was going on, there were always frequent, surprising and dramatic interruptions; each time, all order disappeared.
I asked myself, “What is really going on…it never stops…”
A voice in my head popped up and said, “It’s just like Chuck E. Cheese and Whack-A-Mole.” Chuck E. Cheese is a children’s pizza and arcade game place I visited with my daughters when they were small. It was my first experience with Whack-A-Mole, a game I came to love and hate at the same time. Small plastic moles pop up out of a flat surface and your job is to whack them back into the hole with a wooden club. Soon, several pop up at the same time, and as fast as you go, you can never hit them all back down at the same time. Then, the game ends and for another ticket you can start again. After a year, I stopped playing the game. I didn’t want to play a game I couldn’t win.
Corporations in their advertising and public relations present an ordered world of organization, measurement, products and results. They offer an image of effective performance and logical decision making unlike the images they create of government or non-profits which don’t have the profit motive to bring order out of chaos.
Now, after forty three years visiting corporations, I see that the corporate world pretends to be reasonable but is really Whack-A-Mole in disguise. It is Joseph Heller’s “Chaos Masquerading as Order in some advanced and penultimate stage of civilization.” At the same time people are rewarded for acting like they are sane and suppressed or punished for acting like they are playing Whackamole.
Recent Moles to Whack included:
- Discussions based on Illogical arguments or personal fears
- Actions to avoid hierarchical response
- Surprise criticism from bosses
- New government regulations
- Conversations about other people especially about their flaws.
- Requests to cut costs
- Uncooperative departments sabotaging each other
- Endless explanations about why something didn’t work
- Missed deadlines
- Thwarted intentions
- Undelivered communications
- Failed expectations
- Secrets Requests from 4000 miles away for compliance to unnecessary requests
If, in fact, we live in corporations where chaos masquerades as order, then what is winning? Is this some silly purgatory to which we sentence ourselves? Is it even possible to fix it or get out?
I think, in jest, that the only way to win is not to play.
One morning this week in the American Midwest, my client and I walked toward a beautifully designed office building for an intensive counseling session, both personal and business. On the grass was a Canadian Goose sitting on her eggs. In the middle of the path, a large male goose stood vigilant fiercely guarding the eggs and prospective mother. We walked slowly to the side but the goose came at us in a decisive and threatening way. We kept going and the goose reached for my colleague and bit her pocketbook. We retreated and walked around the building. We both felt like cowards and something wrong had just happened.
That afternoon on the way to lunch, the goose was waiting for us. We approached gingerly and stayed again to the side of the path. The goose came toward me fast and threatening. In the moment and without thinking, I attacked the goose swinging my briefcase with extreme force and roaring at the same time. The goose hesitated and retreated. We walked to the car and went to lunch.
We were victorious and without cowardly thought. We won and both felt great. There was no one to please, no authority to comply with. When it was over, it was over. The goose did what it was supposed to do and I did what I was supposed to.
And things have improved at work since our victory over the goose.
- Noticing how timid my colleagues are
- Saying NO much more than going along
- Watching fake collaboration be as destructive as antagonism
- Seeing that insistence on process is useless when being attacked
- Noticing that there are Canadian Geese everywhere disguised as service providers
- Practicing moment to moment vigilance in work and life as the better part of valor
I never thought I would feel grateful to a goose.
n.b. Apologies for picking on corporations only. The argument extends to politics, government and communities.
Charles E. Smith has been a senior executive coach and leadership consultant in corporations and government agencies in the United States, Europe, andCanadasince 1969. He graduated from the Boston Public Latin School and holds an A.B. from Harvard College, and M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, and a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Smith also holds a certificate in Gestalt Methods from the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland. He has taught at SirGeorge Williams University and McGill Centre for Management Education.
His first book, The Merlin Factor: Keys to Corporate Kingdom was published in 1995 in US, UK, China, and Romania. Read his new book, Navigating from the Future: a Primer for Sustainable Transformation, available at Amazon.
Contact him at email@example.com