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About seven years ago, the BBC broadcasted a series called ‘How we built Britain’, presented by the veteran David Dimbleby. In the episode dedicated to the Victorians, he said something, almost in passing, which has stuck in my mind since: ‘For every problem, the Victorians had a building’. Growing local government? OK, here we are, big City Halls (Manchester, Leeds… ) Actually, Manchester thought of itself as the new Florence. Mental illness? Sure, the big asylums are built in the form of ‘mini-towns’ (all services included) which the great Canadian sociologist, Erving Goffman (1922-1982), would call ‘Total Institutions’. Mass transportation? No problem, railways and their cathedral-like train stations appear. Add also big churches, big shopping malls (probably not called this) and big leisure centres. ‘The building’ was the answer. And the bigger, the better.

‘Management’ is the ‘Victorian Architecture’ of the modern organization. For every problem we create a structure: a new business unit, a new franchise, a new committee, a new task force, a new merger of A and B, a new management team, a restructuring, a new structural or functional conceptual building as ‘the answer’. We have become very good at providing structural solutions to problems that may, for example, require behavioural rather than structural answers. A typical scenario is amalgamating A and B into C because A and B do not talk to each other. We create a new building C, but people still are not talking to each other. (Mind you, we have saved a Sr VP salary).

The Big Ones of the consulting industry have sold us ‘(re)structure’ as the answer to everything. In part because Organization Chart Permutations are an easy thing to do.  If you want to be seen doing something, change the structure. Small detail, ‘the building‘ may not be the answer. In fact, ‘the new building’ may be a big distraction and create an illusion of ‘problem solved’ and control.

I am bound to say this because of my background and my own work, but, for every managerial problem, we should look first for a behavioural answer. It’s a good bet.



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  1. John Perry

    The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed down the generations, says that when you discover you are riding a dying horse, the best strategy is to dismount quickly.

    In many organisations however, a whole range of far more advanced strategies is often employed:

    1. Change riders.

    2. Buy a stronger whip.

    3. Do nothing. This is the way we have always ridden dying horses.

    4. Visit other countries to see how they ride dying horses.

    5. Perform a productivity study to see if lighter riders improve the dying horse’s performance.

    6. Hire a consultant to test-ride the dying horse.

    7. Harness several dying horses together in an attempt to increase speed.

    8. Provide additional funding and/or training to increase the dying horse’s performance.

    9. Appoint a committee to study the horse and how ill it actually was.

    10. Re-classify the dying horse as ‘living impaired’ with special support needs.

    11. Develop a strategic plan for the management of dying horses.

    12. Rewrite the expected performance requirements for all horses.

    13. Modify existing standards to include dying horses.

    14. Declare that, as the dying horse no longer has an appetite, it is less costly, carries lower overheads, and therefore contributes substantially more to the bottom line than many other horses.

    15. Promote the dying horse to a management position.

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