A couple of years ago, a client of mine in mainland continental Europe moved to new, pristine, shinny offices. Suddenly they were confronted with an unexpected office rule: nothing on the walls, nothing, not a poster, not a whiteboard, not a picture. The new Facilities Manager was planning to be very strict, and punishment of all sorts, mostly of apocalyptic nature, were announced. It was absurd, particularly for a client moving from an office environment where the walls were full of stuff.
A group of people in the new pristine, clinical, white, aseptic vast floor fought for a while but were getting nowhere. Since there were no guidelines as to what was allowed to have on the desks, they decided to stuff them with anything possible, only leaving a tiny space to work. Soon those desks hosted a full, permanent, garage sale/car boot sale looking, exhibition of world objects. There they were flowers and flowers vases, standing columns with pictures, desk flip-charts, balloons, lots of balloons, toys, and plastic inflatable figures including a large giraffe, and even a full family of oversized ducks. And the walls remained white and clean.
The battle was partially won only when the Facilities Genghis Khan agreed to purchase lots of mobile panels that could be used as boards, flipcharts and places to hang pictures and posters. When the giraffes disappeared (some of them), a new labyrinth of mobile panels created a new landscape. And the walls remained white and clean. And Genghis Khan saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, in his own version of Genesis 1:31.
In the Brexit referendum in the UK, the pro-Brexit campaign used extensively oversized billboards on lorries, moving around, with posters of refugees coming to the UK in mass. The headline was ‘Breaking point: the EU has failed us all’. The poster was a carbon copy (in design and content) of those of Nazi times. The pictures were of people in the Slovenian border months before. The far right, populist UK politician Nigel Farage unveiled them officially, and was shown in many places pointing to the posters, and proud of them. The reactions included the use of terms such as ‘fundamentally racist’, and ‘vile xenophobia’. It was denounced to the police. And the posters on nomadic lorries remained.
Had I had the money and the guts (and the former is a good platform for the latter) I would have flooded the place with the same number of lorries and posters of hundreds of pictures of photoshoped Nigel Farage himself, cloned hundred times, in crowded queue format, ‘already in the UK’.
Absurdity can only be fought with a bigger absurdity. This is not just a mere philosophical position. It has his roots in well researched behavioural sciences. In chronic and hospitalized, severe obsessive compulsive patients who suffered an uncontrollable need to stock towels in their rooms, nothing worked until the staff store hundreds of towels in their rooms. Progressively their need seemed to decrease and eventually ceased. Behaviourists would call this a mixture of ‘exposure’ and ‘saturation’ techniques.
At times, absurdity goes beyond a rational discussion. I wonder whether we could have this in mind when confronted with absurd processes, systems and behavioural habits in the organization.
I shall leave it to your imagination.