Organizational incompetence

Bullshit and chickenshit

Much of what happens in organizations can be classified under two categories: bullshit and chickenshit.

Bullshit is that class of lofty, uplifting, meaningful-feeling words and gestures that seem to promise something of enormous importance — but that important something can never be fulfilled through any practical action.

Chickenshit is that class of practical activities that seem like they ought to contribute in some way to some important end — but, in fact contribute nothing of any value to anything that matters.

Bullshit is meaning without practice. Chickenshit is practice without meaning.

Bringing together meaning and practice, so meaning inspires action toward a realizable vision, and practical actions contribute to realizing this meaningful vision — this is one of design’s key functions.

Another key function of design is to ensure the design is good, both in vision and execution: that it does something useful for people, that people find it easy to learn, use, and master, and that people enjoy using it. A good design will be chosen, used and recommended.

Design leads the conception and actualization of good, practical, visions.

When design is allowed to do its work, it helps groups of people align on a genuinely good, meaningful and achievable vision and helps them see the big, intricate picture of how diverse disciplines can coordinate their efforts and contribute to achieving this vision. Design then helps keep this alignment intact through implementation and subsequent release cycles, so that the meaning envisioned is realized and maintained in practice.

When design is not allowed to do its work, which is almost all the time, blathermouth executives give inspiring talks and emails, get their comms people to hang inspiring posters everywhere, and generally slather their organizations in bullshit, before disappearing into conference rooms to do very prestigious chickenshit all day.

Their subordinates ignore the bullshit and do their less prestigious chickenshit, which is laboriously measured and tracked for no good reason, except to provide other people the chance to do some chickenshit.

Sometimes employees are herded into rooms for bullshit workshops, while chickenshit accumulates in high acrid heaps back at their desks.

If, by some miracle, a good, practical vision is designed in this workshop, that vision is unlikely to survive what happens after. In subsequent meetings the vision gets divided into initiatives, then subdivided into work streams and hauled to far-flung silos, where the work is chopped and diced into chicken turd-sized tasks and poured into a backlog. The backlog is emptied, task by task, by people who have no idea how this important-seeming work will contribute to anything that matters.

And when all the bits of work are complete, it’s all globbed back together in a form that barely resembles the vision. That’s ok, though. The executives re-emerge from their conference rooms to do an all-hands where they bullshit on and on about how this chickenshit frankenstein is the realization of a vision that could never have happened without the dedication and leadership of everyone, especially of whatshername and so-and-so, and they hand out recognitions, promotions, layoffs and such. They then file back into their conference rooms for more very prestigious chickenshit.

A bullshit press release is issued.

Then there’s a major software release. Or maybe there is some change to core services. Or a new generation of product hits the stores. And all the customers and users who have to deal with these “improvements” get to figure them out and adjust their lives to accommodate them. They’re all inconvenienced, confused and frustrated, but there’s nowhere else to go, because the competitors are just as chickenshitty and bullshitty. Business as usual. Bullshit and chickenshit.

Moral: Organizations — entire industries, in fact — export their dysfunction to the larger world in the form of bad design: bullshit-coated chickenshit.

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