Perrow on the attribution of incompetence

Viewing organizations as tools should reduce our tendency to cry incompetence when they do not do what we think they should. Incompetence certainly exists; organizations must contend with the distribution of incompetence in the general population, as well as the distribution of tendencies toward venality, stupidity, sycophancy, and so on, since they must draw upon the general population for employees. But a tool view [of organizations] alerts us to the possibility that what we see as incompetent performance or policy really reflects what some leaders wanted all along. A president will not announce that he or she intends to discipline labor and reduce inflation by creating a recession; it will be announced instead that the economy is not competitive enough. If an acquired firm goes downhill in performance, the new leaders need not be charged with incompetence in running the acquisition; they may have decided to appropriate its available cash and other liquid assets, its unused tax credits, and its best personnel and use them where they will provide greater returns. The acquired firm may then be sold, or even scrapped, possibly with significant tax breaks. Before assuming that an outcome was unintended, it is best to see if someone in top management might not have had reason to have intended the outcome. Bureaucracy is not the breeder of incompetence, as we often would like to believe. Instead, bureaucratic organization allows leaders to achieve goals, some of which are unannounced and costly for the rest of us and are only attributed to incompetence.

– Charles Perrow, Complex Organizations 1986, p. 13, emphasis added

For a preliminary application of this concept to organizations and their role in larger crises, see post here.

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4 Responses to Perrow on the attribution of incompetence

  1. Pingback: Organizations, tight couplings and crisis | aluation

  2. rogerglewis says:

    Look for the power behind the throne or follow the money? Perceived reality as an avatar for the truth. These arguments are all to familiar when I tried to rationalise what appeared to be irrational actions by some of my banking intsitutional partners ( irony intended) it is very clear that the relationship advertised is certainly not the relationship in action or indeed in fact. It is also true to say that the advertisement of monetary value as represented in transfers of sums representing money in property transactions is also not as advertised its a confusing hall of smoke and mirrors. For some reason the phrase Plausible Deniability also seems to fit into all of this. Two thought provoking articles for me for sure.

    This one and the one it is linked from.

  3. Pingback: Decoupling | aluation

  4. Pingback: Uncertainty absorption, decision premises and the maintenance of social control | aluation

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