During my very first economics lecture at the University of Queensland in the late 1980’s, my lecturer Dr Gunton made an observation that I have never forgotten. “All organisations are imperfect”, he pronounced with gusto from his academic pulpit in front of the crowded night time lecture theatre. I wrote this down, underlined it and filed it away in the part of my brain marked “things that may or may not come in useful”.
After 25 years working in and for organisations I have concluded that these words are both true and useful. I count myself lucky to have been exposed to a number of excellent organisations that do important work. However, no matter how good they are, I’ve found each and every one of them to be messy, complex, sometimes slow, often frustrating and certainly imperfect. Whether it’s the technology sector, the financial sector, the tourism sector, or the government sector communication breaks down, errors are made and things take longer than they might. Examples of imperfection are easy to find.
Dr Gunton’s lesson that organisations are imperfect should hardly have been be a surprise to me given my main academic focus on psychology, which is the study of human behaviour. One of the distinguishing features of humans is that each and every one of us has shortcomings and flaws. In his excellent memoir Augusten Burroughs put it well when he said “I, myself, am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” When we put 100, 1000, or 10000 imperfect, well intentioned humans together in an organisation, individual flaws quickly multiply into a complex and vast web of imperfections.
To say that organisations are imperfect is not to say that organisations are not useful. Far from it. We absolutely need organisations. So many things are just too big or too difficult to be accomplished by individuals. Without the force of organisations working to make the world better our lives would be much worse off and our modern world would not function.
The understanding that organisations are imperfect is not something that should lead to complacency. All organisations and the people in them must make efforts to improve – to move closer to perfection. All need to pursue greater efficiencies, better information flows, more impressive customer service, better treatment of employees, more effective planning, better decisions and so much more. Though perfection will be a holy grail that can never be reached, organisations that don’t strive towards it will quickly lose relevance in our rapidly changing world.
So, what is the value of me knowing that “all organisations are imperfect”?
Well, it has helped me to gain a greater level of satisfaction from my work, without the level of frustration that some others feel. Some years back I remember a person in a team I led. This person had very lofty, unrealistic ideals about what an organisation should be. So high were his expectations that he had his hopes dashed on an almost daily basis. This severely hampered his ability to be fully effective in his role and to get the best from his role. For me, on the other hand, armed with my deep understanding that organisations are imperfect, when I notice things that are clunky, or slow, or less than ideal I’m seldom disappointed or surprised. I try to make improvements where I can, but if I can’t I move past the obstacles quickly and find a way to move forward.
Strive, strive, strive. But while you are striving if you are able to keep in mind that organisations are imperfect then your organisational life, in whatever role you play, will be much smoother, much more productive and much more satisfying.
Thanks to Dr Bob Gunton. He was appointed to the Economics Department of University of Queensland in 1961 and developed the very first Economics Unit taught by the Department. In 1990, after almost 30 years, he left the University after making a difference to thousands of students, including me.