Who’s the bad guy?

Published by Tony Quinlan on

Another interesting piece from Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker.  "Open Secrets" uses the Enron story to talk about the difference between puzzles and mysteries, which fit beautifully into the Cognitive Edge complexity framework neatly.  But there’s a further angle to the article that interests me.

Puzzles – where there’s a missing piece of information – make for simple stories.  And when they’re unsolved, it’s often easy to point the finger at someone, giving you a convenient, clear villain.  Someone to blame, to place responsibility on and to take revenge upon.

And in many situations, we’ve become accustomed to assuming that there is a bad guy somewhere.  For many groups, it’s often a convenient way of self-definition – "We’re the ones who are against THEM"  or at least "We’re the ones who aren’t anything like THEM."  Standing against someone rather than standing for something.

It filters into organisations too – in the 1990s, there were companies like Compaq who defined IBM as their enemy.

There are places where it’s very appropriate and helpful in the short-term, but in the long-term I don’t think it can ever work.  I remember well conversations in the early 1990s around the first Iraq war – while the military were defeating their enemy, they were simultaneously thinking on winning the peace afterwards.

Bad guys make for easy, clean narratives with black and white principles and little room for discussion or progress.  And if that’s the only narrative framework you’re using in the company, you’ve created a cycle that’s utterly self-perpetuating – after defeating the first bad guy, there’ll be a bigger one in the sequel and so on.  And sooner or later it’ll be bigger than you.

The other question worth bearing in mind if your organisation is a combative one is "what about the collateral damage and non-combatants?"

Those would be customers.