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MITSloan explains “Zombie Organization”

May 23, 2013

Steven Spear is a “Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and at the Engineering Systems Division at MIT” who wrote in HuffPo: “ Don’t Be a ‘Zombie’ Organization! ” with video on YouTube: “Don’t be a Zombie Organization

Spear seems to ignore the possibility of fast zombies (arguably he is advice could create problematic fast zombies) – but his point (in his book “The High Velocity Edge“) is to create a organizational culture that is in “dynamic discovery” and “continual innovation”.
zombie steven spear mit sloan
Spear relies on the false dichotomy of “either zombie or agile hero” and concludes that we organizations need to be more like “McGyver” than zombies. But again, the dichotomy is false (and not only because it is misspelled in HuffPo) – “MacGyver” is perhaps one of the most formulaic narrative plots ever to succeed on television and this fantasy of magical innovation is as fictional as zombies.

To make his argument, Spear also relies on some unusual evidence:

For example, in virtually every catastrophe (Challenger, Columbia, 9/11, BP Texas City, BP Gulf of Mexico, etc.) the post-event investigations all showed that many factors (not one or a few) caused the disaster

WHAT??!?!? Ok, well of course never is it only one thing. Is that his point? Because if it is, he picked some usual example for catastrophe – Challenger exploded because of a faulty O-ring – Columbia exploded because of damaged foam insulation – 9/11 happened because suicide bombers took over the cockpits of four airplanes – Texas City was overfilling – Deepwater Horizon was bad concrete.

Spear is trying to make the point that these simple explanations are not the single cause but it’s about the failure of the culture that allowed these problems. But it’s not clear how Spear’s agile heroes could have prevented these catastrophes. There were engineers who warned about the Challenger’s o-ring, warnings about Al-Qaeda before 9/11, but 20/20 hindsight creates the illusion that we could have known – that somehow a more “agile learner” would be able to rearrange the systems to prevent failure.

And he claims some impressive results:

A good example is Alcoa whose embrace of the see, solve and share dynamic led to rates of workplace injury at 1/50th of the industry average despite the hazards of mining, refining, smelting and extrusion. And the U.S. Navy’s nuclear reactor program has had an impeccable safety record on the strength of “the discipline of engineering.” Hospitals adopting this “see, solve, share” dynamic have eliminated complications while increasing capacity. (If all of healthcare followed their example, we would have no “crisis.”)

Can “see, solve, share” be considered a zombie cure? And how much zombie do we need from employees in order to get the job done? How do we insure that reflection is efficient?

This is a problem plaguing all public education systems. See The Nation: “Rahm Emanuel’s Zombie Pigs vs. Chicago’s Angry Birds” by Dave Zirin:

Rahm may have an army of zombie pigs who know how to do nothing but feed, but each and every neighborhood facing violence, school closures, clinic closures and public graft has a slew of increasingly angry birds. The people are long done playing Rahm’s game.

If you’ve played the games, I think you’ll agree that it’s much easier to be an Angry Bird than to be Bad Piggies – because as is usual, it is easier to demolish than it is to architect – easy in hindsight to call failures from “zombies” but much harder to be conscious in advance.

Vilifying Rahm or Merryl Tisch misses the target. It’s zombie response that’s the problem and we need culture change. Education needs a culture of “see, solve, share” but nobody can agree on safety standards. How do you educated people when we can’t agree what a person is?


From → Academics

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