Platitudes in Organizations

Excerpt from モThe Hereticメs Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organizationsヤ by Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati (iUniverse, Inc., 2011).

By Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati

What better way to start a book that takes a critical look at all the messed up stuff going on in organizations than with the cult movie Mystery Men, starring Ben Stiller, Hank Azaria, and William H. Macey.

In this movie, the fate of Champion City rests in the hands of seven self-declared superheroes. The reality is that our intrepid “heroes” are fairly inept. Among them, we have the perpetually angry “Mr. Furious,” the fork-flinging “Blue Raja,” “The Shoveler,” and the mysterious “Sphinx.” Despite their individual failings, which they are oblivious to, they somehow band together to triumph against the evil “Casanova Frankenstein.”

The Sphinx character is our favorite. He is a master of quasi-philosophical, Zen-like utterances that have no meaning whatsoever. Consider the following classic Sphinxisms:

  • “To learn my teachings, I must first teach you how to learn.”
  • “You must lash out with every limb, like the octopus who plays the drums.”
  • “He who questions training only trains himself at asking questions.”

At one point, Mr. Furious grows tired of these teachings, and this following dialogue ensues:

MR. FURIOUS: Okay, am I the only one who finds these sayings just a little bit formulaic? (Mimicking the Sphinx): If you want to push something down, you have to pull it up. If you want to go left, you have to go right. It’s…

SPHINX: Your temper is very quick, my friend. But until you learn to master your rage…

MR. FURIOUS: Your rage will become your master? That’s what you were going to say. Right? Right?

SPHINX: Not necessarily…

This exchange is a classic illustration of a platitude: a meaningless statement that is presented as if it were significant and original. The word is derived from plat, the French word for flat. Platitudes are common in management and consulting circles. In a paper published in 2002, Barabba, Pourdenhad, and Ackoff stated that:

consultants are of two types: self-promoting gurus and educators. Gurus who pontificate and promote their proprietary problem-solving techniques do not educate their clients. They promote maxims that define rules of behavior but do not increase the competence of managers. They promote their proprietary solution as a fix for all problems instead of trying to increase managerial understanding of a particular corporate puzzle. They provide maxims that are really platitudes and panaceas without proof of effectiveness

Of course, one person’s profundity may be another’s platitude; whether or not a particular statement is platitudinous is, indeed, subjective. Nevertheless, the term often is used in a pejorative sense to describe seemingly profound statements that a particular person views as unoriginal or shallow. In this chapter, we’ll examine platitudes, some blatant, others a little more subtle, to see just how insidious they are and what they can tell you about the culture and maturity of organizations.

The first and most obvious fertile hunting ground for platitudes that our friend, the Sphinx, would be proud of would have to be organizational mission and vision statements.

“The mission and vision statement maketh the organization,” says the CEO. But does it really? Will those couple of sentences in large font, proudly hanging on the wall behind reception, serve as the rudder used by management to guide the organization to greatness?

For many reasons we think not, but we are not the first to be cynical. This topic has been done to death elsewhere, so we will simply touch on it here before we get to our main point.

For a start, the phrase, “mission statement,” is not the latest, nor is it the first term to be used to describe organizational aims and objectives. Nowadays though, many organizations do not label their aims and objectives as a mission statement.

So why does a term such as “mission statement” go out of fashion? Typically, this happens when everyone starts using it at every opportunity. Soon, the term loses its original intent, impact, and import. The first people to notice this loss of meaning are those on the receiving end of the platitude—employees who have to translate the mission statement into reality. For these folks, Mission Impossible and Simpsonesque farce come to mind: “Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to make this organization Number One in Excellence . . .”

Nevertheless, executives are fascinated by platitudinous aphorisms. Legions of management consultants have figured this out. Moreover, getting in on the act is surprisingly simple. All you need to do is watch for incipient buzzwords and use them before your competitors do. For example, to be really cool and up to speed on the latest in high platitude fashion, you need only to appreciate that “mission statement” is like…so 20th century. Now, if you want to be seen or heard, you need a “noble purpose.” No one takes mission statements seriously anymore, but a noble purpose will positively have employees jumping for joy. Remember where you heard it first, people—right here in this book. No royalty necessary for use of this term; an acknowledgement will do. :-)

The more popular things get, the more commonplace they become. Then, regardless of the original noble intentions behind them, they are overused and ultimately depleted. Like a stock market rally, by the time everyone has caught on, the smart money has moved on. Eventually, it becomes a ritual, something that has lost its original meaning rather than an action with a purpose.

In short, the mission and vision statement is done because it is what you are supposed to do. After all, a document with a mission and a vision statement is so much more…professional,” right? So, not only will we do it, but we’ll hire $5,000-a-day consultants to help us create one. After all, who better than a rank outsider to tell us what we should be doing…

Excerpt from “The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organizations” by Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati (iUniverse, Inc., 2011). For more information, visit http://hereticsguidebooks.com.

Paul Culmsee is a consultant and sensemaker with 21 years experience across a variety of disciplines. He is one of three Cognexus Certified Dialogue Mappers in the world and holds various Microsoft and IT security certifications. His SharePoint blog, “CleverWorkarounds,” attracts more than 25,000 unique visitors and 1.5 million-plus hits per month, covering various topics including dialogue mapping, SharePoint project planning, governance, and ROI. He co-founded Seven Sigma Business Solutions and earned a Bachelor’s degree in information science from Edith Cowan University.

Kailash Awati is head of Service Development for the Asia-Pacific region at a pharmaceutical multinational. His professional interests include project/portfolio management, risk analysis, knowledge management, and decision-making in organizations. He writes about these and related topics on his blog, “Eight to Late.” Kailash holds Ph.D.s in physics and chemical engineering and assorted certifications in project and data management. He has worked in various consulting, technology and research roles in Europe, the U.S., Australia, and India.

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