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A General Theory of Idiocy

I’m not anti-business. I’m anti-idiot. — Scott Adams

I’ve been working in information systems — a/k/a programming, software engineering, computer science, and a half dozen other things — for almost 40 years now. For a good part of that time, I’ve worked as a consultant.

Consulting is interesting work. You always see a new company, you never go into a company where everything is already satisfactory (they wouldn’t be paying you consulting rates if they were happy) and that means you’re always exposed to new and interesting problems.

The only thing was that I started to feel like I wasn’t seeing these new and interesting problems nearly as often as I was seeing the same old problems over again.

Then I ended up on a project that sent me to over 200 startup companies in the course of about two years. I learned many interesting things from that (always carry a spare shirt, underwear, and a toothbrush when traveling) but maybe the most interesting part was that I was not only seeing a lot of different companies, I was seeing them in the same businesses, and at the same stage in their development in general. This was about as close to a laboratory experiment in business as you’re ever going to see. I had a chance to see patterns that I might never have seen otherwise.

The first pattern I saw was simple: most companies and other big organizations act like idiots.

Oh, sure, you laugh, but because it’s true — and isn’t it kind of a puzzle? The people in those organizations aren’t idiots. They’re usually pretty smart.

That was the second pattern I was seeing. Simple, but oddly contradictory: individuals in these companies were generally not idiots. (With a few notable counter-examples to test the rule.) Sometimes they make bad decisions, but they make them for generally good reasons; they’re what appeared to be the best decision that was available at the time.

Small groups rarely acted like idiots, although they sometimes did.

The bigger they got, the sillier they got, until you reached the rarefied realms of the Federal Government and IBM.

So this became a continuing fascination to me: Big Organizations That Act Like Idiots. Why do they?

I now think I’ve got an idea, a beginning of a General Theory of Idiocy. These BOTALI posts are my process of working out and defining this General Theory of Idiocy.

{ 1 } Comments

  1. shellbell858 | 2008-Sep-17 at 11:34 (@524) | Permalink

    Funny, I started this same theory but developed it in my observation of the internet and the general public. When you talk to a person, one on one, you find that they are quite intelligent, common sense thinking individuals regardless of race, gender, opinion, political association etc. I counldn’t figure out why, then do large masses of people and society in general behave like idiots? And I realized the same thing, small groups smart….large groups idiots.

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