Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Institutional Power LOL: When Powerful Institutions Make Dumb Mistakes

When one of Fox News’ Twitter channels reported a bizarre news story in the early morning of Independence Day, the buzz surrounding this strange event wasn’t about the false news, but about Fox News’ inept response. People were amused that Fox News seemed to be blaming Twitter for the problem even as it failed for nine hours to remove the errant messages, which Fox News claimed had been posted by an unidentified third party.

The tone of the reaction was a sign of the times. No one was shocked or baffled to see a series of obviously false statements coming from a major news source. Perhaps it was baffling to see how slow the network was to respond, but no one was shocked by the degree of neglect. People have come to expect to see this kind of stumbling and bumbling on a daily basis from supposedly powerful institutions. If a bank fails to show up in court and neglects to pay the money it owes until the sheriff has come and locked the door to the branch office, people just shrug and say, “Well, you can’t expect a bank to be on top of things when it comes to money.” It evokes a similar reaction when a news headline indicates the opposite of what the story says or a safety agency drafts guidelines for the use of a chemical that has been banned for decades. You can easily think of a dozen other examples.

Within the last seven years, people’s expectations of power have changed. We have come to expect inconsistent and careless behavior from the most powerful institutions, and when it happens, we cite it as just another example of what we have to put up with. I summarize this reaction as “Institutional power LOL.”

Although the failings of the powerful lend themselves to jokes, there is more than a touch of unease beneath the surface. This worry is not unwarranted. It is a sign of a systemic problem when powerful institutions routinely make dumb mistakes. These are some points to consider:

  • Institutions help to stabilize the economy and society, and they slow the pace of cultural change. As people take institutions less seriously, we can expect to see a series of startling economic and cultural changes.
  • Powerful institutions now are less respected for what they can do and more feared for what they might do by mistake. Doing business with a powerful institution may now be seen as a calculated risk rather than the safe, conservative option.
  • The management saying, “Work smarter, not harder,” covers a 30-year trend of businesses paying less and less attention to the external impact of business decisions. The current generation of management theories is leading institutions of all kinds to make more and bigger mistakes.
  • So far, customers seem eager to help businesses correct their blunders, so that businesses can mostly stay out of trouble just by listening well, but it is a mistake to rely on customer feedback as a measure of competence. If the level of complaints drops off, it could be a sign that customers have given up hope.

Historically, when power and competence become too widely separated, that is when rapid changes can occur. Bankruptcies, disasters, and revolutions are easily averted when the people in charge know what they’re doing and are paying attention. But when business leaders and policy makers are making decisions in a bubble, that’s when things can break down with little warning.