Bad habits die hard

Clay Shirky makes a nice observation about the origins of knowledge mis-management, which he traces back to the US railway industry c.1855.

In order to oversee the challenges of a rapidly expanding railway system, a superintendent for one railroad firm drew what was possibly the world’s first organisational chart. The chart had a pyramid structure and proposed a clear demarcation of responsibility for each segment of track.

As one of his principles for running a hierarchical organisation, the superintendent, David McCallum, wrote that it was important to that any information passed upwards would not embarrass principal officers.

“The idea of limiting communications, so that they only flow from one layer of the hierarchy to the next,” writes Shirky, “was part of the very design of the system at the dawn of managerial culture.” (Here Comes Everybody, p.42).

Concern of embarrassing superiors might be a bit of a PR take on traditional organisational culture. A far more common reason for not telling your boss the truth is the fear-factor.

Witness the salutary tale of pilot, Malburn McBroom. The DC-8 he was flying crashed near Portland Airport, Oregon, in 1978, killing ten people. In the investigation that followed, it was revealed that McBroom had such fearsome temper, not one of his crew could bring themselves to tell him that the plane was low on fuel.

These may be two extreme examples, but the unhealthy habit of restricting information flow – for whatever reason – is one that future-focused organisations need to address.