Misunderstanding Excellence: relating the parts to the whole

a plastic model of a dugong and packs of playing cards on a large wooden meeting table

My day job is with the University of Oxford, working in the administration. Two recent developments have shone a light on what in retrospect, is a fundamental truth about organisations that should have been obvious to me long since:

The excellence of an organisation is not dependent on the excellence of its parts.

There are some big consequences of this for organisational management.

Let me first explain the very simple reasoning by using just one example. There are many others, and this is very much not a criticism of any person or any part of Oxford’s infrastructure.

First, the two events that drove me to this conclusion. First is the regular discussion of our university strategic plan. This is always headed up by a simple mission statement about global excellence in teaching and research. It’s a bit vague but it is, at least a “why” of sorts. As a vision for an organisation like ours it makes sense. Second is the arrival of a new Registrar (the university’s senior administrator), who is intent on implementing a plan to make the whole of the university’s professional and support service infrastructure truly excellent.

This second, infrastructure excellence, seems an obvious companion piece to the overall mission of the university. But even a moment’s reflection shows it is not. And it is this dissonance that leads to many of the frustrations and inequities within not just Oxford but all organisations that pursue excellent visions by having excellent parts.

A simple example suffices. As an organisation seeking teaching and research excellence we do pretty well by the metrics we seek to do well by (whether they are the right metrics of excellence is a whole other debate). We are the best in the world, by those metrics, in lots of teaching and research areas. We also have a really clunky finance system in terms of process and software. In recent years we have spent a lot of effort and launched lots of projects to make it “excellent”. And we’re still waiting.

Clearly this makes no sense from the “excellent infrastructure” angle. There is a big problem. Do you see what it is yet as the saying goes.

If we are as an organisation excellent at what we care about but have a clunky part of the infrastructure, there are only so many conclusions you can reach about that infrastructure.

  1. Making our infrastructure excellent would lead to an order of magnitude improvement on an already excellent system.
  2. The clunky infrastructure IS PART OF the overall excellence.
  3. The clunkiness or otherwise of the infrastructure makes little difference to the excellence of the organisation.

I would suggest the first of these is just silly to suggest, however much the consultants would suggest otherwise. If the second is true it is imperative we do nothing to “improve” our infrastructure. If the third is true, it doesn’t matter.

I have a feeling the third is closes to the truth. But what matters here is the consequence of this discovery that attempts to make the infrastructure excellent do not, contrary to appearance, fit with the goal of organisational excellence. These consequences should have real-world impact on many aspects of organisational culture.

  1. The argument might go that if option 3 above holds, we should still seek excellence because of the human benefits, such as giving people the satisfaction of a job well done. But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of satisfaction. If we go by Dan Pink’s elements of job satisfaction – autonomy, mastery, purpose – we can clearly see that the last of those, purpose, cannot be achieved by trying to do something that doesn’t need doing to achieve the organisational goal.
  2. For that reason, whilst autonomy and mastery that comes from excellence by a PERSON in their role within an organisation whose purpose they are proud of anyway might give satisfaction, MANAGERIAL insistence upon it runs counter to that.
  3. The real problem with this is that belief in the importance of the excellence of one’s job then becomes possible only by believing a lie about what makes the organisation work. But as I have argued in many other places, transparency between vision, strategy, and tactics within an organisation really is essential to its continued prospering.
  4. In many ways, we might consider that jobs that don’t require excellence meet David Graeber’s definition of “bullshit jobs”. I would partly concur, with the caveat I shouldn’t have to give that this is not a negative comment on anyone who does one (I’m one of them). Rather, it’s an argument for automation of those jobs and the introduction of an unconditional basic income so that the people who do them can be more fulfilled.
  5. One thing that interests me personally is the impact on recruitment. It renders insistence on “the best” person for a job irrelevant, provided they can do that job to the standards needed (there is no reason to go beyond). Given that the criteria used to select “the best” will often reflect organisational bias, insisting on this kind of supererogatory selection tends to homogenise the workforce.
  6. Finally, if we accept that “good enough” is not only “good enough” but actually “optimal” (not as in “best” but as in “can’t be significantly improved upon in terms of output”) then we can use resources previously wasted on “excellence” in better ways. I would suggest the very best of those would be genuinely enriching work by creating at least a 10% “side project” constituent in people’s jobs, with money that would otherwise be spent on excellence projects used to help people use that time to learn, make, be coached, and be supported in creating the kind of innovations that really might increase organisational excellence, or the kind of genuine personal achievement that might really give them life satisfaction.

3 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Excellence: relating the parts to the whole

    1. Thank you! I was a student here for 10 years and have worked as an administrator here for another 15+ and it’s only just crystallised. I think a lot of that is because the “marginal gains” narrative is so dominant it’s hard to see outside it. Also, think Oxford in particular has such a devolved structure it can be almost impossible to think of ourselves as an organisation in any meaningful way from the inside

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