Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Talk to the hand! - why all organisations turn autistic

Four years ago, I started doing research for a book provisionally entitledThe Autistic Organization. The basic premise was that, over time, all organizations develop collective autism.


The main symptoms of this condition are an inability to understand what’s going on inside the heads of customers or clients; a tendency to keep doing the same thing over and over again, even when it has become obvious to everyone that it simply isn’t working; the development of a private language which confuses outsiders; an obsession with internal processes rather than the results those processes are designed to achieve; and the emergence of a range of obsessive, narrow interests that fascinate the senior members of an organization but seem irrelevant to everyone else. 

These are some of the main behaviours used to diagnose autism in individuals.  

The book was to feature both the public and private sectors, starting with the  activities of companies which had lost the plot but whose sheer size and market dominance meant they could go on for years despite failing to deliver what customers wanted –  Microsoft, BT and High Street Banks would all have featured. 

As for the public sector, my theory was that all governments who have been in power too long simply lose the ability to read the minds of the electorate. I was a producer at BBC News during the period of Mrs. Thatcher’s political demise when the lunacy of the Poll Tax showed a government suddenly unable to penetrate the skulls of voters. I was working on politics programmes at Westminster during the dying days of John Major’s administration, when the inability of the government to say or do anything that connected with the British people was astonishing. And now we all sit open-mouthed as Gordon Brown – once described as “semi-autistic” by David Cameron – gives a master class in how to fail to understand what effect your words and actions are having on voters.

The MPs’ expenses scandal proved, daily, for months on end, that the political class can no longer even begin to grasp how their actions (and those of their families) will look to their constituents. A minister expected me to pay for her husband’s wank-fodder on Sky. The MP wife of one of the world’s most successful authors expected me to pay for extra security at her London home; I live in London, dear, and I know how dangerous it can be - care to bung me £25,000 so I can make my home ultra-secure? The wee wifey of the former Speaker of the House of Commons expected me to pay for her taxi home when she’d been out doing her shopping – Good God, woman, I’ve got an 89-year old aunt in a council flat in Glasgow who wouldn’t mind a bloody cab home when she’s been down the shops. Care to pitch in? 

This is mind-blindness on a heroic scale. This is collective autism in action.

Before real autistic organizations, sufferers or their families and carers get in touch to complain about my bad taste, let me apologise and assure them that I am not trying to belittle their suffering in any way. We should all feel deep sympathy for anyone who is either born with, or who develops, this condition. They did nothing to bring it on themselves. The same can’t be said for those suffering from collective autism – it is self-inflicted, and, unlike the autism that afflicts individuals, it can be avoided. 

I will return to this subject in future posts.

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