OUCH! The Misfit Between Theory and Experience in Organizations – Introduction

20151104_145408A little background

As an excited and enthusiastic newly promoted production supervisor I arrived at my very first budget meeting. It was late in the year and snow was deep outside but inside the ice cream factory we were planning for the New Year. Not quite knowing what to expect at this meeting I only came armed with my experiences of running a piece of ice cream making machinery for the last couple of years. I was prepared to mostly listen and learn and I remember how cool I thought it was to now be part of planning what would transpire over the next year.

The numbers! Oh geez, the numbers! How many numbers could it actually take to figure out how this place was supposed to run! It seemed like it was an endless amount! But what did I know. My ears perked up when I heard the projected numbers for production of ice cream since that was MY area and I knew what those numbers meant. I also knew that if the weather was hot in the spring you needed a lot of ice cream and if it was cold you needed less. And spring weather seemed to affect the whole year. After all, I had been asked to work a lot of overtime running that machine last year because of a hot spring. The year before it was cold and not much overtime was to be had.

So as I saw the projected production numbers it didn’t take long to figure out the expectation was for a hot spring. Hmmmm, don’t new supervisors get into trouble if they don’t meet production numbers I thought?

So I asked a question. “Why don’t we create two budgets; one for a hot spring and another for a cold spring and then whatever we get we can go by that budget?”

Lucky for me it seems new supervisors ask a lot of these crazy questions so I was not chastised; just more or less ignored and we ended up with a budget for a hot spring. Well it wasn’t hot and through that spring, summer and fall there was an awful lot of angst in our plant.

That was over 30 years ago and I really don’t think much has changed in organizations; not just ice cream factories but all organizations.

We want certainty in our organizations, and we want individuals with power to deliver this certainty.


This is not our experience of actually being in organizations.  We don’t experience certainty and no one, no matter how much power, delivers it. But it is what we say we want, it is how we design the processes of our organizations, it is how we measure success and it is how we value our own contributions. It is how we typically understand organizations and it seems, no matter how much misfit there is between this and our real experience of actually being in organizations, we continue to do the same things.

It’s like we have a very bad fitting pair of shoes and every day we just put them on again and suffer the consequences.

A really, really big OUCH!

So now, after quite a long time of being in, and thinking about organizations I am convinced that most of what we formally do in organizations and how we formally understand them is deeply, deeply flawed.

I also am convinced that this is a flaw in expectation and intent, not one of content.  By this I mean the expectations and intent of certainty, and power delivering that certainty, are the flaw and it is this flaw upon which most of what we formally do in organizations is based. I do not think the actual content; the conversations and interactions we have within those formal activities are flawed, it is the expectations and intentions we have for them that is.

It is this mismatch, this OUCH! that causes much of what we say we most dislike about organizations. And it seems we do not have, or don’t want to have other ways of understanding and being in our organizations.

This is what OUCH! The Misfit Between Theory and Experience in Organizations is about. Finding different ways to understand and be in the organizations in which we work. At very fundamental levels. In ways that make much of what we formally do now in organizations irrelevant, at least from an expectation and intention perspective. Not from an interaction perspective.

So as we participate here, as we interact together, let’s really question everything about organizations.  Maybe the OUCH’s! can have less impact.

Discussion and comment points for this post:

  1. What is your biggest OUCH! in your organization?

9 Responses

  1. One of my most memorable Ouch moments was my first position out of university. It was Performance Review time and the review system used a scale of Highly Satisfactory, Satisfactory and Unsatisfactory. I was told at the beginning of my review that no one was able to receive a Highly Satisfactory. I was stunned – but what if my performance WAS Highly Satisfactory? There was no answer to that. Years later, a similar thing happened when I was working in a municipal government setting. Council had to approve a Highly Satisfactory rating. The only person who received a Highly Satisfactory was our CEO, one of the worst leaders I have ever experienced. It solidified for me, again, the very major flaw in Performance Review.

    • First off the mark here Kathi! Thank you!

      We actually will deal with the performance management system topic in a number of upcoming posts so it will be good to refer back to this comment then and perhaps you can add more at that time as well.

      Your experience is such a good example of OUCH! though and surprisingly (and sadly) not all that uncommon today. When you read your comment, it simply makes you wonder at the basic logic behind such a design, and there really isn’t much, in terms of a system that is supposed to positively affect performance. However, I would guess most people reading this have had similar experiences.


  2. One of my biggest OUCH! moments occurs in the budgeting process. I am asked to prepare a budget each August for the upcoming calendar year and submit it for review/approval (I work within HR to head up the training function). Each year, I put a lot of time, effort and planning into what I submit based on what I know about the company strategy and programs that might support that, or training gaps that need to be addressed. I turn in all my numbers and justification/explanation which is added with other HR planned expenses and cascaded up to the executives.

    In eight years here, I have NEVER gotten any feedback or confirmation back. Never. Of course, I end up running great training and development programs each year, but never really know if I am spending the right amount on the right things for the right people … or not. And it makes me very reactive rather than proactive … OUCH!

    • Kelly, so good to see you here and a very good OUCH! story indeed! Like Kathi’s story above we will also be looking at budgeting in some posts down the road a bit, although a bit farther down the road than performance management.

      Your story will also enable us to look at not only the budget process but the leadership process and what this means in terms of how we see and understand the individual in organizations. Both of which I see as problematic.

      For now though, perhaps you can consider that your budget submissions over the past 8 years have just been so good, and executive confidence in you so positive in executing on that budget that they thought nothing need be said.

      I mean this sincerely and it may be completely true but your story illustrates well the OUCH! that can occur when our work seems to go into an interaction black hole….

  3. As an ‘outsider’ … brought into an organization to design (sometimes) and deliver a development initiative, my biggest OUCH! is repeated time and time again. I watch enthusiastic participants actively engage and leave with energy and a commitment to apply what they’ve discovered to their work. Little commitment on the part of those in ‘power’ to sustain the learning in formal ways results in short term frustration and long term cynicism around attending the next development ‘event’. Major OUCH! Is someone, somewhere simply checking off a box indicating they have done ‘development’? And are we part of that OUCH!?

    • Thanks Bonnie and another OUCH! that we will be focusing on down the road.

      Outside of the details of the OUCH! in learning and development you have illustrated what often becomes a generalized response to the amount of OUCH! we are exposed to; a level of cynicism about organizations in general and the formal systems and processes which make them up. So we are not only cynical about learning we are cynical about performance management as in Kathi’s scenario, budgeting as in Kelly’s scenario and so many more of the formal processes in organization.

      After a while I think we don’t even realize it is cynicism, it becomes a general lethargy about organizational life in general.

      I am hoping as we move through this work we can understand this pattern better and then find ways to move forward in ways that make sense within the context of our own organizations.

  4. Hi Tom,

    This is such a great idea – and such a pervasive challenge. Plenty of OUCH! in my world – both at work and life in general.

    The disconnect you describe permeates so much of organisational life and I guess we almost become immune to it.

    One of the hardest OUCH!s to witness is the lack of time companies want to invest in reflection, review and renewal. In TMS-speak we talk about the Maintaining type of work and it is always the stitch that, when done in time, saves nine. I guess the biggest ouches are the nine stitches.

    I’m looking forward to what we all share together in this project.

    • Nice to have you on board Chris! We will indeed be looking at the area of development in organizations with a number of posts and hopefully good comments and discussion.

      By your comment though I am reminded of a an area of focus by Dr. Ed Freedberg called focusing on the wrong bottom line. It was one of his tools dealing with Self Management. What Freedberg talked about was that we often define our challenges with language that focuses on the problem, rather than the goal. For simplicity If we take the 3 words you use, reflection, review and renewal and put them together as one we could use the word ‘development’.

      What we often hear from people is:

      ‘I want to do development but I don’t have time.’

      If we change this sentence to:

      ‘I don’t have time but I want to do development.’

      The focus changes from a time problem to a design challenge.

      And the most interesting thing for me with this, is that ALL of us need to focus on that! It’s not just us that do development trying to convince organizations to find time, but a design challenge to do development with all the constraints and enablers people have in organizations.

      I actually think the design challenge is more in our court, those of us that focus on development in organizations. I actually place more of the cause of OUCH! with us!

  5. […] may notice a reduction in OUCH! (as explained in this post). You may also notice an increase in your discomfort with your day-to-day interactions in these […]

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