One of the misfortunes of aging is the way in which the polite willingness of
others to tolerate superannuated homilies reinforces a proclivity to pontificate.
As one ages, one moves from writing papers that have something to say
to writing papers that have nothing to say but say it with great seriousness.
Unfortunately, awareness of the self-indulgence of age does not ordinarily
inhibit it, as this essay, for which Olivier Germain (and possibly Milan Kundera)
must take some responsibility, clearly demonstrates.
I have read the contributions of my friends and colleagues to the
M@n@gement discourse with great interest but with an overpowering
awareness of my own irrelevance to many of them. The issues they explore
are grand and important: How does management theory contribute to the
well-being of business, society, the poor, peace, and justice? What are the
fundamental epistemological, ethical, and moral premises of management
research? What is and should be the relationship between management
theory and the prejudices of the intellectual, business, political, and social
I do not list those issues to mock them. They are enormously important, and
I suffer from the embarrassment of feeling I am not sufficiently involved in
debating and resolving them. Nevertheless, I will speak here for the virtues of
disengagement from usefulness—as a coda not for everyone, but for me. For a
number of years, I taught a course on organizational leadership that used great
fictional literature (Shakespeare’s Othello, G. B. Shaw’s Saint Joan, Tolstoy’s
War and Peace, and Cervantes’ Don Quixote) as texts. Invariably, some MBA
student would ask: “What is the relevance of these ideas for management?”
My equally invariable response was: “That is your problem, not mine.” I play
with ideas, happily observing as others try to make them useful and feeling
grateful for their efforts, but without ever thinking that usefulness is the point.
This posture undoubtedly stems in part from my own incompetence at the
relevance game. However, it is reinforced by 60 years of watching organization
studies evolve. Over those years, I have come to believe that seeking
relevance in the generation and development of fundamental ideas is more
often dysfunctional than it is useful, that the ideas that transform ways of
thinking about practical problems rarely come from a direct focus on those
problems, and that the joys of appreciating the beauty of interesting ideas
provide adequate justification for them. The single-minded pursuit of relevance
is essential for effectiveness; it is useful for constructing railroads and
manufacturing products, but it needs to be balanced in life by the inexplicable
exuberance of a commitment to the beauty of ideas.
As a personal example that may suffer from its own obscurity, I would
cite the ideas of Michael Cohen, James G. March, and Johan P. Olsen
on temporal sorting in decision making, also known as the garbage-can
model of organizational choice (Cohen, March, and Olsen, 1972). We were
serious about those ideas but embraced them playfully in tribute to their
potential for enhancing the beauty in our lives, despite their less than elegant
appellation. Subsequently, garbage-can metaphors have often been viewed
as upsetting, even though sometimes useful, but they have also been stimuli
for the exuberant commitment of others to the pursuit of beauty (Lomi and
As the garbage-can model illustrates, a commitment to beauty in irrelevant
ideas is often subversive. It often yields ideas that are inconsistent with
conventional thought and thereby are often both obnoxious to the defenders
of conventionality and embraced by critics of the status quo, for whom they
are seen as allies in the eternal battle with the establishment. However, the
pursuit of beauty proclaims neither special animus nor special allegiance to
any particular intellectual, social, or organizational regime. Rather, it reflects a
deeply personal urge to be surrounded by the aesthetic sensations of beauty,
not as an instrument of social change but as reflective of human need, not as
a substitute for the rigors of analysis but as a property of them.
In one of his more perfect, but minor, poems, W. B. Yeats wrote:
How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here’s a travelled man who knows
What he talks about,
And there’s a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war’s alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.
The poem can easily be interpreted as exhibiting the nostalgic lust of an
aging man, but I think it is better seen as a monument to an ageless desire to
embrace the beauties of life and to discover, superimposed on the admirable
but tedious intelligence of reading and thinking, some glimmers of aesthetic
(even, as in this case, erotic) pleasure.
Beauty is as elusive as truth. Many enormously thoughtful people have tried to
provide an understanding of the architecture and appreciation of beauty, and
anyone who has read Aristotle is conscious of the complications of aesthetics.
Appreciating the elegance and evocativeness of ideas demands a nuanced
and sensitive ability to impose standards while constructing them. It is
essential to experiment with new components of beauty, even while embracing
old ones. Imagining, identifying, reconstructing, and celebrating an aesthetic
of ideas about organizations is an unending project. The point is not to achieve
a stable consensus on beauty, but to recognize its importance and to endorse
the pleasures of constructing, debating, and experiencing it.
In an earlier book (Lave and March, 1975), Charles Lave and I tried to specify
some attributes of beauty in ideas. We identified three classical characteristics
of an idea that contribute to its aesthetic appreciation: Simplicity, fertility,
and surprise. Surprise, discovering that things are not what you imagined
they were, is an important component. Much of social science is devoted to
explaining that things are not what they are imagined to be, a devotion that
finds voice especially in exposing the pretensions of the political or social
establishment. For example: Political innocence is really guile; virtuous
leaders are really sinners; procedures manifestly intended to produce justice
are really instruments of privilege. Interest in showing that things are not what
they appear to be is, however, more general than exposing social hypocrisy.
It generates beauty in discerning that what we previously believed, or what
seems obvious, is not what is true. We aspire to be like the small boy who
declares the emperor to be naked when all the courtiers affirm the elegance
of his attire.
One aspect of discovering that things are not what they appear to be is the
empirical disconfirmation of established belief. When Galileo Galilei used
observations to demonstrate the heliocentric nature of the solar system, his
work was beautifully heretical. Empirical surprises on the same scale are
not conspicuous in organization studies, but the instinct is there: We find
beauty in showing empirically that what is believed is not true, demonstrations
that inevitably compromise our comfortable positions as handmaidens of
A second aspect of discovering that things are not what they appear to be is
the theoretical demonstration of paradox, showing how apparently innocuous
premises have unexpected implications. The “Peter Principle” that hierarchical
promotion on the basis of competence leads to each person rising to his or
her level of incompetence is an example (Peter and Hull, 1969). Another is
the “winner’s curse”, in which it is shown that winning a bid in a competitive
auction is evidence of having made a mistake (Wilson, 1977; Thaler, 1988).
Some years ago, I published (March, 1974) a crude attempt to exhibit a
particular instance of such surprise in ideas:
TRUTH AND BEAUTY
that each couple agreed (knowing the relative value of things)
to produce children (in the usual way)
until each couple had
more boys (the ones with penises)
than girls (the ones without).
And further suppose
that the probability
of each coupling (technical term)
resulting in a boy (the ones with)
varies from couple to couple
but not from coupling to coupling
for any one couple.
And (we still have a couple more)
that no one divorces (an Irish folk-tale)
or sleeps around (a Scottish folk-tale)
without precautions (a Swedish folk-tale).
that the expected sex (technical term)
of a birth
if all couples are producing equally
is half-male, half-female (though mostly they are one or the other).
Question: (Are you ready?)
What will be the ratio
of boys (with)
to girls (without)
in such a society’?
The sweet truth is (given the supposings)
that we end up with
more girls (without)
than boys (with).
(That’s beauty, baby.)
The derivation is a minor tribute to what I have sometimes called the most
important book in management theory published in my lifetime: William Feller’s
An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications (Feller, 1950). On
the surface, the book has nothing to do with organizations or management.
Feller, I assume, would have shuddered at the thought. However, page after
page of his book entrances the reader with beautiful counter-intuitive marvels
of stochastic processes, many of which have applications to understanding
organizations. The book offers numerous reminders that unusual phenomena
that we seek to attribute to human agency or organization may well have been
produced by random processes. They are reminders that have recently been
proclaimed as a basis for a school of thought in management (Denrell, Fang,
and Liu, 2013).
Feller’s book is a lovely piece of work that translates into surprising
understandings of organizations, but the beauty found in management theory
is far from entirely a derivative of probability theory. Any listing of examples
suffers from the omissions that would have added luster to the list, but there is
beauty in the metaphorical leaps of description in the writings of Michel Crozier
(1964), Barbara Czarniawska (1997). and Karl Weick (1996). There is beauty in
the thoughtful application of razor-sharp intelligence in the writings of Raymond
Aron (1955), Jon Elster (1983), Amartya Sen (1982), and Susan Sontag (1966).
There is beauty in the experimental imagination found in the writings of Gerd
Gigerenzer (2000), Daniel Kahneman (2011), and Amos Tversky (Kahneman
and Tversky, 1979). There is beauty in the exquisite attention to institutional
detail in the writings of Alfred Chandler (1962), Bruno Latour (Latour and
Woolgar, 1986), Martha Feldman (1989), and Johan P. Olsen (2007). John
Padgett’s work on the development of the Florentine political structure is a
renaissance painting (Padgett and Ansell, 1993; Padgett and McLean, 2006).
Recently, I read two unpublished papers that were sent to me by young
scholars. One is by Charlotte Fillol and provides a rich appreciation of the
life of French nuclear technicians and how efforts to honor their importance
for the safety of nuclear power encourage them to take risks (Fillol, 2013).
The other is by Laura Frigotto and provides a slyly humorous portrayal of
Austrian and Italian organizational efforts to cope with some mummified
human remains found in the Alps (Frigotto, 2013). It is imaginable that neither
paper will be accepted for publication in a major journal, for neither follows
the standard canons of journal expectations, but each gave me considerable
aesthetic pleasure while illuminating my understanding at the same time.
On the whole, I think students of organizations and management should
think less about inventing ideas that may be useful to the world or even to
management and more about creating ideas with elements of beauty that
evoke aesthetic pleasure. This is not an easy task; nor is it the only task; but it
is a worthy ambition. Moreover, the pursuit of beauty can often be justified by
the unintended usefulness of its outcomes. My own reading of the history of
organization studies is that many of the more important ideas in management
theory have in fact come not from trying to be useful but from imagining ideas
with elements of beauty.
This beautiful imagination is exhibited in such seminal contributions as Albert
Hirschman’s commentaries on the decay of organizations (Hirschman, 1970)
and Thomas Schelling’s explorations of the dynamics of homophily (Schelling,
1978). It is found in the work of Robert Axelrod and Michael Cohen on
harnessing complexity (1999), Ronald Burt on networks (Burt, 1992), Glenn
Carroll and Michael Hannan on the demography of organizations (2000),
Scott Page on the role of diversity in organizations (2007), Herbert Simon
on bounded rationality (1957), and Harrison White on vacancy chains (1970).
More recently, it has permeated the evocative work on organizational learning
by Jerker Denrell and his colleagues (Denrell, 2007; Denrell and Le Mens,
2007). Such examples lend support to the idea that profoundly useful ideas
about management and organizations are more likely to come from the playful
pursuit of artistry in ideas than from an ambition to be helpful to managers or
their social overseers.
Such a utilitarian rationalization of beauty can be justified, but it is less than
beauty deserves. Scholarship celebrates ideas, and in that celebration it
honors beauty not only as an instrument of utility but also as a fundamental
human aspiration. The scholar who seeks beauty in ideas, despite the
unbearable lightness of the search—or perhaps because of it—affirms an
essential element of humanity.